No Clean Air: Prime Minister Tony Abbott's Last Gasp

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Events move fast in politics. It was only a fortnight ago that Prime Minister Tony Abbott committed the disastrous blunder of knighting Prince Philip. It has only been a week since Abbott gave his vaunted National Press Club speech, in which he tried to reset the political agenda. The implosion that culminated in today’s spill has been brewing for many months now, but it accelerated in recent  days.

And yet, despite all the turmoil, today’s result was the worst possible outcome for the Coalition.

A smashing victory might have allowed Abbott to put speculation to bed for a while – as happened (though not for long) after Julia Gillard’s pre-emptive spill in 2012. A defeat would have brought Malcolm Turnbull to the leadership, put Abbott out of his misery, and allowed the government a full 18 months to re-establish itself.

Today’s result did neither of those things. The 61-39 margin of today’s spill vote showed that a significant number of the Prime Minister's colleagues no longer have confidence in him. In particular, most of the backbench has defected.

And so a wounded Prime Minister limps on, further weakened, to a seemingly inevitable end. Reportedly, Abbott asked his colleagues for six months in which to regain a modicum of support in the electorate. It would be astonishing if he makes it that long.

The history of leadership challenges is not on Abbott’s side. There is rarely just one spill, after which a victorious leader vanquishes his foes. Instead, the very fact of a spill tends to weaken leaders, whose opponents continue to plot. This was the route taken by Paul Keating in 1991, and then by Kevin Rudd in 2013 as he stalked Julia Gillard.

There are very few rays of hope for the embattled PM. The polls remain horrible – so horrible, in fact, that one optimistic interpretation offered up by former leader John Hewson today was that they can’t fall any further, and that Abbott has therefore established the natural floor of voter discontent. In other words: things can’t get any worse.

But in politics, things can always get worse. The government’s standing has been deteriorating almost since Abbott took office. As my colleague Chris Graham wrote today, the Coalition needs more than just stabilisation. It needs some wins. It’s hard to see how Abbott can provide them.

The confusion surrounding the aftermath of today’s vote was instructive. Rather than hold a proper media conference, Abbott instead gave a short statement to a single Channel 9 camera crew, bunkered down in his office. He said nothing of note and the amateurish effort only served to underline the increasingly chaotic nature of the government.

More confusion was sown when rebel MP Luke Simpkins emerged to face reporters. He at first suggested that Abbott would be abandoning the hated GP co-payment. He then backtracked as it emerged that the Prime Minister had only said he would continue to consult with doctors. Yet again, the government proved hopelessly unable to communicate its position on a controversial policy.

The forlorn hope of the Prime Minister and his supporters is that old dream of the spin doctors, “clean air”. In theory, the defeat of the spill allows a period of relative calm to descend. Abbott’s supporters will try and tell us that he is “listening.” Clichés about being “chastened” by his “near death experience” will be trotted out.

But is the Prime Minister listening? How would he demonstrate that?

Abbott could backflip on some of his unpopular policies; surely now is the time to jettison university deregulation and the GP co-payment. He could sack his Chief-of-Staff, or better still, his Treasurer. They are both political liabilities to him. He could shower the Australian electorate with bribes, a favourite tactic of John Howard’s. Perhaps he could try a mix of all three.

But, as Labor found to its cost when confronted with similar scenarios, there are risks to each of these options. Backflipping on policy is never easy, and leaders often get into trouble when they do it. Kevin Rudd’s disastrous abandonment of the emissions trading scheme proved the beginning of his downfall in 2010.

Labor also regularly reshuffled the cabinet during the Gillard years, sometimes every few months. The constant movement at the ministries only reinforced the perception of a chaotic administration. At one point in 2013, Labor had reshuffled the cabinet so many times that there were five small business ministers in little over a year.

Finally, Labor tried bribes too. The extra hand-outs to families provided a transient boost, but no long-term benefit. Indeed, they helped make Labor look irresponsible at a time of growing budget deficits. Does anyone now remember the Schoolkids Bonus?

Abbott is thus in an invidious situation. If he does nothing, he will inevitably be rolled, probably before the May budget. But anything he does attempt will be fraught with risk. As his enemies circle, any gaffe or slip-up could prove fatal. He can’t afford another mistake.

Beyond Abbott’s inner circle, it is a grim time for the Coalition at large. As the ever-perceptive Paula Matthewson pointed out today, a civil war is brewing in the Liberal Party. It is a conflict between the hardliners on the right of the party, and a smaller group of moderates. In the main, the hardliners support Abbott, while the moderates support Turnbull.

Turnbull has played the leadership tension beautifully, simultaneously posing as loyal while establishing himself as the obvious heir apparent. The prize he always longed for must seem tantalisingly close.

But the hard right of the party won’t go down without a fight. It’s their tragedy that Abbott, the most conservative Australian prime minister since Menzies, has proved so incompetent. Remember, it was Abbott that unified the party back in 2009, after it nearly split apart over Turnbull’s support for an emissions trading scheme. There are still plenty of hard-core climate deniers in the Liberal party room.

A government led by Malcolm Turnbull would inevitably tack back towards the centre. In a way, it has to. The current administration is already far to the right of the general electorate, and has proved itself unable to bring voters with it.

But a Liberal prime minister that took centrist positions on social and economic policy would horrify many Liberal MPs. Can the hardliners tolerate a new leader who harbours heretical opinions on climate? What about social issues like gay marriage? How long would they keep their silence if Turnbull does something they don’t like?

There is, of course, one person who has been thoroughly enjoying himself. Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has been having a wonderful time. All he has to do is sit back and watch the carnage unfold. No wonder he was enjoying himself so much in Question Time today.

A Turnbull government would pose a far sterner test for Shorten and Labor. How will they perform against such an opponent? It is only a matter of time before we find out.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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