Tony Abbott Prime Minister of Australia in UAE Image Credit: Ryan Carter / Crown Prince Court

Tony Abbott’s back, baby. Well, maybe not quite. Still, for the first time, a conservative pundit has touted an Abbott restoration as a more-or-less serious prospect. Last week, Troy Bramston outlined a potential pathway for Abbott’s return. If Malcolm Turnbull loses on July 2 — an outcome that, while still unlikely, seems more plausible with each passing day — he’ll be out on his ear. Who will succeed him?

Bramston dismisses both Julie Bishop and Scott Morrison as unviable, and the rising crop of Liberal aspirants as raw and untested. That’s why, he says, amid the recriminations, it might be once more time for Tony. “[W]ith the party reeling from defeat and there being no obvious leadership successor,” Bramston argues, “all eyes will be on the re-elected member for Warringah.”

Make of that what you will. But the speculation, in and of itself, draws attention to an astonishing transformation playing out before us, as a Labor-style civil war simmers in the Liberal ranks. Remember, Abbott won office on the basis of Labor’s turmoil. His awareness of the disastrous consequences of the Gillard-Rudd conflicts (Australia, he said, couldn’t afford “another three years like the last six”) meant that, even as he left the Lodge, he pledged “no wrecking, no undermining, and no sniping”.

Since, then, however, he’s wrecked and undermined and sniped like the best of them, as the man who promised to replace Kevin Rudd gradually became Kevin Rudd. How is this possible? How can the Liberals, after watching the Gillard-Rudd melodrama, have decided to stage their own version? It’s a question that seems particularly moot because we’re accustomed to understanding parliamentary conflicts as shaped, first and foremost, by the deliberate political choices of the leaders. Most political commentary in Australia takes the individual as the primary unit of analysis: Political junkies have, for instance, been preparing themselves for the 2016 election with David Marr’s biographical essay on Bill Shorten and Annabel Crabb’s account of Malcolm Turnbull’s life and career.

The approach is so normalised that it’s not seen as a particular methodology, so much as simply the way the world works. That’s what makes the study of Paul Kelly’s writing by the academics Sean Scalmer and Jackie Dickensen so interesting. They note that Kelly’s extraordinarily influential books (The March of Patriots, The End of Certainty, The Hawke Ascendancy etc) depend on a certain kind of historiography, one they trace back to the Insider series produced by John Gunther in the 1930s. Those books were assiduously imitated in Australia by Warren Denning, Alan Reid, Laurie Oakes and other writers; they remain, whether recognised or not, the template for a great deal of contemporary political writing.

Gunther made no secret of his orientation. He wrote about personalities because, he said, they were “newsy”. He presented the political struggles of his day as clashes between individual politicians — and that gave his books an easily-assimilated narrative arc. In essence, they were written according to the structure developed and popularised in the 19th century novel, in which the protagonist’s character determines his fate.

Paul Kelly’s work is similar. Like Gunther, he provides an “insider’s perspective”, predicated on special access to the politicians in question. More importantly, as Scalmer and Dickensen explain: A general view is evident across [his] many texts. The ‘most potent mixture’ for ‘political upheaval’ is not, according to The Hawke Ascendancy, economic or social dislocation but a force apparently more elemental: ‘Power rivalry’ fed on ‘personality conflict’.

Contexts are only lightly sketched. This is political history as a chronicle of great, flawed individuals and of the world that they make. The rest is background. The methodology shapes the messy business of contemporary politics into the kind of narrative we all know best: A story about individuals deliberately shaping the world around them.

But recent political history demonstrates the problem with this old-fashioned, “Great Man” style of historiography. Think of Rudd. Today, most commentators attribute Rudd’s downfall at least in part to his temper and the control freakery that made his office dysfunctional. Yet, if you look back at articles written when Rudd’s popularity was at its height you’ll find widespread admiration of the PM’s work ethic and discipline.

For politicians, “personality” and “character” manifest in political outcomes: the same trait that seems disastrous when they’re doing badly will manifest as a self-evident strength when they’re polling well. More importantly, the strange repetition of Labor’s turmoil in the Liberals’ ranks reminds us that individuals are often steered in particular directions (even against their will) by forces that aren’t necessarily apparent to them. No one in the Liberal party has looked at the Rudd-Gillard experience and said, “Gosh, we should replicate that!” And yet here we are, nonetheless.

Politicians make their own history, but they don’t do so under circumstances of their own choosing. Throughout the 20th century, the ALP possessed an obvious social base. It was a mass party, built upon hundreds of local branches. Even more importantly, it rested upon the trade unions, the most significant participatory organisations Australia has ever known.

As for the Liberal party, it emerged to provide a conscious conservative counterweight to the ALP. That goal necessitated and facilitated the construction of a similarly loyal constituency among opponents of the Labor programme. The political landscape today looks very different. Both parties have been hollowed out; neither possesses a mass membership or a sizeable number of activists. The branches are largely defunct and the conferences staged primarily for the media. Trade unionism has withered, with the great majority of workers now entirely unorganised. In the 21st century, it’s by no means clear who the political parties represent or what function they serve. At the same time, the so-called economic “reform agenda” (lovingly chronicled in Kelly’s work) has fostered a deep disengagement from the political process in particular, and the public sphere more generally — a disengagement manifesting itself as a prevailing apathy, occasionally punctuated by sharp eruptions of anger. In that context, you can see understand the common pattern of recent years, in which a tremendously popular new leader is appointed to general acclaim ... and then immediately begins to flounder. The problem’s not with the individual in question. It’s that circumstances like these simply don’t give rise to a Hawke or a Menzies.

Lacking a stable social base, politicians struggle to formulate coherent platforms, let alone implement substantive policies. Furthermore, in an era in which politicians are widely despised, the incumbent will always be at a disadvantage next to the challenger, who looks good simply by not being in power. The removal of Abbott by Turnbull seemed, for a while, like a winning move for the Liberals, just as the replacement of Rudd by Gillard appeared a no-brainer to the Labor strategists. But Turnbull’s popularity has been on the fritz ever since — again, precisely Gillard’s experience. Back in the day, deposed leaders would generally quit parliament because they knew that the party’s stability made a return implausible. Today, the opposite applies, with the brevity of political honeymoons now providing an incentive for the defeated to stick around.

If Turnbull had immediately established himself as a great statesman, Abbott would have long since slunk out of parliament. Like Bramston says, Abbott’s prospects for redemption depend entirely on Turnbull’s failure.

As for Turnbull, he knows as well as anyone the damage that his inability to articulate a small-liberal programme is doing to him. Rudd’s decline began when he retreated from his signature commitment to climate action — and now something similar’s happening to Turnbull. But the Liberal PM lacks the social base that would allow him to reshape a divided party in his image.

That failure allows Abbott — bolstered by his cheer squad in the Murdoch press — to understand his own manoeuvring less as an exercise in wrecking and more as a rescue expedition: Pretty much on the same basis as Rudd presented his operations against Gillard. It’s completely delusional, of course. But the more the Liberals flounder, the more credible the Abbott case seems.

Turnbull’s still the favourite for July 2 and a big win may convince Abbott to quit parliament altogether. But, even then, nothing fundamental will be resolved. The structural problems remain, no matter who’s in the Lodge. There’s every reason to expect the same scripts to keep playing, even as the cast changes.

— Guardian News & Media Ltd

Jeff Sparrow is a writer, editor and broadcaster and an honorary fellow at Victoria University.