Scott Morrison a beacon of hope and danger for PM

Whatever the end-game may be, the social services portfolio is strengthening Morrison’s hand. If the Minister can transform the public’s vitriolic opposition to the welfare reform agenda to acceptance, even if it is begrudging, and change the tenor of the reform debate, he will become 10 times the Liberal hero he was after “stopping” the boats.

Analysis for The New Daily.

So much for a more ‘consultative’ PM

Today marks a fortnight since Prime Minister Tony Abbott, reportedly shaken by the number of MPs who had voted against him in the failed leadership spill, vowed to his colleagues and the nation to be a changed man.

The chastened PM promised he’d be more consultative in future, would “socialise” policy decisions before announcing them, and swear off making captain’s calls. But in the 14 days since then it’s become clear Abbott either has no intention of keeping those commitments, or is simply incapable of doing so.

Even in the hours leading up to the spill motion, Abbott was still making unilateral decisions. Without consulting Cabinet or the leadership group he promised to open up the tender process for building Australia’s new submarine fleet in order to secure the votes of wavering South Australian backbenchers. Unfortunately, this commitment held as much water as any other made by the PM, with Abbott backtracking on it ever since.

Since the vote Abbott has also continued to exercise his seriously defective political judgement, attacking the president of the Human Rights Commission, Gillian Triggs, over the children in custody report, and sacking senior Liberal Philip Ruddock as Whip for being less than effusive during the leadership non-coup.

The PM’s clumsy references to emergency aid previously given to help Indonesia recover from the Boxing Day tsunami have also potentially set back efforts to gain clemency for the Bali Nine prisoners facing execution. And then there’s Abbott accusing Labor of a jobs “holocaust” or his dog-whistling xenophobes on the foreign ownership of properties and land.

In fact, pretty much very effort Abbott has made to portray himself as the tough guy over the past fortnight has backfired, robbing him of the best opportunity left to turn his approval ratings around.

And while the PM’s poor political decisions and mis-speaks have continued unabated, Abbott’s shown no inclination to curb the unprecedented powers of his chief of staff, Peta Credlin, in anything other than a cosmetic way.

As a result, the PM’s supporters and detractors have taken to the media – particularly Abbott’s principal cheerleader News Corp – to fight it out.

It’s no coincidence that following on from Abbott choosing to ignore News Corp proprietor Rupert Murdoch’s helpful advice to sack Credlin, she should be controversially denounced in a New Corp expose over the weekend. The report makes that same mistake as Abbott supporters, blaming Credlin for the PM’s failures, and even going so far as to imply the PM’s most senior adviser was negligent by failing to dissuade Abbott from wanting to invade Iraq to combat Islamic State.

Even more damaging is the article’s conclusion, articulating the thought that no Abbott supporter dare speak:

It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that dysfunction is entrenched in the highest office in the land – and that Abbott and Credlin will survive or crash together.

Meanwhile Abbott detractors are continuing to leak like an open fire hydrant, providing the News Corp Sunday tabloids with pointedly damaging information about the PM, including that he’d insisted on young unemployed waiting six months for the dole, and had refused to limit the aged pension for wealthy retirees.

Both the stories against Credlin and those against Abbott are particularly inconvenient for the PM, who has been trying for a week to create momentum for a statement on national security that he plans to make to the Parliament today.

Abbott has been telegraphing this speech for a week, firstly with a video statement on the Valentine’s Day weekend, announcing that terrorists would no longer be given “the benefit of the doubt”, bookended with last weekend’s response to the inquiry into the Sydney siege.

This succession of statements would have been carefully staged to put the PM in the best possible light, as the “defender of the nation”, while Newspoll was surveying voters late last week and over the weekend. The results of that poll will now be tainted by the News Corp attack on Credlin, and the past fortnight’s damaging leaks against Abbott, which are contributing to a general sense of chaos in the Government.

Today’s statement on national security is therefore the last desperate attempt by Abbott to show his increasingly disillusioned colleagues that he should be retained as PM, by demonstrating that voters turn to tough and principled leaders in times of national adversity.

But the PM may already be too late. As this week’s Newspoll will likely show, the problem for Abbott is that his continued gaffes, stumbles and poor political judgement have already stripped away any authority or respect he might have once commanded as PM.

It’s likely no one will listen to PM Abbott or take him seriously from now on, even if it is a matter of national security – for a prime minister without authority is in no position to protect himself let alone the nation.

