Liberal Leadership Speculation Is Vapid, Wishful Thinking

THE ONLY THING mildly surprising about speculation over Tony Abbott’s leadership of the Liberal Party is that it took just nine days after the budget to erupt; sections of the media enraged by Abbott’s Prime Ministership have seized the earliest opportunity to try to rip him down, and some of their tactics — like using his daughter — are disgusting. It won’t happen. Yet even if it did, the “outrage peddlers” are unlikely to get the outcome they want.

In dignifying the sudden outburst of Liberal leadership speculation with an acknowledgement, something has to be made abundantly clear: the mob rule those on the Left openly seek to impose — in utter defiance of an election result — is to be resisted at all costs; the braying pack went to extraordinary lengths to stop Abbott being elected at all (“misogyny,” anyone?), and now seeks to tear him down at its earliest possible convenience.

I read with interest a column by Peter Brent in The Australian over my coffee yesterday morning, and whilst I should be emphatic that I don’t count Brent in any way as part of that mindless braying pack, it quickly became clear through the day that not only was Brent onto something, but that it seemed to coincide with a ramping up of the already-nasty approach to Abbott being deployed in less Coalition-friendly organs of the media.

It also became clear that unless some journalists are being briefed by shadows and gremlins, some of the speculation has been fed by disillusioned government MPs — unnamed, naturally — who really ought to know better.

The first point I would make is that Abbott’s government isn’t the first (and almost certainly will not be the last) to deliver a “horror” budget.

It is true that I have had my own scathing say on a couple of the items it contained, and it is true that the “deficit tax” and the abandonment of the Howard government compact with the Liberal base over fuel excise are items that I believe, in the event of any election defeat in 2016, would be causative should such a result come to pass.

Yet for the most part, the budget takes steps to address the problem Abbott was elected to deal with: namely, the spiralling commonwealth debt racked up by the Labor Party where none existed beforehand, and the woefully mismanaged federal budget haemorrhaging tens of billions of dollars annually in the form of deficit funding requirements and interest repayments to service debt.

Certainly, the budget has been poorly received; to suggest otherwise is delusional.

But to spring seamlessly from opposition to the budget one week to an attempt to foment the downfall of the Prime Minister the next is, to borrow a phrase used and abused by another Prime Minister, simply a bridge too far.

One of the things I have been struck by — as someone who has made a living out of sales and marketing for decades — is just how poor the government’s attempts to sell its budget have been; there is certainly a case to be made for it that answers much (if not, admittedly, all) of the fear and panic being hurled around over its impact, and if anyone doubts that they should watch the excellent fist Joe Hockey made of doing precisely that on the ABC’s QandA programme on Monday night.

And there are questions for the smarmy, smug, sanctimonious Bill Shorten, whose recent utterances suggest there is no debt problem, no issue with the federal budget that requires radical redress, and whose party’s propaganda has the bare-faced temerity to suggest the Rudd-Gillard government was a “low tax, low spending, low debt government.”

Forgetting about the OECD comparisons so beloved of Labor in excusing its own incompetence, Shorten — hardly a genuine leader’s bootlace — should put aside his manufactured outrage and answer a few basic questions.

If a commonwealth debt load of $400 billion isn’t high enough to warrant a concerted effort to do something about it, how high does the number have to go before Labor acknowledges there’s a problem?

What are the measures Labor proposes to deal with a problem it created itself in office? To date, one of the few I have heard is a half-baked plan from Shorten to abolish the private health rebate, which would have the neat effect of so overwhelming the public health system — as hundreds of thousands of people abandon private health insurance at a stroke — as to immediately render healthcare in Australia completely dysfunctional. If Shorten has any brains at all, he will be aware of that fact. Yet if the government’s measures are unsuitable to the ALP, it must subject its alternatives to scrutiny, even if they don’t withstand it.

Most of all, why does Labor — in refuting the very existence of the problem it created — wilfully advocate the continued mortgaging of Australia’s future in the interests of its own political advancement?

Remember, readers: Labor cares about power, not people.

Yet despite all of this, the emergence of mutterings over Abbott’s leadership, on balance, is a curious development.

Whatever people think of the budget, it’s hardly a pretext on which to dump the Prime Minister.

Yet to return to the hypothetical that Brent posed in his article, let’s assume for a minute that the speculation is grounded in substance.

Any change based on the budget would seem to rule Treasurer Joe Hockey out of contention; after all, the budget is the pinnacle of his political career to date, and with the fingerprints of ownership smeared across every sentence of that document, were it to prove the terminal point of Abbott’s leadership, so too would it cruel Hockey’s own leadership prospects. At least for now.

