HARD POLITICS of the kind beyond the micromanagement of Tony Abbott’s Chief of Staff, Peta Credlin, dictates that his leadership will be challenged and/or terminated in the next 96 hours; the brilliance Abbott promised as an unlikely Liberal Prime Minister has been suffocated by his abrogation of government to a staffer and his refusal to abandon her when she became a liability. A meeting of Liberal MPs on Tuesday will produce a boilover.
There’s no need to go over the background to what is likely to happen in the next few days; it’s all we have talked about for the past week, and anyone who has been hidden under a rock should read the last half-dozen articles I have published — and then come back to this one. I’ll assume everyone knows, at least broadly, what has been going on.
But after almost 30 years of watching Australian politics like a hawk, I know the difference between a temporary fracas that might blow over and the kind of uprising that almost invariably ends with a leadership ballot, or several of them if the first produces no change: and what is going on in the Liberal Party right now fits into the latter category, and we will see some sort of formal move against Prime Minister Tony Abbott at the party room meeting of federal Liberal MPs scheduled to occur on Tuesday.
Unless, that is, Abbott resigns before he can be pushed.
This morning’s article — in a pause of breath before all hell breaks loose — is more a conversation piece than the more formal opinion column pieces I usually publish here; I am deeply disturbed (and a little upset) that a fine candidate for the Prime Ministership that “nobody” even rated as a Liberal leader looks certain to be dispensed with: if not next week then soon after as, mortally wounded by what has already happened even now, his inevitable demise becomes a reality.
When it does, Abbott will have nobody to blame but himself.
I receive all sorts of criticism for what I publish here, and I assure anyone who wishes to add to its stocks that I have a very, very thick skin; even so, when I single out targets I don’t do so lightly, and if the events of the past six months or so have shown anything to my detractors, it should be that I am more than capable of applying the blowtorch — reasonably, logically and fairly — as much to my own side of the political fence as to those on the Left whose politics (and some of its practitioners) I richly detest.
Assurances by those around the Prime Minister, friend and foe alike — that he retains the “utter support” of his Cabinet, of Liberal MPs and the Liberal Party in its broader sense, and similar formulations of this sentiment — should, sensibly, be ignored.
The fact is that the federal Liberal Party has become a powderkeg, primed to explode, and the moment when a match is thrown is near.
There are a small number of factors that have fed into this that are beyond Abbott’s control; the hostile Senate his government faces — perhaps the most hostile upper house faced by any government in the 65-odd years since proportional representation was introduced to the upper house, Whitlam’s in 1975 included — is one of them.
The ruthlessly destructive, brazen and wanton damage inflicted by Clive Palmer, lusting after vengeance against anything with a Coalition label on it in retaliation over the “sin” committed by the former LNP government in Queensland of not engaging in potentially corrupt cronyism to benefit Palmer’s business demands, is another.
Yet most of the problems Abbott faces are self-inflicted; and all derive — directly or indirectly — from the presence of Peta Credlin and the result of the so-called “Credlin Choke,” which has stacked government offices across the country with selectively vetted Credlin acolytes and ground the government to a complete halt as a consequence.
Certainly, the achievements trotted out by Abbott — axing the carbon tax, stopping the boats, abolishing the mining tax, and so on — are achievements indeed, and have kept faith with core commitments made by the Coalition prior to its ascension to office.
But the micromanagement of every aspect of governance — staff appointments, policy vetting, media management, even acting as a proxy for Abbott in meetings with key business and industry figures — is a particular model that has failed.
It has cut Abbott off from his backbench MPs: an absolute no-no for any party leader, and one for which he is now paying very dearly; the insurrection against his leadership is being driven by the very backbenchers who feel they have been completely locked out of the mechanism of government.
Its assumption of total control over tactics and strategy in Parliament and in the media might have been fine if it worked; with the government unable to sell a sausage at a sizzle let alone any of its policies, it’s clear that it hasn’t worked at all.
For me — angry to have been vetted out by Credlin’s so-called “star chamber” personally, and even angrier that others better than myself have met with the same fate — the tipping point came a couple of days ago to see that even in the hostile climate her activities had fostered, Credlin was nonetheless instrumental in vetoing the preferred appointment of new Health minister Sussan Ley as her Chief of Staff.
The episode really crystallised the fact that even with the heat on and the party beginning to show signs of unbridled revolt against everything Credlin has done in imposing herself across the government, she refuses to learn, or heed these signs; the decision was probably made before this week, to be sure. But Credlin has been under intensifying scrutiny by government MPs for some time now, and her preparedness to throw this kind of fuel on that particular fire suggests a cavalier indifference to the very welfare of the party her job, by its nature, demands she protect.
And Abbott — stubbornly loyal to the point where it will, literally, be his downfall — steadfastly refuses to dismiss her, and I republish again the excellent piece by Miranda Devine that highlights the inappropriate and objectionable nature of Ms Credlin’s ongoing presence at the head of the Prime Minister’s Office.