Turnbull: too left to be right for the Liberals?

It would be unwise to assume it’s only a matter of time until the undeclared Liberal leadership contender Malcolm Turnbull becomes prime minister.

That’s not to suggest the Liberals won’t finally come to accept it’s time to replace the shambolic pugilist Tony Abbott – for they must, if their Government is to survive.

The problem for Turnbull is there are differing survival instincts at play within the Liberal Party, with some MPs focused more on protecting the Government’s hard-right agenda than its re-election in 2016. And the more time these hardliners have to resist Turnbull’s re-ascension, the better chance they have of succeeding.

These MPs are horrified at the thought of Turnbull becoming prime minister. They know the ascendency of the man who has audaciously continued to flaunt his progressive views since being removed from the leadership would be an undeniable repudiation of everything they had achieved (or still hoped to achieve) with Abbott at the helm.

The anticipated lurch to the left under Turnbull would essentially signal the Liberals’ submission to the community’s rejection of the Abbott Government’s past 17 months in office; including the budget and the budget emergency narrative, the hardline opposition to a carbon price and climate action, holding the line against same-sex marriage, and the planned reform of workplace relations law.

So it’s no surprise that escalating anxiety in the right’s “anyone but Turnbull” camp reached fever pitch in the lead-up to last week’s leadership vote. The conservatives’ flag-bearer Cory Bernardi demonstrated the panic best, declaring the spill motion an ambush orchestrated by Turnbull and his supporters, and that a change to Turnbull would throw the party into a “moral abyss” resulting in a mass exodus of supporters.

If there was such an exodus, it would be more modest than mass, considering the Liberal Party’s supporter base has been reduced to a rump. One pollster recently described this group as the remaining “rusted-on Coalition voters who would prefer to lose with Abbott than win with Turnbull”. That’s the 54 per cent of Coalition voters who prefer Abbott as leader over the 40 per cent who prefer Turnbull.

Yet it’s clear from the 64 per cent of overall voters preferring Turnbull (over Abbott’s 25 per cent) that, just as the times eventually came to suit John Howard even after he was rejected by his party, they have come to suit Turnbull too. Two opinion polls leading up to the spill vote found Turnbull as leader would turn around the Government’s fortunes, either putting it in front of the Labor opposition, or at least within striking range.

Noting this, the question currently occupying the minds of the Liberal right will be whether the times suit any other potential leadership candidates, particularly those with a stronger predisposition to the conservatives’ agenda.

This is where things may go awry for Turnbull. Going into last Monday’s special party room meeting, both Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Social Services Minister Scott Morrison said they would not challenge Abbott for the leadership – essentially giving Turnbull a clear run. Whether that commitment carries over to any future leadership stoush is yet to be seen.

While PM Abbott managed to secure a reprieve at Monday’s meeting, and has reportedly been given time to prove his mended ways, this hiatus also gives the Liberal right extra time to further develop its “anyone but Turnbull” leadership options.

Bishop is an obvious contender, with popular support in the community despite her gender being seen as an obvious handicap by Liberal hardliners. The Foreign Minister may have not taken too kindly however to recent suggestions in the media that her role as deputy leader was in peril. This could only have been seen as threatened retribution from Abbott supporters for Bishop’s perceived siding with Turnbull.

Then again, Bishop certainly doesn’t lack ambition and so may well be prepared to forgive and forget if that’s what it takes to get the top job.

However, if she were to become prime minister through the good graces of the Liberal right, Bishop would be wise to keep a watchful eye on Morrison. The ever-ambitious Social Services Minister, who was a favourite of the conservatives while in the border protection portfolio, is now moving at full speed to soften his image in the tricky welfare portfolio (that ironically was a hospital pass from the current PM).

Despite having been in the new job for mere weeks, Morrison has already jettisoned the previous minister’s widely-ridiculed pre-marriage counselling certificates, and signaled he will drop the contentious requirement for young job seekers to wait six months before getting access to welfare support. These swift decisions, along with the commencement of a media charm offensive and an earlier statement on his determination to “stop the rorts” suggest Morrison is pursuing an ambitious strategy to win brownie points from both sides of the political divide.

The longer Abbott draws out his failing prime ministership, the more time Morrison has to implement this strategy, and the greater chance there is of him becoming a real competitor for Turnbull and Bishop in the leadership stakes. There’s also a chance that, in a three-cornered contest involving Turnbull, Morrison and another candidate such as Bishop, Morrison could benefit from the split vote, just as Abbott did when competing with Turnbull and Hockey for the Liberal leadership in 2009.

