Liberal Leadership: Right Or Wrong, It Must Be Sorted

THE PUBLIC DECLARATION by three backbench MPs against the leadership of Prime Minister Tony Abbott marks the point at which simply keeping a lid on ructions inside the government has ceased to be an option; in the best interests of the Liberal Party, it is now incumbent upon the Prime Minister to bring disquiet over his leadership to a head. It is regrettable his best option to avoid this development has been deliberately eschewed for months.

Government unity should, in the ordinary course of events, be something that is striven for and maintained at almost any cost; the adage that “disunity is death” in politics is a potent one, and occupies a prominent place in the political rule book with good reason.

Yet unity, when contrived around structures that are rotten to their very core, is a counterintuitive and self-destructive endeavour at best.

The public declaration last night by two disgruntled backbench MPs — Queenslander Warren Entsch and Western Australia’s Dennis Jensen — that they no longer had confidence in the leadership of Prime Minister Tony Abbott and would seek a spill of the Liberal leadership at a party meeting next week — signals the point at which efforts by Abbott’s inner circle to contain disquiet over the way the government has been run to date have been rendered obsolete.

And — one way or another — a resolution now becomes necessary, even at the risk that Abbott is replaced in a ballot.

This column — reflecting the mood of a large contingent of government MPs who were at first appalled and then enraged by the obsessive micromanagement of the Abbott government by the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff, Peta Credlin — has been warning for some time now that unless Credlin departs the Prime Minister’s Office, the government will, one way or another, face defeat: whether at an election loss next year, or through a change of leadership brought on by MPs unwilling to see the government go down in a smoking ruin.

The problem Abbott faces is that with some of his troops now prepared to agitate for a change of leadership publicly, more will follow; and even if he retains majority support among his parliamentary colleagues — a proposition that remains overwhelmingly plausible — the scope for such flagrant and open dissent to snowball and grow is obvious, and real.

Reports that former Howard government minister Mal Brough was prepared to act as a stalking horse at next week’s meeting of Liberal MPs — challenging Abbott in the hope of drawing out other candidates likelier to defeat him — seem to have come to nought, with Brough explicitly ruling out challenging the PM last night.

Even so, Brough too has described his support for Abbott as “qualified” and his list of grievances against the government — such as its policies on Medicare — intersect with many of the issues on which its public stocks have foundered.

The temptation, in the Abbott camp, would be to try to paper over this highly visible and damaging outburst of obstruction, painting it as a few disaffected troops out of step with the overwhelming majority of the government’s members and, indeed, the mood of the electorate.

But this would defy reality, and beggars belief.

Pledges from the main contenders to replace Abbott — Julie Bishop, Scott Morrison and Malcolm Turnbull — that they would not seek to challenge him would seem to bolster such an endeavour.

But hard reality (and common sense) dictates that these latest declared dissidents are far from alone, and that there are dozens of other Liberal MPs who, for a range of reasons, wait ready to join any insurrection against Abbott as soon as it crystallises into reality.

That point — despite a dramatic evening in media reports last night — has not yet been reached.

But the simple fact that even dismissive estimates of the apparent putsch suggest the rebels would muster 30 or 40 of the 102 votes inside the Liberal party room illustrates the Prime Minister has a problem; not yet great enough in number to inflict an outright defeat, the forces ranging themselves against his leadership are already significant and will — as surely as night follows day — increase in scope as soon as any firm movement becomes established.

An easy way for Abbott to have avoided this would have been, at the end of last year as he attempted to “reset” the government, to have appointed a new Chief of Staff; the obsessive, micromanaging control freakery that has been institutionalised by Credlin is — as we have now discussed ad nauseum — arguably the root of most (if not all) of the political problems the government has blundered into.

If Credlin’s way had worked, no-one would object, aside from perhaps a few raised eyebrows at the degree of authority given to a staffer.

But it hasn’t worked, with the government permanently mired in an election-losing position, and its every move and utterance — like the characterisation of 2014 as a “year of achievement” — seems contrived merely to entrench that position.

Now an increasing number of Abbott’s colleagues have had enough. A vote on the leadership, whether next week or later this year, seems inescapable.

And in any successful spill and subsequent open vote on the leadership, Bishop and Turnbull and Morrison would be released from their pledges not to directly challenge.

I have said in this column many times that I remain supportive of Abbott, and do so again. I fear, however, that unreasoning and blind loyalty to the wrong person, in this instance, may be about to cost him his job.

Abbott’s reputation for loyalty is well-known and admirable, as I have also been at pains to repeatedly point out.

But there comes a time when loyalty becomes unseeing in the face of the inevitable consequences of misplaced faith, and in Credlin’s case, that moment passed some time ago. Abbott now faces a revolt over his leadership, at least in part, over his refusal to remove Credlin from his office.

As it was put to me some time ago, either Credlin went — with the government able to reinvent the way it operates as a result — or both of them would have to go.

I think, reluctantly, that the opportunity for Abbott to be proactive about all of this has been lost. His retention of Credlin’s services now appears increasingly likely to lose him the Liberal leadership.

(And for those who still ask “what has she done to deserve all this?” yesterday’s article contains an excellent link that should be read).

I understand why Abbot might baulk at removing someone who, it must be said, has been loyal to him, and whose loyalty has been repaid — at great political cost to the Liberal Party.

Yet that damage (which may have already sealed the government’s electoral fate) is too high a price to pay for the indulgence of a single staffer.

Credlin should have been fired months ago, and the fact she wasn’t is the reason Abbott finds himself where he does today.

His failure to act then means that even if he moves her on now, it will be correctly interpreted as a concession in the face of threats and a clear case of too little, too late.

Credlin apparently did not attend federal Cabinet yesterday and is said to be excluded from next week’s meeting of Liberal MPs. Yet even these gestures — counter as they run to Credlin’s usual practice — stink of tokenistic appeasement and could (and probably should) further enrage those already dissatisfied with the government’s performance the longer she remains in her post despite them.

And I’m not even going to dwell on the ridiculous story of a “gallery night” for political spouses to spend with Abbott’s wife Margie, who is said to “want to get to know them better” after 18 months in office. The idea is insultingly cretinous and has Credlin’s fingerprints all over it. That such a patronising attempt at appeasing justified outrage should even be contemplated simply underscores the point.

Credlin should have been sacked: the fact she wasn’t has now brought about the likely endgame in her standoff with those MPs who bitterly resent the damage her regime and its manifestations have brought upon the government.

There is an argument that party leaders and especially Prime Ministers should not have to make deals and concessions of this nature to maintain their positions, and in ordinary circumstances people would be hard-pressed to elicit disagreement with it from me.

But as former Treasurer Peter Costello observed yesterday, MPs are answerable to voters, not to staff.

It is the fact this government appears determined to operate in a fashion completely counter to this principle that Tony Abbott now finds himself having to fend off a determined assault against his leadership of the Liberal Party.

One way or another it must be sorted out, and if a change of leadership is the only way to get rid of Credlin and the entire moribund structure she has erected around the government, then so be it.

On an alternative storyline, this need not have been the case. But it seems the time for Abbott to act — and to dismiss Credlin himself, thereby allowing a less incendiary resolution of the problems bedevilling the government — has now passed.

The next week will be interesting indeed. Anything could happen. But the story of a challenge to Abbott’s leadership is going nowhere.