Another — by former Treasurer Peter Costello’s press secretary Niki Savva — can be found here, and as Costello himself remarked (and as we observed), MPs and Prime Ministers answer to voters, not their staff; yet this is the ridiculous and offensive position Abbott has placed himself in, and the freefall of the Coalition’s standing in every reputable opinion poll in the country over the past nine months has proven insufficient in terms of provoking any meaningful change to the “order” Ms Credlin has established.
The reshuffle late last year — supposedly to “reset” the government — was spectacularly botched, and I said so at the time; inadequate on so many levels, its greatest fault was to leave Treasurer Joe Hockey in his current portfolio even after perhaps the worst federal budget ever delivered by a Liberal Treasurer in the 70-year history of the party.
This was not an endeavour that fixed the budget; it was a timid effort that eschewed hard cuts to profligate Labor spending programs by instead targeting the Coalition’s own supporters in marginal seats.
It was badly contrived, poorly framed, and was not sold or marketed effectively in any way, shape, or form.
Even if implemented in full, it did nothing to address the $350 billion in debt racked up during six years of Labor government; its most optimistic expectation was to simply maintain debt at that level, with a projected debt blowout to $670 billion by 2024 used by Hockey to suggest he would have “reduced” debt by $300 billion if his budget was legislated in its entirety.
And even tough measures for which there initially appeared to be public acceptance — a $5 Medicare co-payment on some GP visits, for instance — were turned into savage political negatives; $5 became $7, suddenly applied to every medical service imaginable and well over and above mere GP consultations, and the promised $20 billion “medical research fund” was so out of sync with an argument about budgetary prudence as to merely fan the flames of a public backlash against Hockey’s budget.
Yet Hockey survived, in a reshuffle known to have been drawn up with Credlin’s direct involvement and imprimatur; it is one example of a supposedly superior political instinct permitting an unforgivable error of political judgement.
There have been many, many others.
Now, we have stories emerging of Hockey canvassing backbenchers on Abbott’s behalf to threaten them with this-and-that if they destabilise the Prime Minister’s leadership; the MPs concerned have reportedly told him, to put it nicely, to go away. If anything, Hockey’s efforts in this regard have served only to strengthen the resolve of those undermining Abbott even further. And given it is inconceivable that with the proximity in which all of this is taking place to Abbott’s continued leadership that Credlin will have endorsed his activities, ultimately blame for them backfiring must be sheeted home to her as well.
I could go on. There is no point. The Prime Minister’s Office is rotten. At its core is Credlin.
There is a big difference between a hard taskmaster running a tight ship and a pathology case.
As I said earlier in the week, it had been put to me that either Credlin had to go, or both she and Abbott would be removed, and I have reluctantly accepted that the only way to get rid of her, and to give the government any sort of chance to retrieve its electoral standing, is for Abbott to be replaced as well.
I don’t support Abbott’s removal as Prime Minister and I cannot reiterate strongly enough how determined I have been (and wish, ideally, to remain) to support his Prime Ministership.
But I cannot and I will not endorse Credlin, nor defend her against any criticism or apportionment of responsibility for the unmitigated mess the government finds itself in.
This weekend, Liberal MPs will be engaged in a game as old as politics itself: counting, weighing probabilities, measuring allegiances, sifting odds.
Tony Abbott may or may not be replaced on Tuesday but as night follows day, I believe — regrettably — that his leadership has been too badly damaged (not least by those closest to and supposedly of most value to him) to recover his or the government’s standing.
And I think — to be blunt — that he’s finished.
I’m not going to rattle on about candidates, or who I will or won’t support; that’s a discussion we will likely have in more detail over the next few days, although I don’t think those readers familiar with my thoughts will need much effort to ascertain my position on such matters.
But in the absence of Abbott falling on his sword, the next four days will culminate in an ugly boilover at the party room meeting on Tuesday.
Someone in Peta Credlin’s shoes can control many things and, indeed, the conduct of any maniacal control freak is predicated on the complete domination of a sphere of interest to the total exclusion of considering anything or anyone that sits counter to their agenda.
But Credlin has proven singularly unable to manipulate, by the apparatus at her disposal, public opinion of the government she is charged with shepherding; and she cannot control backbench MPs in marginal electorates who fear the consequences of her exploits will result in them losing their seats.
It is clear she has spectacularly failed to carry government MPs with her: a needless chore, perhaps, if things are going well, but a fatal shortcoming when the wheels are falling off the cart: which, to be brutal, they are now.
We are in for a fascinating weekend, I think, and I’ll have a little more time in the next few days to continue our discussion here.
But I close with this thought: whether now or next month, any leader replacing Abbott who refuses to dismiss Credlin and overhaul the Prime Minister’s Office will receive no support whatsoever from this column until or unless that erroneous position is reversed; a change of leader could well form part of a general recovery in the Liberal Party’s stocks, but if the cancer at its epicentre remains in place, there’s little point even bothering to count the numbers in the first place.