IN THE WAKE of a failed coup attempt, Tony Abbott and his coterie have continued to make political errors that will invite a second — and successful — attempt to overthrow him. Rumours and whispers from usually reliable places suggest change is certain: the likeliest new leadership team does not feature Malcolm Turnbull, but would allow the Liberals to have their best available side on the park for an election now 18 months away.
I had hoped it wouldn’t come to this, but I think Tony Abbott is finished as Prime Minister: I suggested as much before the abortive strike against him last Monday and now I’m sure of it, after ten days in which Abbott has seemed determined to test the patience of those of his MPs who stuck with him and to enrage (and embolden) those already calling for his head.
Deeply damaged after securing just nine votes more than the minimum required to survive as leader in the 102-member Liberal party room, Abbott has made three gobsmacking mistakes in ten days at a time when, weakened, his every action and utterance (or lack of same) is being scrutinised by his sullen MPs through the prism of his ongoing leadership and when, as a consequence, some of those who voted to retain Abbott are providing anonymous briefings to journalists to the effect that they have already changed their minds.
One, the jaw-dropping decision to sack respected Liberal elder Philip Ruddock as Chief Whip makes little sense, and whilst elements close to Abbott have seen to it that allegations of incompetence in the role and suggestions Ruddock failed to head the spill attempt off or at least alert Abbott to it have duly found their way into the press, those suggestions have been hotly disputed and in any case, have generated no end of adverse publicity.
Two — despite ample evidence that signals and vague assurances to the contrary were given before the spill vote — Abbott’s explosively divisive Chief of Staff, Peta Credlin, remains in her role, which is also said to be a source of great further anger among his MPs; engaging in piecemeal fiddling around the edges (Credlin will no longer pre-vet ministers’ Cabinet submissions, will no longer vet ministerial and electorate office staff appointments, and so forth) is worse in this regard than doing absolutely nothing, for fiddling around the edges merely highlights Abbott’s determination not to take meaningful action against his adviser to remove the grievances of his MPs, and makes clear that whatever indications or otherwise may have been given to help lock in votes, Credlin is going nowhere. It is also tantamount to an acknowledgement that getting rid of Credlin is actually indicated, whilst nonetheless refusing to do it. Tellingly, Abbott has seen his way clear to sack Ruddock for far less than Credlin stands accused of: a point apparently not lost on his disgruntled colleagues.
And three, having pledged to do nothing to endanger the official relationship between Australia and Indonesia in seeking clemency for condemned Bali Nine ringleaders Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, Abbott this week did exactly that — suggesting publicly that Indonesia “remember” the billion dollars in aid gifted by our country to theirs after the Boxing Day tsunami in 2006, an attempt at coercion that seems to have gone down in Jakarta like a lead balloon, eliciting responses railing against the use of threats by Abbott, who is characterised as having shown “his true colours” in trying to bully President Joko Widodo by apparently using the implicit threat to withhold future Australian aid as a diplomatic brickbat.
This last incident is instructive, and shows Abbott overreaching as he seeks desperately to shore up his perhaps fatally injured leadership: and whilst readers know I have no sympathy for Chan and Sukumaran and think the government should be getting on with other tasks instead of expending resources on undeserving causes, for those with the opposite opinion the reactions from Indonesia suggest Abbott may well have done more harm than good, and with revelations Widodo did not have all the information on the case when he denied clemency — and the prospect of a final 11th-hour presidential review — the blame that might be sheeted home to Abbott if the pair is ultimately executed is unquantifiable, but his support would probably take a hit in that event in any case.
(We could nominate the still-murky arrangements and promises around the letting of contracts to build new submarines as a fourth item in this list, but even without it — were it to eventuate Abbott had dangled something in front of SA Liberal MPs that he had already committed to Japanese interests — these three things are already enough for support for Abbott among his MPs continue to erode).
