SIX MONTHS after seeing off a threat to his leadership and with an election due to be called in less than a year, Prime Minister Tony Abbott is again confronted by subterranean muttering over the prospect of replacing him to better the government’s standing and gain re-election. Such a move would reek of panic, with questions over potential replacements and one arguably not ready. For better or worse, the Liberals are stuck with Abbott.
It’s a matter of record that for many years — since well before I ever thought to start publishing this column — I have been a resolute supporter of Tony Abbott’s, and when he first became Liberal leader almost six years ago, mine was the only voice among my close associates who held that Abbott had the potential to make an excellent Prime Minister.
If we jump forward to the failed putsch against him earlier this year, readers will recall that I had grown so alarmed by the prospect that Abbott — excessively influenced and appallingly served by the advisers assembled around him — would lead the Coalition to an ignominious first-term defeat that I went so far as to call for him to resign.
Yet that was then, and this is now; six months can be a long time in politics, and certainly during that period this year some things have changed and some have stayed the same.
The one thing that seems to have remained the most constant about Abbott and his government has been the dreadful service given by the cabal of supposed tacticians, strategists, communications people and other alleged resources employed in the name of effective, competent, politically shrewd government. More on those later.
But it’s hard to believe that just a month ago, serious subterranean discussion was rampant about the Coalition’s prospects for calling — and winning — a snap double dissolution election against a Labor Party bereft of anything but failed, rejected and recycled policies, and “led” by an individual whose utter vacuity and opportunism was finally registering with the voting public.
To say nothing of Bill Shorten finally being revealed, unequivocally, as a liar prepared to say literally anything in furtherance of his own delusional ambitions and/or to try to cover his tracks where his treacherous handiwork is concerned.
The Abbott government, to that point, had its residual problems, to be sure; but a reasonable public reaction to its second budget, along with Shorten being seen to be at risk of imploding under the dual strains of the Royal Commission into the trade union movement and the heavy damage inflicted upon him by the ABC’s The Killing Season docudrama, made the prospect of a quick election for both Houses of Parliament — with the hapless Shorten marooned in his present position, whilst every objective indicator suggested the public simply couldn’t countenance him as their Prime Minister — seem an enticing, almost irresistible, enterprise.
The simplistic explanation for the mutterers again muttering lies in the ungodly (and entirely self-inflicted) brouhaha the government has weathered during the past month over the fallout from Speaker Bronwyn Bishop’s outrageous and unjustifiable travel expense claims being made public, and whilst this is certainly the issue that appears to have brought the whispering over Abbott’s leadership back out into the open, the seeds for this latest outburst of discontent were also arguably responsible for the last, for the fact is that very little — aside from some deserved bad weather for Shorten — has changed since February.
I want to share two articles that appeared in yesterday’s press: this piece by Phillip Coorey in the Australian Financial Review, which succinctly sums up the Coalition’s plight as it stands; and this, from veteran political journalist Laurie Oakes, who — writing in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph — makes it clear, based on his usually impeccable sources, that blame in the latest round of leadership unrest bubbling away in the Liberal Party is being sheeted home to Abbott directly, and to a stated lack of judgement that belies the fact little was learnt from his “near death” experience in the Liberal party room six months ago.
Irrespective of what has brought the Liberals to this point (and I’m not going to trawl through the various factors at great length), the time for any change to occur at all where their leadership is concerned was, in fact, when some elements in the parliamentary party sought to do precisely that back in February: it is too late now.
With a federal election for the House of Representatives and half the Senate due to be called* less than a year from now, the illusory recovery in the Abbott government’s political stocks has vanished, and whilst there has been a surprising dearth of quality opinion polling in the past fortnight, it doesn’t take a genius to work out what it would likely have found: that the government has taken a big hit with voters over the Bishop affair, and for all of the other reasons that were glossed over after the budget and off the back of Shorten’s woes, the chances of an election win any time soon (or at all) are no better than they were at the start of the year.
One of the advantages of being completely shut out of any position in the Abbott government by the junta that runs the Liberal Party behind the scenes — aside from the fact that when the electoral debacle that seems increasingly likely to befall it happens, I will be completely untainted by their shocking ineptitude — is that I can read the public mood unaffected by the disease of insiderish blindness with which Canberra seems to infect the self-important and the delusionally incompetent; the times I reference this point is certainly not from any perspective as a “victim,” for it turns out I’ve been spared the prospect of being fatally damaged, politically, by those whose careers should end if the Liberal Party falls from power after a single term.
And I raise it now because it’s not hard to see how we could be once again at this point: Shorten and his problems may very well have secured the Coalition a second term, albeit a term won through good luck more than good management; the second term may or may not materialise, but whether it does or not, it will not be the result of any astute judgement on the part of the cabal at the epicentre of the Abbott government in Parliament House or the Liberals’ federal secretariat in Canberra.
