PRIME MINISTER TONY ABBOTT beat off a challenge to his leadership of the Liberal Party today, as a spill motion at a meeting of his MPs failed by 61 votes to 39; some will hail Abbott’s survival as an opportunity to aright the government once and for all, and others will brand him a dead man walking: such is presentation. But Abbott has a final chance to make his Prime Ministership a success. He would be foolhardy to think another may follow.
Whilst we will never know now, you have to wonder — had it not been Malcolm Turnbull who had manoeuvred himself into position as the inevitable replacement for Tony Abbott and/or if the Liberal Right had a credible alternative candidate of its own to run in Abbott’s stead — whether this morning’s meeting of Liberal MPs in Canberra might have ended differently.
The consideration represents another variable in the labyrinth that is the mood within the parliamentary Liberal Party, and it is not unwarranted to draw from it that Abbott has been incredibly lucky, if not a bit too bloodied by recent events for comfort.
The spill motion launched against Abbott’s leadership by a small band of rebel backbenchers — whose strategy of keeping a lid on the amount of support they had accrued probably advantaged their position — was defeated, 61 votes to 39, and whilst the margin of victory for Abbott is enough to buy him some clear air in the immediate term, it was by no means comprehensive enough to immunise him from further attack: and sooner, in likelihood, than later.
The estimate of the challengers’ support I gave in this column this morning of 42 votes — based on an aggregation of a few pieces of solid intelligence and a bit of guesstimation to fill in the blanks — proved very near the mark; to the 39 votes they attracted can probably be added the (bizarrely) informal “pass” vote cast; whoever made it, whilst obviously unwilling to assist Turnbull’s passage to the Prime Ministership, had also clearly withdrawn support for Abbott.
It is not publicly known at this stage how Queensland MP Ross Vasta, absent to attend the birth of his child, might have voted.
I reiterate my view that anything more than 35 votes for the spill — a third of the parliamentary Liberal Party — would place Abbott in the twilight zone of vulnerability to a fresh challenge; the figure of 30 votes bandied around by some Canberra press commentators was even harsher.
Whichever way you cut it, Abbott is hanging from the edge of the abyss by his fingernails as a result of this morning’s ballot. It is now up to him whether he climbs back to safety, or carelessly slips and falls.
During the span of his leadership and his tenure as Prime Minister, Abbott has proven capable of both stunningly adroit political manoeuvring and breathtakingly stupid carelessness, although it should be noted that his greatest successes to date occurred during his time as opposition leader, and this reality should be kept very much in mind as he now sets forth to rebuild his — and his government’s — standing.
I don’t think my readers are at all stupid, and it may not surprise anyone to know that from anger, horror, frustration and sheer despair, I came within a few words (quite literally) of withdrawing my support for Abbott’s leadership of the Liberal Party in this column last week.
The thing that stopped me was the realisation that Abbott’s removal and Malcolm Turnbull’s ascension as his replacement would be inextricably and inevitably consecutive events, and I cannot overstate how deeply certain I am that Turnbull must not and cannot serve in the Liberal leadership (or as Prime Minister, no less) ever again.
Can I simply say that if Abbott has gone within a hair’s breadth of losing someone as rusted on and as committed to his success as I have been (and, yes, remain), it stands to reason that there are countless others of whom the same can be said: and it would defy belief to suggest that at least some of the votes cast against this morning’s spill — not least by solidarity-bound Cabinet ministers — weren’t cast by persons of exactly the same outlook.
Now, having lived to fight another day, Abbott must show some mettle: or, to paraphrase a memorable line from Gough Whitlam, that he has some steel in his spine.
The time for indulging misplaced loyalties and eschewing hard calls is well and truly over.
Abbott has made many utterances before and after this morning’s vote about change: that he can change, will change, has changed, will listen more, and alter decisions or directions when it is required.
He will have to, for once the 35-strong band of ministers and parliamentary secretaries that was obliged to vote down the spill are excluded, almost 60% of his backbench MPs voted to terminate his position today.
Abbott has signalled that his divisive and incendiary Chief of Staff, Peta Credlin, will no longer vet “junior and mid-level staffing appointments” and this, along with a couple of minor concessions to those who believe she has too much control over the government that have previously been announced, are of course welcome.
But they are not enough; the Prime Minister’s Office is arguably the root cause of most of the government’s political problems, and Credlin has been responsible for its management: the PMO and its activities have gone a significant way toward placing the government at real risk of losing office after a single term. Credlin is the responsible person for the PMO, and Abbott is responsible for her. The buck must stop somewhere, and consequences must be shouldered. It is time for Credlin to either resign or be dismissed.