Time may well have been on Turnbull’s side since he lost the Liberal leadership, but it is no longer. With two new leadership contenders emerging from the pack, the potential prime ministerial aspirant faces a race to convince the Liberal Party’s hardliners that he is the lesser of two evils.

Turnbull’s future, and essentially that of that nation, therefore rests in the hands of those who will determine whether a lurch to the left is more or less bearable than their own electoral oblivion. To assume the outcome of that deliberation would be the height of political foolishness.

The Liberal rebellion is far from over

Having seen off internal critics this morning by garnering enough votes to defeat the spill motion, Prime Minister Tony Abbott must now deal with the ramifications of the vote itself.

With 39 out of 101 votes tallied in favour of the spill, the PM must now confront what is essentially a vote of no confidence by 40 per cent of his colleagues. In reality this number is likely higher, if one was to count disgruntled ministers who nevertheless supported the PM after being pressured to uphold the principle of ministerial solidarity.

Abbott and his supporters may claim today’s vote puts an end to the matter, but they will be keenly aware that it has sometimes taken more than one attempt to bring down a sitting PM.

Even the formidable Paul Keating was unable to dislodge Australia’s once-most popular PM Bob Hawke with a single shove, and for a time languished in despair after the first strike before regrouping for the second and ultimately successful attempt.

More recently, it took Kevin Rudd two attempts to bring down his successor, PM Julia Gillard, or three attempts if one also counts the aborted attempt forced by the political suicide bomber Simon Crean, at which time Rudd declined to be a candidate.

The chances of second attempt against Abbott’s leadership will remain high as long as his approval ratings and support for the Government remain low.

Today’s Newspoll reinforced the enormity of that task, finding the Labor opposition had a 57-43 lead over the Government with preferences, and that 68 per cent of respondents were dissatisfied with Abbott as PM. Only 24 per cent of respondents were satisfied with the Prime Minister, giving him the third lowest Newspoll approval rating ever for a PM.

In an attempt to insulate against any further poll-driven panic, considerable pressure has been brought to bear on Liberal MPs to give Abbott more time to turn things around, including an entreaty from former PM John Howard in today’s media. The PM’s supporters pointed to the concessions made in his address to the National Press Club last week as evidence of Abbott’s willingness and ability to change for the better.

It is true that Abbott took the paid parental leave scheme “off the table” and swore off choosing new knights and dames. He did promise to crack down on home-grown terrorism and bend the knee to party xenophobes anxious about foreigners buying up Australian property.

But at no point did the PM vow to abandon two of his biggest problems – the dysfunctional operation of his office, and his Government’s dogged pursuit of a reform agenda that singularly lacks in empathy. Without fixing his office, Abbott will continue to lack the confidence of many backbenchers. And without adjusting his Government’s policies, he’ll continue to be spurned by the Australian people.

This latter point may have not yet occurred – or perhaps is being diligently ignored – by members of Abbott’s ministry. Finance Minister Mathias Cormann encapsulated this problem on the weekend when he stated in a media interview that no member of the ministry had ever told him that last year’s budget was unfair. As the interviewer swiftly replied, that says a lot about their political antennae.

Today’s vote has undoubtedly winged the PM. He may well be given a chance to recover, with the option of putting him out of his misery later if that is necessary. But now there is blood in the water, an off-the-radar battle is taking place between the right-wing conservatives who want to protect the Government’s current agenda and the moderates who seek to change it.

This battle is also the reason there’s no clear alternative to Abbott in the leadership stakes. The conservatives have been grooming former immigration minister Scott Morrison as their Plan B, in the event that Abbott fell under a bus. But without experience in an economic portfolio, Morrison is not yet ready for the top job.

Meantime, Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has played the long-game, managing to keep moderate voters onside despite his spruiking of the Coalition’s technologically sub-optimal broadband network and keeping schtum on climate change. Deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop has the potential to be a compromise candidate, with Liberal voters preferring her over Turnbull, but is not (yet) considered competent enough by the right, who still have the numbers.

Accordingly, there will be no change to the Liberal leadership until the right accept the Government is electorally doomed under Abbott, and that some policy purity will have to surrendered to maintain a fighting chance at the next election.

While this subterranean battle escalates between the conservatives and the moderates in the Liberal Party, the PM and his supporters will attempt to draw a line under recent events as nothing more than an ill-judged dummy-spit by a unrepresentative minority.

