Weekend Of Discontent Precedes Likely Liberal Leadership Fight

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.



24 thoughts on “Weekend Of Discontent Precedes Likely Liberal Leadership Fight

  1. If the Liberals do this it will prove to be electoral suicide.
    I am finding it incomprehensible that they would even consider this action given the Rudd/Gillard debacle and what it cost Labor.
    There comes a time when ambitions need to be put on the back burner for the greater good.
    I, for one, was very impressed with our Prime Minister on Paul Murray Live (Sky News) last night.
    There is still a lot of life in Mr Abbott – I wouldn’t write his obituary just yet.

    • Aside from perhaps the coincidence of circumstance (depending on which potential candidate you look at) this has nothing to do with ambition BigSis: it is happening because the government in its present state is already close to terminal.

      The Prime Minister, it seems, is prepared to make every change conceivable in the name of fixing things except the one that actually might achieve that objective — dumping his Chief of Staff and allowing her successor to institute an immediate, thorough and rigorous overhaul of both his office and the moribund structures she has erected around the government wherever intervention has been able to be made.

      There is no guarantee a change of leadership will ultimately result on a revival of the government’s electoral stocks and I too — as you know — am devoutly supportive of the Prime Minister’s leadership. I am horrified this has become necessary and very upset that it appears he is so blindly disloyal to Ms Credlin as to force the party to dispense with him in order to get rid of her.

      Still, the only thing that remains constant about politics is politics itself. I am satisfied the present course under the present structure guarantees election defeat next year and I don’t say that lightly.

      The only hope is for him to do a structured deal involving her dismissal and the immediate implementation of a number of personnel and procedural changes — including further changes to the ministry — but things are so far advanced now that even that would seem a remote prospect indeed.

    • Because that’s just a storyline you find desirable and convenient.

      Make no mistake, if there is a change of leadership without a change at the top of the PMO too, this will all continue to happen.

      • And you think Brian Loughnane is going to aquiesce to that scenario? I suspect not! Abbotts a street fighter who, with the help of Rudd’s terrorism, bought down a Government. It’s quite clear now that Abbott is not PM material and the quicker he’s removed the better for the LNP. GOD! Am I saying that? By all means keep him as PM. Labor will romp in in 2016 if he’s still there! Cheers comrade!

        • Loughnane should go too: the architect of the 2002 state election disaster in Victoria and the orchestrator of the 2007 federal election loss will soon add defeat in 2016 to his CV if he remains where he is. I am tired of the party recycling people like this through its various paid executive sinecures around the country. Hopefully he is affronted enough by his wife’s sacking when it comes that he walks out in sympathy, but I wouldn’t count on it.

          • Maybe, but the fact of the matter is you have a PM who’s not up to the job and a split party with those running The Pirate Capitalist Manifesto in the ascendency. Even I, one of those so-called “latte sipping whatevers” knows that it ain’t gonna work. Extremist policies won’t work in a country of nervous Nellie voters with conservative genes. By that I mean they don’t like radical change and will naturally opt for the comfortable alternative. In that Howard was right — the Oz voter in the main prefers to be warm and comfy. Rabbott is a dead duck (mixed metaphor), get rid of him! Pronto!!

            • Totally agree with the fact both Abbott and Credlin have to go, and swiftly too as there is nothing else occupying the media or commentary. It’s a replay of when Rudd got dumped by Gillard, although at least Rudd was popular with the electorate to start with before his demise, but Abbott doesn’t even have that.

              Joe Hockey ringing backbenchers and berating them to support Abbott just makes me laugh, in a cabinet reshuffle Joe should get the tea person’s job.

    • I agree.Abbott is not liked or popular because of his policies and beliefs.I believe the rot started to set in on his first visit to the US.He bagged the previous government in a show of partisanship unbecoming a visiting prime minister.Just the other day he was at it again,talking about voters absent mindedly electing labor governments.What an insult to voters and the labor party who have done so much for the working people of australia.