The purpose of today’s article is not to provide some blow-by-blow narrative of Abbott’s eventual departure or even to argue for it; readers know I am a long-term Abbott supporter and that I am horrified beyond belief that his loyalty to Credlin, with all the negative repercussions it seems to have spawned, has apparently been given a higher priority than his obligations to the Liberal Party and to the country as Prime Minister.
Rather, I have been moved to post this morning on account of an opinion piece in today’s edition of The Australian by Howard government staffer Niki Savva — better placed than most to comment authoritatively on such matters — on who might eventually replace him in the leadership.
And whilst I am on the record as saying that if Abbott were to fall under the metaphorical bus Foreign minister Julie Bishop would make the best replacement of the available options, Savva’s mention of Andrew Robb’s name makes it clear that if the Right faction in the Liberal Party is prepared to deal with Bishop, a Bishop-Robb leadership team is all but a certainty.
Everyone knows that Communications minister Malcolm Turnbull is the supposed frontrunner, and his wild and stellar opinion poll approval ratings belie the fact that he is supported mostly by voters on the Left who would never vote Liberal with Turnbull as leader (even if they tell pollsters they would), is detested by a large proportion of the party’s MPs, and has already proven to be anathema to a big chunk of the Liberals’ support base in the country.
Liberal Party primary support figures with a “2” in front of them and the average 12-point two-party voting intention deficits that characterised Turnbull’s first stint as leader were not aberrations; it is not without reason that rusted-on Liberal voters everywhere you go can be heard suggesting that if Turnbull again becomes leader, they won’t vote for the Coalition next year. I would never vote Labor, but I would happily vote informal on principle in response to being railroaded into having to support the socially left-leaning Turnbull in order to vote Liberal. I think these are the sentiments of millions of conservatively inclined Coalition voters.
What has hardened the residual opposition to Turnbull even now was his “audition” as leader at his appearance on the ABC’s #QandA programme on Monday night: stacked with Left-aligned panel members and cheered on by a slavishly left wing audience (the exact constituencies that say they support Turnbull but never would), #QandA is in no way representative of either sentiment within the Liberal Party or the mood of the electorate generally.
But whilst it is only fair to note that Turnbull said nothing that could warrant an explicit charge of disloyalty to his leader, he did nothing to deflect leadership speculation either, and could not resist the opportunity to posture and grandstand to show off his “leadership” credentials, and anyone who disagrees should watch the episode in question through a link in that last link I have attached here.
It would probably have been wiser on Turnbull’s part to offer some excuse — however flimsy — as a pretext for withdrawing from #QandA, even if that too was reported in a leadership context, than actually going ahead with the appearance. Then again, Turnbull is not the kind of character to be able to resist such an opportunity for blatant self-promotion.
As Savva notes, even within the parliamentary party, Turnbull starts with the most votes in any renewed leadership contest but lacks a majority, with Bishop attracting the next highest amount of support.
For the first time in many, many years, the dominant Right grouping does not have a credible candidate to field: Turnbull, Bishop and Social Security minister Scott Morrison all hail from the moderate wing of the party, and whilst Bishop and Morrison have made themselves acceptable to the Right by virtue of their performances in office, it’s not the same thing.
The question therefore becomes what happens to the votes of the Right in determining who would succeed Abbott if, as seems increasingly inevitable, he is forced to relinquish his position or is blasted out of it.
Enter Trade minister Andrew Robb — coincidentally, my local federal MP.
Whilst some in the Right (and further afield) disagree, Robb is unfortunately not a plausible contender to become Liberal leader and Prime Minister.
Despite an enviable record of ministerial achievement and a well deserved reputation for his tactical brain and political smarts, Robb — cruelly — would be a public relations disaster as a Prime Minister attempting to salvage the political wares of a Liberal government: he comes across poorly in the media, particularly on television, and I don’t think he offers the type of profile swinging voters are likely to connect with and/or recommit to.
Yet he is likely to prove the pivot — and I mean that in deadly seriousness — in who becomes Prime Minister after Abbott.
