That sound you hear is the whisper of Liberal Party MPs carefully shuffling around a Prime Minister who’s taken on water and is listing dangerously.
They’re hoping to avoid being dragged down with him into the dark waters of electoral opprobrium and are eyeing those who hope to replace the PM as potential lifeboats.
We’ve known for some time that the Good Ship Abbott was in trouble, partly because it was constructed using shonky policies and shattered expectations, but also because it was steered with the reckless abandon that comes from political hubris mixed with a misguided sense of entitlement.
The summer break provided an opportunity to put the ship in dry dock, replace the defective policies and adjust the political navigation system. At least that was the point of Tony Abbott’s “reset” press conference and the ministry reshuffle conducted late last year.
However, it would appear that no such reset actually took place. Instead Abbott pressed on, continuing to make poor political decisions like the no-media visit to Iraq while bushfires raged in three Australian states, and even worse policy decisions like the unannounced $20 cut to the Medicare rebate.
Now a leak about the Medicare cut from the Cabinet’s expenditure review committee over the weekend suggests hope is fading fast for HMAS Abbott to be successfully refloated, and that the decks are being cleared for a regime change.
Ministers are already jostling to be in the new leadership line-up, and the weekend’s leak flags that Joe Hockey, the one-time heir-apparent but now only the beleaguered Treasurer, wants to be back in contention. It would also appear Hockey is unafraid to tarnish the PM’s reputation while seeking to rehabilitate his own.
According to a newspaper report of the leak, Hockey and then health minister Peter Dutton “opposed the move during a ‘heated’ exchange with the Prime Minister” but the PM insisted on the $20 cut the Medicare rebate for short GP consults, which apparently were “developed by the Prime Minister’s Office and then costed by the Department of Finance and Health”.
This isn’t the first time efforts have been made to shift responsibility for the budget from Hockey to Abbott, particularly by drawing attention to the PM’s insistence on chairing every meeting of the Expenditure Review Committee as it put the budget together.
One well-briefed commentator wrote around that time:
The core problem with the budget is the design, and responsibility for design faults ultimately lands at the feet of the Prime Minister … Abbott used his authority to take charge of the Government’s first budget, yet he seems to be using his political skills to sidestep responsibility, leaving ownership of the document with Hockey.
Since then, the Abbott Government has begun to leak like a scuttled dinghy. Political observers have been treated to a flotilla of leaks to the media, seemingly to position ministers impatient for promotion in the best possible light, or put the case for one ambitious backbencher over another.
It would seem not even the Prime Minister’s Office has been above such shenanigans, appearing to provide leaks to the media at various times to rein in potential leadership contenders such as Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.
Another recent leak, aimed at the Treasurer and suspected to also have come from the Prime Minister’s Office, was described by one press gallery stalwart as exposing the disunity, paranoia and distrust that currently exists at the highest levels of the Government.
This latest leak in Hockey’s favour won’t change the perception of omnishambles, nor will it dissuade voters from booting out the Abbott Government as swiftly as the Rudd-Gillard one if the rot is not soon arrested.
This certainty is what occupies the minds of the shuffling MPs.
The only factor that remains in Abbott’s favour is that there’s no clear front-runner to replace him. Traditionally the leadership team is agreed mostly between NSW and Victorian MPs because combined they have the most votes in the party room. Hockey re-entering the field complicates matters, but at least gives NSW MPs another option other than the invidious choice between the left’s darling, Malcolm Turnbull, and the hard-right’s poster boy, Scott Morrison. Victoria doesn’t have a leadership contender but could supply an able deputy.
And at this point it’s anyone’s guess what deals the Western Australians might do with NSW or Victorian MPs to put Bishop into the top job.
What is clear is that now Abbott has apparently single-handedly botched the “reset”, he’ll likely be deemed unseaworthy and slated for a visit to the ships’ graveyard, perhaps by mid-year.
Meantime we can expect to see a veritable ocean of leaks to the media and other forms of self-promotion as the contenders set their spyglasses on the leadership and set sail for what is guaranteed to be a deceptively perilous journey.