THERE IS ONE WAY (and one only) for Tony Abbott to retrieve his Prime Ministership; half of it seems to have been put on the table, with reports this morning suggesting Malcolm Turnbull would be willing to serve as Treasurer to snuff out the leadership spill attempt now set for tomorrow. This column cautiously welcomes the development. To be meaningful, it would need to be matched by a commitment Abbott has to date singularly refused to offer.
Over the past week or so, I have thought — without any enthusiasm or relish — that Tony Abbott is finished as Prime Minister; that the stubborn adherence to the wrong people that had invited the attempt to spill his leadership of the Liberal Party would leave him irretrievably and fatally damaged even if he managed to prevail in the vote now due to occur tomorrow.
Readers will know I have been circumspect insofar as advocating comprehensive and prescriptive solutions to the government’s problems; partly because the primary purpose of this column is analysis and comment, and partly because not everything I think — especially where strategy and tactics are concerned — needs to be aired in full view of a public audience that includes a reasonable contingent of hungry eyes owned by the operatives and servants of the ALP.
But for months now, there are two changes I’ve believed Tony Abbott should have made last year that I have been abundantly clear about, and at this eleventh hour in building toward a spill motion that could terminate Abbott’s tenure or compromise it beyond salvation, it is with wary surprise that I see this morning that one of them now appears to be on the table.
Sydney’s Daily Telegraph is carrying a story today that suggests Communications minister and Liberal leadership aspirant Malcolm Turnbull could be willing to serve as Treasurer in a continuing Abbott government, and whilst this last-minute prospect for insulating the Prime Minister from the wrath of his angry backbench MPs might be seen as a forlorn hope, it should be rigorously and eagerly explored.
Last year — before all the silliness of leadership challenges surfaced, and well before the ministerial reshuffle that prioritised internecine intrigue over making the hard changes that were urgently needed — this column made (what I believe is) a powerful case for Turnbull to be moved to Treasury, and I stand by the argument today.
Indeed, I believe it is the role of Treasurer, and not Prime Minister, that Turnbull was born to fill — and the one in which he could render the greatest service to both the Liberal Party and to the country.
I have been vehement in my opposition to Turnbull ever becoming Liberal leader again, and scathing about the performance of both Turnbull in that role previously and Joe Hockey as Treasurer.
But — and I really don’t care who believes it or not — I remain warmly disposed toward both men personally, and I think both have roles to play in the continuing Liberal government if not, perhaps, the ones they see themselves in.
Turnbull could well be the best Treasurer Australia has ever had (and I mean it) and was easily the standout candidate for the position when the Coalition was elected 18 months ago; the next best option — former WA Treasurer and Attorney-General Christian Porter — still hasn’t even been entrusted with a ministry.
And the proof of just how bad a fist Hockey has made of the job is easily seen in the fact that nine months after his first budget, much of that wretched package stands no prospect of obtaining passage through the Senate, and so politically inappropriate was that effort that it sees the Coalition languishing ten points down in most opinion polls 18 months out from a difficult election when it should be cruising toward re-election.
Since the announcement on Friday that a couple of backbenchers from Western Australia would move a spill of the Liberal leadership, I have taken the view that Abbott’s leadership is doomed: having stoutly refused to make the changes required to strengthen his government whilst fiddling at the edges and claiming to have done just that, his replacement — if not now — can only be a matter of time, and the wound inflicted by the fact a spill is being moved at all would fatally compromise his authority and finish him off sooner or later.
This column has been critical — firmly but fairly, and honestly despite the will for Abbott to succeed — about those issues that bedevil the Abbott government.
But distilled to the simplest diagnosis, there are two problems above all others that underpin the sorry state of health the Coalition finds itself in: the continuing presence of Peta Credlin as Abbott’s Chief of Staff and the continued presence of Joe Hockey as Treasurer, in that order.
Confronted by a hungry press pack in Sydney this morning, Turnbull played a commendably dead bat to most of the inevitable entreaties to show his hand.
But within and outside the Liberal Party (and including some of its best friends in the press), those taking a completely dispassionate view of the conundrum Abbott has wandered into can see what needs to happen if Abbott is to have any chance of salvaging his Prime Ministership in the longer run: a new Treasurer and what the Tele‘s columnist Miranda Devine euphemistically describes as “new confidantes,” which is code for getting rid of Credlin and replacing her with someone more politically astute.
It the word emanating from those Liberal MPs who are close to Turnbull is to be believed — that he is prepared to serve as Treasurer — then Abbott should in return offer the one concession he has singularly refused to countenance, and promise to hire a new Chief of Staff if reconfirmed as Liberal leader and Prime Minister.
This overture, if that’s what it is, signals the offer of a deal right at the death knock of Abbott’s leadership; grasping it eagerly is the only way I can see for Abbott to continue in office, potentially for years to come.
It would minimise to the maximum extent any political damage from the putative spill, and might even allow Abbott to portray it as a positive: the minute he listened to the deeply seated concerns of his MPs, and acted decisively to answer them.
Certainly, the government can scarcely afford to risk allowing Hockey to formulate another budget; a repeat of last year’s effort will seal the government’s electoral fate, and with Hockey set to be replaced anyway if either Turnbull or Foreign minister Julie Bishop emerge from current goings-on as Prime Minister, there seems little point in delaying the inevitable where the current Treasurer’s position is concerned.
And the need to get rid of Credlin is an old story; that Abbott has prioritised his loyalty to this staffer above his obligations to the Liberal Party and to the country is perverse, and we have talked about that too at great length. It is inconceivable that she would survive a change of leadership, and especially were Bishop to emerge as Abbott’s successor. The position of Turnbull on this critical staff appointment is unclear.
If the kite being flown about Turnbull’s preparedness to be Treasurer is genuine, Abbott should take the deal as part of a positive and negotiated settlement to the current leadership miasma.
It would go some way toward rectifying the shortfalls of last year’s ministerial reshuffle, with the added bonus that Credlin’s politically deleterious presence would be removed.
Hockey, for his part, could simply be moved into Turnbull’s Communications portfolio where, liberated of the yoke of the Treasurer’s role, he can make the contribution to the government this column still believes he has to offer.
And the entire arrangement — Abbott as Prime Minister, two of his best ministers as Treasurer and Foreign minister, and a fresh hand at the Prime Minister’s office — would go a long way toward the government getting its very best team onto the park, so to speak.
Of course, the potential resolution could yet come to nought, and should Turnbull declare for the leadership later today — as some insist he will — then all bets on Abbott’s survival are off.
Even so, the onus is now on the Prime Minister to grasp the lifeline, however illusory, and match the offer by placing the other half of the solution — Credlin’s head on a platter — squarely on the table.
This article was near completion when news of Tony Abbott’s decision to pull forward Tuesday’s party room meeting by a day was announced; it is published with the qualification that the announcement may yet prove a game changer, but is nonetheless worthy comment on the overall unfolding situation in the Liberal Party.