  2. This is all terribly sad as you say. What makes it even worse in my opinion is the fact they did almost nothing over the six years in opposition to prepare themselves for Government. This is why the budget was so terrible and the message non-existant. A good example is the latest you beaut idea for more expense on childcare. What budget emergency? What fiscal consolidation message?

    The Abbott Government thought it would be a good idea to keep going just like Labor with a few little trims here and there. They actually thought employing Greg Combet and Natasha Spot Destroyer would be a good idea. Abbott and Hockey have behaved like LINOs and been rewarded with rejection from the public. If the public want crap Labor policies they will vote for the real thing. The fact Abbott was elected should have been a big clue that the public actually don’t want any more of the failed Labor policies or social engineering delivered by Rudd and Gillard and now Abbott.

    Any change of leader without addressing these issues will result in defeat at the next election. I would suggest the Government get serious and re-examine their base philosophy which is small Government and lower taxes. They must genuinely offer the public another option; an honest Liberal option.

    • With a spill asked for by two Lib backbenchers from WA, this will be Tony’s last weekend at Kirribilli House. Suggest he invites Joe Hockey over and they give the wine cellar a good working over.

      I hear Credlin has already packed up her desk and has left for the day!

  3. In all the State and Federal elections I’ve ever voted in , I can’t remember seeing Tony Abbott on any ballot papers in my Seat . These backbench free loaders need to stop pointing their fingers away from themselves and focus on their own constituency and work the electorate . Or is that too obvious and simple ?
    Oh and don’t forget to stack the seat with preference stooges. This little trick always gives Labor the edge .

    • Elected MPs select a leader with the expectation that they will lead, by being inclusive and not cut themselves off from all feedback and advice. Abbott is no leader, his separation from the MPs who elected him has sealed his fate, his broken promises and poor judgement are a tribute to his limitations, all he ever talks about is stopping things (carbon tax, boats), what about starting things?

  4. Yale, for some time now when I open in this site, my phone freezes for a short time before I can ‘navigate’. There is also a problem in formatting such that if someone replies to a post, instead of posting directly, the text is only about one short word wide, and if someone replies to a reply, as you have taken to doing lately, the string is one letter wide and has to be read vertically down! It is a bit painful to read a string of twenty words which is a metre long!
    I still have the same Neolithic I phone so something at your end must be the cause. Is anyone else having this problem?

    • It sounds to me like the filter on your phone is either missing or not working. Or perhaps your modem is plugged into ‘phone’ instead of DSL on your filter. (All assuming that you have DSL and not cable)

    • Rasputin, at the back end WordPress has been making “improvements” that from a publishing perspective are less functional, less clean in terms of interacting with the platform, and bloody frustrating as they are far, far inferior to what they are intended to replace. Try as I might there seems no way to switch them off.

      That said, whilst I publish everything here on a desktop PC I access the site daily whilst out and about on an iPad, and the narrower screen does result in longer paragraphs vertically, and always has, so the same phenomenon could partly account for your problem if you’re reading on a phone.

      When I started this column four years ago I had awful problems at times accessing WordPress and found the problem was actually an issue with my broadband feed that I only identified by wasting a lot of the time of one of the support people at iiNet, who went well beyond the standard diagnostic troubleshooting check they usually make.

      The WordPress platform is also, I understand, one that takes quite some loading, so a properly calibrated and operational internet connection looms again as a potential target for you to check off.

      To the best of my knowledge the changes WordPress has been making to its blogging platform haven’t impacted the interface as a reader rather than a publisher but the fact they are there at all — well, you never know.

      I hope this gives you a few targets to chase in resolving the problem. I’d hate to lose your readership and contributions!

  5. The thing to be sad about is that there are people in this world with enough cash and enough sway to arrange for the dumping of a sceptic prime minister. If by some fluke Malcolm Turncoat (or Malcom Bullshit, depending on what today it is) gets the green light to go to Paris in December, the show is all over. Komrad Krudd was Hell bound to hand our sovereignty over to the UN in Copenhagen, and instead called the Chinese ‘rat-f**kers’. Malcolm Turncoat will hand it over on a silver platter. If you don’t like this government, Deknarf, how are you going to cope with an unelected world governement?

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