History Points To Leadership Challenge Not If, But When


Tony Abbott is facing his greatest threat not just from an unpopular Budget but rather from within his own parliamentary party.

Recent media comments regarding leadership speculation about the Prime Minister may appear totally implausible but careful consideration of the political history points to an alternative view and an inevitable bloody conclusion.

Governments are traditionally considered most at risk from defeat when their first term concludes and they face the nation for the first time as the incumbent.

Whitlam, Hawke and Howard all suffered an electoral backlash the first time. Recently a new more modern trend has developed for Prime Ministers sitting in the palatial offices of the new parliament house.

Half of the last six PM’s: Hawke, Rudd and Gillard were defeated not by an Opposition leader but by their own side of politics. Only Howard, Keating and Rudd were defeated at a general election and most media commentators and pollsters concluded that they would all lose power once they called the election.

Abbott already has an identified parliamentary opponent within his party, the former Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull who lost by one vote to Abbott in 2009.

Like Billy Hughes he did not retire from politics and would be ill advised to do so as he still is a reasonable chance to become a Liberal Prime Minister despite his protestations that he is not counting the numbers.

Arguably in the parliamentary Liberal party they count themselves and most politicians would recognise his claim to continued leadership aspirations after Joe Hockey damaged his own cause with a budget more tolerated than applauded by his colleagues and the public.

Since Harold Holt all Prime Ministers have been stalked by an internal party opponent; Gorton by McMahon, Whitlam by Cairns, Fraser by Peacock, Hawke by Keating, Howard by Costello, Rudd by Gillard and Gillard by Rudd.

Former Prime Ministers Bob Hawke and Paul Keating.

McMahon and Whitlam were only saved from defeat from their colleagues because the people got in first at an election and voted them out of office.

Fraser and Holt were both criticised for their leadership during the last year of their prime ministership with Fraser defeated by Hawke and Holt unexpectedly drowning.

Abbott’s temperament had been tested as Leader of the Opposition for almost four years, two Prime Ministers and in two gruelling national election campaigns: a long political apprenticeship by modern standards.

His time as a Howard government Minister, staffer, journalist and as a member of parliament since 1994 provide further indications that he was a seasoned political leader who had risen through his experience, determination, skill and with a little luck to finally become the Prime Minister.

Abbott was considered a man of action leading a team of dedicated loyal party parliamentarians but Abbott also polarises people and dithered for nine months, failing to argue for the merits of a harsh budget as he faced a series of elections.

Abbott in the past has demonstrated his skill with a winner takes all mentality refusing to yield to critics, rising quickly from the backbench to the Ministry, Leader of the Opposition and now Prime Minister.

Having successfully won office from Opposition, Abbott knows what he is capable of and how to retain power. He, more than anyone else, understands that Labor under both Rudd and Gillard were branded as divided, selfish and thinking and caring only about themselves.

He claimed his administration would be different, cohesive and work only in the national interest.

Intriguingly though he is stalked by another former journalist and previous Liberal party leader; the popular Malcolm Turnbull.

Member for Wentworth Malcolm Turnbull and Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

Turnbull had been a successful lawyer, journalist, merchant banker and businessman.

The Prime Minister has squandered some of his political capital and could replace Hockey as Treasurer with his internal party rival Malcolm Turnbull. The theory being to keep an aspiring rival busy or keep them out of the country.

Abbott could also contemplate replacing Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop with Turnbull. That strategy failed for Fraser and Gillard as both Peacock and Rudd continued to count the numbers for a challenge.

Turnbull like Rudd has the same drive and determination combined with a searing intellect and money to continue to be regarded by some as a potential Liberal leader.

If Abbott refuses to act on his recent poor polling results then he risks further party destabilisation and an inevitable vote for the leadership.

Julian Fitzgerald is a Canberra writer based in the Parliamentary Press Gallery. His new publication is On Message: Political Communications of the Australian Prime Minister 1901-2014.

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