Liberals should fear disunity, not Labor

Government MPs woke this morning to another opinion poll with frustratingly mixed results. Today’s Ipsos poll reflects a move back to the Coalition that was first suggested in last week’s Newspoll, although Labor still remains in front 51 to 49.

Despite bearing such welcome news for the Government, the Ipsos poll was not so favourable for the Prime Minister. When asked to compare PM Tony Abbott with other potential Liberal leadership contenders, 39 per cent of respondents preferred Malcolm Turnbull, compared to 24 per cent for Julie Bishop and 19 per cent for Abbott.

The PM’s only reprieve was that the diminished rump of Coalition voters still prefer him as Leader, although Turnbull has reduced this gap to eight points.

For those Liberal MPs angling for a change of leader, the Ipsos poll does nothing to help them increase momentum. Meantime, those MPs resisting a change are arguing that such a move would reduce the Liberal Party to the same level of “chaos” experienced by Labor during the Rudd-Gillard years.

However this apparent concern is little more than a hollow protest.

Leadership changes do not automatically create a sense of instability if they are done with the minimum of fuss and disruption to government. And perhaps just as importantly, the Labor Opposition is in no position to capitalise on the issue, considering the legacy of the Rudd-Gillard wars remains one of their greatest weaknesses.

There’s no doubt that in recent months the smell of schadenfreude has been in the air. While in opposition, the Coalition made considerable mileage from the overnight coup that despatched then PM Kevin Rudd, and the subsequent war of attrition that Rudd and his supporters waged on his successor Julia Gillard.

And now the most retrospectively hypocritical of the criticisms levelled by Coalition MPs during the darkest days of Rudd’s destabilisation campaign have been exhumed on social media, reappearing like Twitter zombies in an act of ironic retribution:

While it might be amusing to hold up a mirror to the Liberal Party as a sardonic reminder that no party is immune from leadership tensions, there is a world of difference between the views of the politically engaged on Twitter and how the broader public sees the leadership tribulations of Rudd, Gillard and Abbott.

A change in leadership, even the prime ministership, is not the main concern of most voters. History shows governments that have an orderly transition in leadership can survive to fight and win another election, and that the removal of a prime minister will generate less voter anger if it’s clear why the change is being made.

While the dispatch of Rudd came as a surprise to the general community, a similar move on PM Abbott would not leave voters wondering why.

Conversely voters are more concerned about political disunity, incompetency and unmet expectations than they are about changes in government leadership. Considering these were the reasons they voted out the previous Labor government, it’s unlikely the public has forgotten that several of Labor’s most prominent and senior MPs were responsible at least in part for the turmoil of the Rudd-Gillard years.

Current Opposition Leader Bill Shorten played a pivotal role in tearing down both Labor leaders, doing the numbers for Gillard against Rudd in 2010 but then later sealing Gillard’s fate by switching back to Rudd in 2013.

Shadow Treasurer, Chris Bowen, was part of the group calling themselves the Cardinals who plotted with Rudd to achieve his return to the leadership. Other cardinals included shadow immigration minister Richard Marles and shadow minister for agriculture, Joel Fitzgibbon.

And while he was a staunch Gillard supporter, shadow finance minister and Manager of Opposition Business in the House, Tony Burke, also added to perceptions of chaos within Labor by being one of several government ministers who lashed out at Rudd in the lead-up to Rudd’s failed tilt at the leadership in 2012.

In short, the Opposition should be the least of the Government’s concerns when considering the risks of a change in leadership. Labor is in no position to criticise a leadership change or the instability that might come with it considering most of their key attack dogs are still smeared with the stains of the Rudd-Gillard years.

Only shadow foreign minister Tanya Plibersek has clean enough hands to chastise the Coalition for leadership instability – considering she loyally stood by Gillard but did not attack Rudd – but anything Plibersek said in doing so would equally apply to many of her own colleagues.

The greater risk for Liberal MPs and the Government more broadly is the sense of chaos that is inevitably increasing as the more patient of Abbott’s detractors let the PM stumble from one mishap to another in the hope the next misstep will prove fatal, while the less patient try to bring Abbott down with damaging leaks to the media.

This feeling of instability isn’t helped by the backbench and ministry playing a juvenile game of “you go first”, with each goading the other to initiate the next leadership vote in the hope of avoiding any resulting blame or retribution.

In a similar vein, Malcolm Turnbull, Julie Bishop and perhaps even Scott Morrison are refusing to be seen as contenders. By insisting the party must come to them, they hope to avoid any accusations of plotting, assassination or illegitimacy.

Yet the non-challengers are kidding themselves if they think this demonstration of “patience” is in the interests of the Liberal Party. In choosing what is essentially a Rudd-style war of attrition instead of the Gillard-style coup, the Turnbull triumvirate has risked one of the Coalition’s most valuable assets, which is the perception of unity.

Liberal MPs need only look to Labor to see how difficult it can be to regain the public’s confidence once the perception of stability is lost.