CANBERRA OBSERVED by our national correspondentNews Weekly
Time for Mr Abbott to level with the Australian people
, February 28, 2015
The Abbott government remains in a state of limbo as the Prime Minister attempts to find a way through the ongoing destabilisation of his leadership, and his erstwhile opponent, Malcolm Turnbull, sits on the sidelines waiting to seize his opportunity.
The stand-off means that Mr Abbott has been forced to resort to more familiar ground in being a more ruthless and combative leader, while Turnbull has been trying to display the kind of leadership qualities he envisages he would possess as prime minister — more inclusive, more centrist, more reasonable, and one who might be better at communicating with the Australian people.
The removal of Philip Ruddock (the current “father” of the parliament and a much-loved figure in Liberal Party heartland) as Chief Whip shows just how determined Mr Abbott is to do what it takes to remain as the leader of the parliamentary Liberal Party.
Yet at the same time he remains handcuffed to his Treasurer, Joe Hockey, and his once all-powerful chief-of-staff, Peta Credlin.
The fact remains that unless Mr Abbott can make a substantial breakthrough with a more electorally palatable May Budget, it now seems inevitable that there will be a showdown of some kind — either a second spill or a less bloodless but definitive Cabinet revolt against Mr Abbott.
Of course “something” could come along, some kind of international crisis or major domestic issue that would consume federal politics sufficiently to save Mr Abbott, but there is now a sense of momentum toward a change.
Even Mr Abbott’s closest confidantes rate his chances of surviving to the election as only “fifty-fifty”.
There is no doubt Mr Abbott has been the target of a prolonged campaign to undermine his prime ministership — from sections of the media, the intelligentsia and his political enemies. Successes are discounted and his hard-work and determination overlooked — just a relentless concentration on alleged “gaffes” and poor political judgment.
This is in part payback for his ruthlessness as Opposition leader, and in part a repetition of the very tactics Mr Abbott himself used to tear down Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard and which are now being waged in a similar way by the Labor Party. But there is also an element of sectarianism, and a visceral but largely inexplicable hatred by Australia’s political left towards Mr Abbott.
On the other hand, Mr Abbott has caused many of his own problems — the seeds of which were sown well before he became prime minister, and which have been regrettably nurtured in government.
In his single-minded determination not to expose himself on any political front as Opposition leader, Mr Abbott refused before the September 2013 election to concede that there would be any cutbacks to health, welfare and education, when it was obvious to everyone he would have to cut back somewhere.
Rather than talk straight to the electorate about the problems the country was facing after years of Labor profligacy, Mr Abbott sought to reassure people that he would not make any cuts (including to the ABC and SBS), that the economy would improve under a Coalition Government, and that merely a change of government would restore the confidence required to revive the economy.
The reality, however, upon his gaining office was that economies were very difficult to find and harder to implement; that any substantive cut would involve breaking promises; and that the revenue base would deteriorate quickly.
Yet Mr Abbott has still refused to level with the Australian people about the end of the mining boom and the subsequent decline in company tax receipts.
Of course, stating the realities of a post-boom Australian economy carries with it certain risks, including accusations of “talking down” the economy and destroying consumer confidence.
But a frank discussion with the Australian people was what was required before the September 2013 election, after that election, and now.
The question is, will that person be Tony Abbott or Malcolm Turnbull? Because it certainly will not be Labor leader Bill Shorten, who continues to hide behind opportunistic jibes and messages to the Australian people that government largesse can continue under Labor.
Mr Abbott’s rapid fall has been a tragedy, but there have also been some serious missteps and wrong decisions on personnel in his office.
Over the past month, the PM has been trying to change things organisationally and structurally so that there are better lines of communication and alternative sources of advice. But it may be all too late.
But the next couple of years will be an enormous test for whoever is prime minister, because there are few votes in managing expectations at the end of an economic boom, and the adjustment to less prosperous times will come as a shock.