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.