The uproar over Bishop, as I have now said repeatedly, is not some common-or-garden travel rorts scandal that will simply die off and go away; rather, it comes at a point the public at large is absolutely fed up with unjustifiable largesse and excess of MPs on the public purse, and the failure to recognise the difference is an indictment on those whose advice is relied upon and trusted by the Prime Minister.
In turn, the “simply stand firm” mantra that has once again been followed — the idea that if the hatches are battened down, the storm can be ridden out provided nobody buckles or goes weak at the knees — represents a serious misreading of the public mood that is costing votes, even after Bishop agreed to resign as Speaker.
People wanted decisive action — the removal of Bishop or, at least, the promise to do so as soon as the House of Representatives reconvened — and were instead served a terse and condescending justification of her actions by Bishop herself, followed by a clearly insincere and grudgingly offered apology, and fawning entreaties from Abbott to the effect Bishop was “contrite,” “chastened,” and appeals for her to be shown sympathy when the public mood was for her to be shown anything but. And her resignation, of course, came far too late to retrieve the government’s position, or to neutralise public anger at what had been an unforgivably indulgent waste of taxpayer cash.
In other words, the government responded to the travel rorts scandal in the most provocative fashion possible; and having poked everyday voters in the eye when they in fact wanted Bishop’s head at the earliest opportunity, its authority to pursue Labor Party figures (read: Tony Burke) for similarly unjustifiable outrages is very severely diminished.
But of course, the travel rorts fiasco merely brings the government’s other failures this year into sharp focus.
Its complete aversion (or inability) to outline a meaningful reform agenda, especially with the looming opportunity to secure an electoral mandate for properly articulated and developed policies: the Coalition gives every indication it is so frightened of pathetically populist attacks from Labor and is so incapable of any meaningful response to them that it simply declines to bother; and even the suggestion of marginal and incremental change from the Productivity Commission in the area of labour market reform has already sent government figures scuttling for cover at the first sign of the predictable — and vapid — ALP onslaught.
The budget, arguably key to the recovery in the Coalition’s political stocks, that nonetheless wasn’t sold as extensively as it should have been and which, in terms of the messages emanating from the government, has been all but forgotten.
The failure to reintroduce a swathe of measures to the Senate to acquire double dissolution triggers: right now, the only such trigger the Coalition holds is for the abolition of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (and even that is constitutionally debatable, secured as it was through initial rejection by the pre-July 2014 Senate and subsequently by the new Senate constituted on 1 July 2014).
Nowhere to be seen are measures like the Registered Organisations legislation that would enforce greater accountability on the unions, for example, and the only other measures said to be slated to engineer another trigger are Christopher Pyne’s university reform bills — the one thing guaranteed to generate virtually endless bad press for the Coalition.
Yet aside from anything else, the whole point of a double dissolution is to subsequently pass legislation that has been blocked twice by the Senate: but if the government doesn’t allow the legislation to be blocked twice at all, it can’t be passed at a Joint Sitting.
So much for the government’s “reform” program.
The debacle over the ABC’s #QandA programme, around which a sensible dialogue about the need for reform at the ABC could have been constructed, but which instead was so mishandled as to make the government look like a petulant child throwing a tantrum.
Even the decision to do an about-face and allocate a significant slice of the $89bn contract to build new submarines for the Navy smells; the idea of buying local is of course appealing, and protecting Australian jobs is a worthy objective of any government.
But when South Australian Defence shipbuilders are more expensive than foreign competitors who are able to deliver a better quality product, there is no commercial case to award them contracts; just as governments have an interest in promoting local jobs and industry, they also have an obligation to realise value for money — especially where such expensive purchases are concerned. The decades-old debacle of the Collins class submarines should have been instructive in preventing the government from falling into the trap.
But even as an electoral sop to South Australia and a political salve for the Coalition there, this was a waste of time and money; there are two — perhaps three — Coalition electorates at risk in any electoral backlash in South Australia, which isn’t much to justify an $89bn pork barrel being thrown around, when the Coalition is on the nose in Western Australia (up to five seats at risk), was never fully embraced in Victoria (four seats), and has fully a quarter of its MPs seated in Queensland, which turned on the conservatives savagely at a state election in January.
I could go on. The list of reasons the Abbott government is again staring down the barrel is endless. Some of its MPs are right to be restless, and the blame for it lies squarely at the feet of Abbott and some of the advisers he is so blindly and misguidedly loyal to — Chief of Staff Peta Credlin first among many.