It isn’t hard to deduce what the outrage peddlers would like to see: the restoration of Malcolm Turnbull to the Liberal leadership, and thus his elevation as Prime Minister.

With no disrespect to Malcolm (despite trenchant criticism of him in this column in the past), from a purely political viewpoint such an outcome would signal the death knell of the government, not its salvation; Turnbull’s record as Liberal leader was atrocious, and alienated a huge portion of the Liberal base in the electorate. There is every reason to believe his resurrection as leader would see a large chunk of Coalition support disappear again overnight.

The Left are enamoured of Malcolm simply because he espouses many of the social causes — gay marriage, green taxes, a republic — that are hard-wired into its DNA. Yet these same issues will send hundreds of thousands of his own party’s supporters running for the hills, and the kind of polling Turnbull recorded during his period in the leadership is more indicative of the shape this might take than the kind of polls that now purport to position him as the “preferred” Liberal leader among all voters.

Remember, the same polls said the same thing about Kevin Rudd in the years after he was knifed by Julia Gillard. It matters little whether Rudd’s restoration saved Labor a few extra seats or not: it was still belted out of office on his watch last year.

So let’s hear no more of the nonsense of Malcolm Turnbull as Liberal leader.

One of the most disgusting things to coincide with this apparent bout of leadership chatter is the apparent attempt by Abbott’s political opponents to use his daughter, Frances, as a political battering ram to hit her father with; a $60,000 scholarship from the prestigious Whitehouse Institute of Design is apparently deemed suitable to attack Abbott over, on the basis the Institute’s chairman has known Abbott personally for many years and has in the past been a donor to the Liberal Party.

Very simply, kids should be left out of the daily political grind; in fact, it’s laudable that Frances is working to carve out her own direction in life, on merit, and attracting reward for her efforts.

Both the children of former Queensland Premier Wayne Goss were awarded Rhodes scholarships in 2007 and 2009. Did the Liberal Party go on the attack over these awards? There is no suggestion of any impropriety over Frances’ scholarship and no suggestion the award was made on any other consideration than merit, and the grubs who seek to use her success to damage her father ought to reflect that even accounting for the degraded moral standards of the Left, there are some bullets that should not be fired.

Yet this episode merely highlights the ready nature of any concerted attempt to destroy Abbott’s leadership using any and all means possible. Viewed this way, if it’s true Coalition MPs have been briefing journalists on leadership “ructions” it’s another reason why they need their heads examined. Ruthless and merciless political opponents are all too ready to pounce on such offerings, and as anyone who knows politics knows all too well, mutterings like this can easily take on a life of their own if sufficiently oxygenated.

I don’t think Abbott’s leadership is under any threat, and until or unless I judge otherwise this column will continue to support him as Prime Minister.

Yet to complete the hypothetical — in the unlikely event of a change in the Liberal leadership — there are to my mind two, and two only, plausible candidates.

The first is the man I think will certainly be Prime Minister one day, Scott Morrison; he’s the man of the moment it seems when it comes to any discussion of who will one day succeed Abbott, and he has unquestionably been one of the Abbott government’s best performing ministers in the short time since it was elected.

But Morrison has only been in Parliament for seven years, and at 46 is relatively young in career terms: you might expect him to lead the Liberals in five or ten years’ time, but probably not next week.

Hockey and Turnbull are unsuitable for the reasons we’ve discussed. Mal Brough could be a dark horse, although his name isn’t mentioned in this type of discussion as much as it once was. And please, oh please, the less said about Christopher Pyne in the same sentence as the word “leadership,” the better.

That leaves Foreign minister Julie Bishop, and in the unlikely event Abbott were to fall under a bus, the Liberal Party could do a hell of a lot worse than to turn in her direction.

But it won’t happen.

Nobody could deny the proliferation of Abbott haters who would love nothing more than to see him stripped of his office and ignominiously ejected from the Prime Ministership.

And if there are disgruntled Liberal backbenchers feeding Fairfax journalists scraps to nourish the apparent “let’s get Abbott” endeavour, it’s to be hoped the Prime Minister’s fabled chief of staff, Peta Credlin, comes down on the offending miscreants like the proverbial ton of bricks.

In the end, speculation over the federal Liberal leadership is pure wishful thinking, and pretty vapid at that.

Yet like anything in politics, the more things change, the more they stay the same, and if there seems to be any more definitive substance to this latest instance of sifting the probabilities and weighing the odds, we’ll revisit the point as events warrant.