After all, this is Abbott’s government, not Credlin’s.
The ranks of the government’s advisers in the areas of communications, tactics, strategy, media relations and good old-fashioned sales and marketing need to be cut to the bone — lovely term — with only those able to tangibly advance the Coalition’s political cause (as opposed to merely fitting snugly into a smug insiderish junta disconnected from public reality) retained, and the rest of them dismissed; and their numbers augmented partly with some of the best advisers worth having from the beaten state governments in Victoria and Queensland, and partly with fresh talent uncontaminated by the insiderish disease that Canberra is so notorious for culturing.
After all, this government couldn’t plot an assault on a cubby house as things stand, nor sell sausages in a butcher’s shop.
Abbott must get himself a new Treasurer — as his first order of business after formalising Credlin’s departure — and as adamant as I am he should never be Liberal leader, I am equally insistent Malcolm Turnbull should be given this job: it is now incumbent on Abbott to get his very best team onto the park, with paranoid rivalries and intrigues superseded by this imperative; if the government wasn’t firing on all cylinders with the wrong team last week, it won’t fare any better with them this week.
In fact, a further small reshuffle could do more good than harm, enabling Abbott to show that once and for all he was throwing caution to the wind and ensuring every line in his ministry contains winners. It might involve roughing up a few botties that old loyalties would make him reticent about antagonising. But not all of Abbott’s allies should automatically be entitled to their sinecures, and to ensure he and the government survive, a few sacrifices should be a price true allies are willing to pay.
He should announce that all outstanding elements of the 2014 budget that have not been legislated will be abandoned by the government: it would be as much a show of good faith with an angry electorate as it would be a tacit admission that the package was never going to pass the Senate anyway.
A new Treasurer could then start from scratch with the 2015 budget, and this harks back to the notion of a proper “reset” we talked about before Christmas rather than a bit of rhetoric and a few semantic games to suggest that that was being done whilst making the minimum meaningful change as possible.
And at the risk of being indelicate, the events that culminated in today’s leadership spill have seen critical relationships within the government — not least between Abbott and the other members of his leadership team — torn apart, despite whatever formulations of unity and solidarity have been uttered for public consumption.
Rebuilding these, and restoring some trust within the upper echelons of the government, is an urgent undertaking indeed and again, the departure of the divisive Ms Credlin can be as symbolic a gesture in this regard as a practical one in clearing away everything that has driven the Coalition perilously close to the electoral brink.
But above all, Abbott needs to stop the repetitive chants of idiot-simple lines and revert to what won him great affection and support among many quarters in the first place: the likeable, comfortable, quintessentially Australian bloke making his way in the world of politics and governance.
Certainly, there is a role for some discipline and discretion, and I would never advocate a return to the use of such phrases as “shit-eating grin” and the like.
But he has been guilty of going too far toward the polar opposite extreme, and allowing some of the abundant authenticity those who have had anything to do with him know he possesses in spades to shine through wouldn’t actually hurt.
It is perverse that such a decent, affable fellow should be so widely reviled: that, too, is something Abbott can work on.
And of course, there are plenty of other targets; these are simply the most important, and most obvious, that must be addressed. If Abbott is to survive and prosper rather than turning the jab about being a dead man walking into a self-fulfilling prophesy, he is going to have his work cut out.
But at all times, Abbott can now never lose sight of the fact that those who disagree with him, if pushed far enough, will retaliate: and they will do it by the only means available to them without themselves leaving the Liberal Party, and that means recourse to a ballot over the party leadership.
Next time — if there is a “next time” — the outcome will almost certainly finish him off for good.
This column will remain supportive of Abbott as Prime Minister.
But it will also hold the government rigorously to account: and I believe if some of the judgements and ideas that have been published here had been adopted, then the government would not be in the degree of trouble it finds itself facing today — or anything remotely approaching it.
Abbott has been afforded a final, final opportunity by his colleagues to redeem both the government and his standing as Prime Minister, and an unquantifiable length of time in which to exploit it. Succeed or fail, the only certainty is that there will be no more chances after this one.
He must now get moving, and moving quickly. Through 17 months of squandered opportunities and overuse of the lowest common denominator as the determinant of his government’s activities there is an almost endless list of problems to rectify. There is too much at risk to equivocate any longer.