For one thing, he would make a perfect deputy leader, bringing decades of experience in politics and business to the apex of government.
For another, as a former head of the National Farmers’ Federation, he offers a potential bridge to the jittery National Party, which pre-emptively attempted to shore Abbott up from outside the Liberal Party by publicly noting its coalition agreement was with Abbott, and would not automatically survive a Liberal leadership change; Robb offers the perfect conduit to the junior Coalition partner, and one way to reach out to the likes of Warren Truss and Barnaby Joyce from a position of trust.
And a role as deputy Liberal leader could be secured as part of a deal that adds the votes of the Right — which have to go somewhere — to those already committed to Bishop to push the duo across the line as a ticket, with the Right able to secure ministerial posts and promotions for some of its up-and-comers to ensure it is better placed at any future leadership ballot after the Coalition eventually leaves office.
Yes, such an arrangement would lock Turnbull out of the leadership.
But it would also leave him available to serve as Treasurer — and I reiterate the position of this column that Treasury is the role best suited to Turnbull’s talents — should he elect to remain within the tent in a new role other than the Prime Ministership.
To this end, it would be an interesting test of just how committed Turnbull really is to being a team player for the Coalition rather than simply seeking the personal status and aggrandisement the Prime Ministership would bring him, as many sceptical and/or openly hostile Liberals suspect is his real motivation.
Importantly, Bishop is the only one of the putative leadership candidates virtually guaranteed to get rid of Credlin and put a sorely needed broom through the back office and inner workings of the government (although it should be noted that Credlin was demoted from the Chief of Staff role under Turnbull, although it is less clear he would replace her if restored to the leadership now).
Bishop — with a fearsome reputation as a lawyer preceding her entry to Parliament — is probably the most likely of the contenders to prove able to demolish the silly, dishonest populist campaign being waged against the government by Bill Shorten and Labor that almost goes so far as to deny government debt exists at all, let alone acknowledge the deep structural flaws in the federal budget and a $50 billion shortfall in revenue each year to cover the shamefully irresponsible spending commitments Labor legislated ahead of an election it knew full well it would lose badly in 2013.
And in a side note whose importance should not be underestimated, it is Robb who is possessed of the political know-how to perhaps do something about the Senate, whether by bringing a fresh approach to attempts to negotiate with it, to reform the system that elects it, or (ideally) both.
I have opined in this column previously that not only can the Coalition not afford the risk of incumbent Treasurer Joe Hockey delivering another budget after the shocking effort he turned in last year, but also that Liberal voters can have no faith whatsoever in the Treasurer’s ability to prosecute the case for such a budget were he, indeed, to deliver it: the May budget is arguably the most critical undertaking in the life of this government to achieving some of the reforms it was elected to make and to shoring up its re-election prospects, and this consideration above, perhaps, all others, points to a change at the top of the government sooner than later.
Hockey could be insulated from a straight sacking as part of any deal between Bishop and the Right — to accommodate Abbott’s loyalty to his colleague even as he departs office — by being allocated to a different ministry to allow him to save face and continue to serve in some senior capacity, and this column not only supports such an approach to Hockey’s future but encourages it.
Once again, all of this points to a change in the Liberal leadership sooner rather than later. Crucially — especially where the resolute distrust of Turnbull is concerned among the Liberal Right and the National Party — Bishop is the only contender to replace Abbott who could deliver on all of these outcomes and hold the government (and its base in the electorate) together.
If I were a betting man, I’d go down to the TAB and slap a tenner on a Bishop-Robb leadership team being instituted by the Liberal Party this year, and probably before Easter: if Abbott really is terminal, and I have reluctantly concluded he is, then the sooner the change is made, the better.
But you know what they say about gambling: do it responsibly, and to this end I take no responsibility at all for the outcome if readers follow my tip and place a wager on the Liberal leadership.
That said, I’ll be heading off to the TAB to do exactly that later today. 🙂