However judging by the size of the anti-Abbott vote, and the PM’s track record in failing to live up to his word, the rebellion is far from over.

Trigger-happy chatter does not make a spill

What would happen if you called a leadership spill and nobody turned up? This must be the question tormenting a ginger group of Liberal Party backbenchers who yesterday thrust their concerns about the electoral viability of Prime Minister Tony Abbott into the public domain.

Western Australian Liberal MP Dennis Jensen and his Queensland counterpart, Warren Entsch, took to the airwaves last night to declare PM Abbott no longer had their confidence. Entsch took it a step further, declaring he’d like to see a ballot early next week when Liberal Party MPs met in Canberra for the resumption of Parliament.

Despite this enthusiasm for a resolution, two disgruntled MPs do not make a coup. In fact it would be fair to say that Jensen and Entsch have made a habit of complaining about the PM. After being overlooked by Abbott for a berth in his new ministry, it was Jensen who complained to the media about his own Government’s lack of a dedicated science minister, as well as the PM’s proposed paid parental leave scheme.

Entsch has a similar track record, being one of the few Government MPs prepared to put his name to criticisms of the PM’s chief of staff Peta Credlin, and more recently of Abbott’s foolish decision to knight Prince Philip.

While Entsch said on Australia Day he was “not pushing for a change in leader, (but) looking for significant change in leadership”, that view may have been changed by the election rout in Queensland, for which Entsch holds Abbott at least partly responsible.

Jensen and Entsch might do well to recall the actions of former Labor backbencher Darren Cheeseman, who went to the media in February 2012 saying the leadership of then prime minister Julia Gillard was terminal and that her predecessor Kevin Rudd should be reinstated.

At the time it was reported Rudd had 40 of the 52 votes needed to prevail, making it clear that Cheeseman’s declaration was an attempt by the Rudd camp to motivate wavering ministers and backbenchers to their cause. This number proved to be wildly inflated, with Rudd losing to Gillard 31 to 71 in the leadership vote that occurred just days later.

Then there is former Labor minister Simon Crean, who learnt the hard way that calling for a spill doesn’t necessarily make one happen. Twelve months after Cheeseman spruiked a change back to Rudd, Crean sacrificed his friendship with then PM Julia Gillard as well as his Cabinet position to bring on a leadership vote, only for Rudd to refuse to be a candidate once he realised he still didn’t have the numbers.

So while the media is breathlessly reporting that a leadership challenge is inevitable, and #libspill is trending on Twitter, it’s safe to say the spill isn’t on til it’s on.

At this point it’s impossible to tell what might happen if Entsch gets his wish for a ballot when the Liberals gather in Canberra next week. Somewhat spookily, 52 votes are also needed in the Liberals’ party room to topple Abbott.

Those MPs calling for a leadership change are claiming to have “around 30” votes, which is another way of saying “slightly more than 20”. This number is unlikely to get anywhere near a majority until the ministry breaks ranks, and at this point ministers appear to be holding firm. One MP has reportedly gone as far as to say that comments by Jensen and Entsch were “the height of indulgence by complete morons” and that no one wanted a leadership spill “apart from the crazies”.

Meantime, the media-nominated main contenders – Julie Bishop and Malcolm Turnbull – are keeping schtum, aside from Bishop publicly stating she will not challenge Abbott. Bishop made no commitment, however, not to stand if the leadership is contested.

Bishop, Turnbull and their reported potential running-mate Scott Morrison, are cleverly presenting as an alternative team so as to not split the anti-Abbott vote. It’s another matter altogether whether this “collegiate” approach will hold once one member of the troika decides to take the lead.

The contenders are also somewhat hamstrung by not wanting to be seen to be destabilising Abbott but needing at some point to make their case to their colleagues, particularly those in the ministry. And with Abbott having made it clear he will have to be blasted out of the top job, there’s a need to weigh up the electoral cost of bringing on a challenge against doing nothing.

So despite the widespread case of premature speculation seizing mainstream and social media last night, we may yet be a fair way off from Abbott’s denouement. Then again, next week’s Newspoll might just be enough to set matters in train.

The only certainty is that it takes more than a couple of trigger-happy MPs and an excited media to bring down a prime minister. Until a real consensus for change emerges within the Liberal Party, rallied behind one principal contender, MPs like Jensen and Entsch will achieve nothing other than entertaining Twitter and harvesting clicks for online media.