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.