“And for that: I do not normally bracket myself with Malcolm Turnbull, but Malcolm Turnbull and I both owe you a tremendous debt.”
It was the only time a speaker mentioned the other former prime minister by name. Although the dinner to celebrate Abbott’s 25 years in politics had the pretence of cross-factional unity, at heart it was a conservative gathering – one which seemed to suggest Abbott may be out of Parliament but his spirit will endure in the Morrison government.
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg attended, as did Energy Minister Angus Taylor, Liberal MP Craig Kelly and Liberal senator Eric Abetz, seated at the head table. But there was no Turnbull, Julie Bishop, Christopher Pyne or Marise Payne.
The biggest cheer of the night came when former prime minister John Howard gave a shout out to former Liberal senator Jim Molan, the co-architect of Operation Sovereign Borders, who is vying to fill a new Senate vacancy.
More than 1000 people packed into Miramare Gardens in Terrey Hills, just outside Mr Abbott’s former electorate of Warringah, for the $130-a-head fundraiser ($10,000 for a corporate table). Oversubscribed, some people couldn’t get tickets. Those who did ate carpaccio di bresaola for entree, braised beef cheeks or crispy skin salmon for mains and honey panna cotta for dessert.
Dutton, roused the crowd with a sharp speech that portrayed Abbott as a warrior who had been besieged by enemies within the party and misunderstood by others, especially his first budget.
“Like much about the man, the legacy of the Abbott government is not fully appreciated, and it falls to us as friends of a warrior of our party to properly define and to defend it,” Dutton said.
“The real legacy is defined in the work of the first Abbott budget. Tough decisions were taken in that [Expenditure Review Committee] process for good reason. Investments were made, wasteful spending was cut and long-term savings locked in.
“The  surplus is the work of three leaders and treasurers, but it wouldn’t be a reality in 2020 … without the work of 2013. Our economic credentials underpinned our success in 2013, 2016 and 2019, and it was all forged in the first Abbott budget.”
Morrison echoed those remarks in his own speech, saying the imminent surplus “would not have occurred without the big decisions that were taken in those early years”.
Dutton said Abbott was “one of the most intelligent people in the life of our nation” and this was “not properly appreciated by the modern-day journalists”. He singled out Abbott’s former chief-of-staff Peta Credlin and Joe Hockey, the treasurer who delivered the 2014 budget, for praise.
“Two of the most unfairly maligned figures of the Abbott era,” Dutton said. “The game was to pull them down in an effort to put Tony down. They served their prime minister loyally and with distinction and history should record it that way.
The master of ceremonies, 2GB broadcaster Alan Jones, said Dutton’s comments were “very, very welcome … uncomfortable for some, but who cares”.
Jones whipped up a sense of betrayal and deceit that Abbott himself would not indulge, insisting the former PM had been “brutally wounded by appalling condemnation and vilification which no person of his ability should ever have had to endure”.
There was a long and occasionally-strange video narrated by Credlin which retold the entire period of Abbott’s time in Parliament, including his “bullshit” moment with Nicola Roxon at an election debate and his book Battlelines. Credlin referred to Turnbull as “the then-leader”, and the crowd booed loudly when he or Zali Steggall appeared on screen.
Addressing the room at about 10.30pm, Abbott singled out dozens of well-wishers including “my friend Bronwyn Bishop”, who put aside past grudges over her own demise as Speaker to attend.
His wife Margie missed the event as she was recovering from surgery in hospital, but was praised in absentia for her grace and humility throughout her long time in a spotlight she never craved. Their daughter Louise and Abbott’s mother Fay were present.
Abbott insisted the Liberal Party could still be a party of “conservative social resistance” even as others such as his sister, Christine Forster, wanted it to be a party of “progressive social values”.
In a jovial and thoughtful reflection on his own legacy, Abbott spoke more of his regrets than his achievements. He said he could never blame the media for his woes because he had a brother in Jones and a mentor in Paul Kelly, editor-at-large of The Australian, who was also in the room.
“The truth is there are very few happy endings in public life,” Abbott said. “I often used to think that the Abbott government was a remarkably under-appreciated one.
“Tonight, finally, I think it might be seen for what it really was – a good faith effort to help out country to be the very best it would be.”
Michael Koziol is a political correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.