But I would argue that the time to do anything about it by changing leaders is gone.
This close to an election, any leadership change will be rightly viewed by a cynical electorate that the government has spent most of its tenure provoking as an act of desperation.
And in any case, the three prospective replacements — Malcolm Turnbull, Julie Bishop and Scott Morrison — all come with potentially fatal drawbacks.
Turnbull as Prime Minister would almost certainly see the government haemorrhage votes on its conservative flank to fringe entities such as Family First, the DLP, or even Jacqui Lambie’s abhorrent outfit; whilst some might calculate those primary votes would return to the Coalition on preferences, it’s a fair bet in the current climate that many of them wouldn’t: and as we’ve discussed many times in this column, there is no case for Malcolm Turnbull to ever serve as a Liberal Prime Minister of Australia.
Bishop, whilst to my mind the best option on offer, provided she’s teamed with a deputy from the Right — my local MP Andrew Robb being the best choice, provided he isn’t sent to the US as Ambassador to make way for Credlin to enter Parliament — comes with questions over how she might perform; on the positive side is her stellar performance as Foreign minister, whilst on the negative, nobody can deny she struggled as shadow Treasurer under Turnbull when he was opposition leader. Was this indicative, or merely a stumble in her development as a top-level, senior Cabinet-quality MP? A desperate elevation to the Prime Ministership isn’t really the forum for people to find out.
Meanwhile, Morrison — perhaps the most consistent performer over the span of the Abbott government’s tenure in office, with no disrespect to Robb and Julie Bishop — still only has eight years’ experience in Parliament, and less than two as a minister; and whilst I’m certain he will make an excellent Liberal Prime Minister one day, right now I don’t think he’s ready.
In any case, were Morrison to replace Abbott now and still lead the Liberals to defeat next year, the party would have destroyed its only logical option for leadership renewal. There is nobody apart from Morrison with a long-term claim on the Liberal leadership as things stand right now, and whilst that will change (and Josh Frydenberg’s name is mentioned by some, with justification) the simple fact is that burning Morrison now will leave the Liberals with a paucity of options if they are defeated.
Whether some of its MPs like it or not, the party is stuck with Tony Abbott — at least, win or lose, until the next election is out of the way.
A better course of action would be to persuade the Prime Minister that the structural change he has thus far singularly refused to make in his government must finally be embraced: jettisoning ministerial deadwood (Kevin Andrews, Ian Macfarlane, Eric Abetz, Peter Dutton); promoting the best junior ministers and/or backbench talent, increasing the number of prominent women in the process (Frydenberg, Michaelia Cash, Sarah Henderson, Christian Porter, Angus Taylor, Kelly O’Dwyer, Bridget McKenzie); moving Hockey out of Treasury to somewhere less politically sensitive; to consider restoring Mal Brough to Cabinet on the basis of his proven ability as a minister under John Howard; and getting rid of Credlin as part of an overhaul of his office that places greater emphasis on actual tactical and strategic nous and the ability to sell Coalition messages, and which abandons “loyalty” as the pretext for persisting with structures that are hastening the government along the path toward opposition.
Whilst you can never say never, it’s a fair bet Abbott won’t come to such a party any time soon.
A couple of weeks ago I had a chat to one of my contacts (who might be said to be “adjacent” to the circle of insiders I so frequently criticise, rather than a part of it) and we agreed — without argument — that after the travel rorts fiasco, the Coalition politically was back to where it was at the start of the year, and that in the context of any election this year, we were “fucked.”
There is no reason for anyone on any side of the political spectrum to think differently, and no case for government insiders to make to suggest that this brutal assessment is in any way in error.
Indeed, the government’s apparatus for communication remains so deficient that it would be unable to articulate the intention to purchase sex in a brothel. I’m sorry if that’s just too crude an analogy for some readers, but it’s true.
Short of an implosion over at the ALP, it’s hard to see the Coalition souffle rising a third time, and the government somehow falling across the line at an election late next year.
But a change in the Liberal Party leadership isn’t the way to go about achieving it: in fact, such a move would merely make defeat more likely.
Whether they like it or not, Coalition MPs are stuck with Tony Abbott now. The impetus is on those who seek change to find some way to make the present leadership arrangement work.
*I am well aware that constitutionally, the Abbott government could defer an election for some months beyond the 7 September anniversary of its win in 2013; political reality, however, dictates that the greater the delay beyond that point, the greater the risk of a public backlash — and the greater the message of fear and desperation, in the face of possible defeat, such a delay would communicate to the public.
The constitutional vagaries of election timing are of little interest to ordinary voters, but any delay would be leapt upon and exploited gleefully by a Labor Party unready to govern, but obsessed with power to the exclusion of all other considerations.