CANBERRA OBSERVED by our national correspondentNews Weekly
Tony Abbott secure in his job ... for now
, March 14, 2015
The future direction of the Coalition Government remains in a holding pattern, as Tony Abbott works to dig himself out of the poor polling that has dogged his prime ministership and which has resulted in the crippling destabilisation of recent weeks.
Mr Abbott’s ditching of the unpopular Medicare co-payment and announcements on country-of-origin labelling and curbs on foreign investment, appears to have resulted in a boost in the polls for the government.
But it will require more than just surviving from poll to poll for Mr Abbott to revive the government’s fortunes.
Clearly, there remains a small rump of backbench MPs who, for a variety of reasons, are still unhappy with Mr Abbott’s performance and who are agitating for change.
For some, the source of their antipathy towards Mr Abbott is frustrated ambition, because they have been passed over for promotion or dumped from the ministry. This is usually the case, to a small or large extent, in any government.
However, the real problem for Mr Abbott is that there is now a large cohort of MPs who have lost confidence in him and his government’s ability to win the next election, which is 18 months or so away.
These MPs have witnessed the recent Queensland wipe-out and the one-term Victorian Coalition government, and who are reacting with growing fears that they too will be out of a job at the 2016 election.
What is driving these MPs is the prospect that perhaps a Malcolm Turnbull (or anyone other than Tony Abbott) might be an electorally more palatable proposition.
There is no doubt that Mr Abbott has made some mistakes.
The harsh strategy behind the first Budget was not well thought through. Overlapping goals of repairing the Budget and initiating long-term reform efforts have created unnecessary confusion. There has been poor communication with the electorate; too much concentration on foreign affairs matters; and, internally, the Prime Minister’s personal office has been accused of heavy-handed behaviour that has caused resentment and alienation among the backbench.
It is quite a list.
But there are also the perceived issues that the left-wing media conflate to be the problems with the Abbott government — that it is too right-wing, too ready to inflict Budget pain on those who can least afford it, and too harsh on asylum-seekers and national institutions such as the ABC and the Australian Human Rights Commission.
Labor and the minor parties amplify the situation by opposing every government decision — even those Labor would otherwise agree with.
In all, it means Mr Abbott is under enormous pressure from the media, from the backbench and from a sullen electorate.
Would a change of leader work?
On the face of it, Malcolm Turnbull appears to have many positive attributes. He is a fine orator, possesses enormous self-confidence, and has a businessman’s acumen.
If polls are to be believed, Mr Turnbull is a much-preferred alternative prime minister to Mr Abbott. On the other hand, Mr Turnbull’s popularity is strongest amongst Labor voters who would never actually vote for him — he is a “Liberal” that those on the left side of politics would tolerate should the occasion arise when the conservatives get into power.
Furthermore, in his previous stint as Opposition leader, Mr Turnbull proved to be an enormously divisive figure in the Liberal Party, particularly over his attempt to aid Kevin Rudd to establish a carbon-dioxide emissions-trading scheme in Australia.
This ill-fated policy decision resulted in arguably the greatest grassroots revolt within the Liberal Party heartland in decades.
Mr Turnbull has probably learnt from his mistakes and been one of the government’s better Cabinet ministers.
However, there are many conservative Liberal and Nationals MPs who remain sceptical, and would resist him at all costs.
A possible alternative to Mr Turnbull could be Julie Bishop, who, though not a conservative herself, would be better equipped to make a deal with the conservatives in the Liberal Party.
Other names that have been put forward include Scott Morrison and Andrew Robb. Both are among the government’s best performers, and may consider throwing their hats in the ring should there be another spill.
But any leadership challenge or change would not be achieved without cost, and some of the backbenchers are naïve in thinking that Mr Turnbull would not be dragged down by the Labor Party.
The best bet and the current hope is that Mr Abbott will somehow manage to pull himself out of the morass and make a recovery.
But the truth is that the time in which he can do this is finite.