It’s déjà vu. This morning voters will learn from their news devices that Prime Minister Tony Abbott is facing another rebellion from within the Government’s ranks and that his leadership has again become precarious.
Press Gallery elder Laurie Oakes reported on Sunday night that Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull was being urged by colleagues to challenge Abbott for the Liberal leadership. There were reportedly calls from Abbott supporters too, demanding that Turnbull reiterate his support for Abbott.
There is also a suggestion the spill be brought on this week, according to Oakes, due to a concern that Abbott may try to bring on a double dissolution election straight after the Canning by-election to head off any leadership challenge.
Oakes’ revelation is the crescendo of three days of escalating ministerial paranoia, initially brought on by a suspected leak from the Prime Minister’s office that listed ministers supposedly slated for retirement or demotion. While ministers would be horrified at the prospect of a downgrade, their dismay would pale against the terror of marginal seat holders contemplating electoral slaughter at a DD election.
News organisations were already reporting on Sunday morning that some ministers believed a leadership spill was “absolutely inevitable”, with later suggestions it would occur in the next six to eight weeks. Talk of a snap DD election would likely have strengthened the resolve of backbenchers.
And so Government MPs head into this parliamentary sitting week with the prospect of the ultimate political upheaval taking place in a matter of hours, days or weeks. Or not, depending on which leaks to the media one chooses to take at face value.
Just as it did seven months ago, dissent fomented over the preceding weekend as Government MPs weighed up their electoral chances under Abbott’s leadership compared with a hypothetical scenario in which the vastly more popular Turnbull is in the role.
Back in February, frustrated backbenchers tried to bring on the change but Turnbull refused to step up, knowing most ministers would stick with Abbott due to ministerial solidarity. The non-coup was the result of that standoff, with no declared contenders and a majority of Liberal MPs voting against opening the leadership to a vote.
This time things are different, with senior ministers reportedly concluding that Abbott must go. Along with their backbench colleagues, Liberal ministers gave the PM six months after the non-coup to get the Government back on track. Abbott managed to secure a temporary but expensive poll boost with a magic pudding budget in May, but despite trying everything else in the political toolbox – including going to war – he has not been able to budge the Government’s poor opinion poll ratings.
There have been grumbles aplenty from Government MPs about their deteriorating chances of re-election, but it appears nobody was prepared – until now – to bring matters to a head. Backbenchers were reportedly telling ministers that this time it would be their turn to act. And the dominant conservative faction of the Liberal Party stuck by Abbott, possibly because their alternative – Scott Morrison – was not ready for the role.
That factor has reportedly changed with former hardliners previously opposed to the moderate Turnbull now moving towards acceptance that the “warmist” leader they pulled down to install Abbott may now be their only chance of avoiding electoral oblivion.
Even without the threat of a snap poll, time is running out for the Liberals to change leaders. Turnbull may have a high public profile but he would still need time to bed down a new ministry, explain his vision to the Australian people and possibly even deliver a pre-election budget before heading to the polls.
As we have seen over past weeks, and even in past years with the destabilisation campaigns run by the revenge-driven Kevin Rudd, leadership campaigns depend to a large extent on the creation of a sense of momentum and inevitability. If managed effectively, predominantly through the media, there comes a point when wavering MPs jump on board for fear of being left behind.
But there needs to be a focus or tipping point for the momentum to create a critical mass of defectors. The Canning by-election has been deliberately framed by the anti-Abbott forces as that fulcrum, even though it’s arguable whether a swing against the Government in a seat that won’t materially change the balance of power should be the ultimate test of the PM’s leadership.
The additional problem with the Canning poll being the proposed pivot is that Abbott is expected to leave the country straight afterwards for a meeting with US president Barack Obama, and Parliament does not sit for another three weeks. It could be difficult for Turnbull’s supporters to maintain the rage that was ignited this past weekend for another four weeks, even if that anger is further oxygenated by the Canning result.
That’s why a leadership spill this week could be on the cards; all MPs are in Canberra, a regular party room meeting is already scheduled, and after the supposed ministerial hit-list published by the “Government Gazette” last week, ministers are reportedly red-hot for a pre-emptive strike against Abbott. Turnbull may assess this as being his best shot, particularly if the right is prepared to back him.
Of course, Turnbull – or any other leadership contender – would have to weigh up the risk of creating such tumult in the Government one week out from a by-election. The PM and his supporters have in the past tried to ward off a challenge by invoking the case of Julia Gillard, who incurred the wrath of Labor supporters for knocking off Rudd with little apparent warning or reason.
However, there is no parallel between the Abbott and Rudd scenarios. If the popular Turnbull were to replace the belligerent, antediluvian and gaffe-prone Abbott, all but the most rusted-on of Liberal supporters would accept it was the right thing to do.
And even if there were a backlash from the voters of Canning, who apparently have not been swayed after three weeks of campaigning by the Liberals, the loss of the seat would hardly put a dint in the Government’s lower house majority.
A pointer to whether the anti-Abbott forces intend to bring on a leadership spill this week could be the source of the leak to the journalist Simon Benson on Friday that set things off, or the one to Laurie Oakes on Sunday night that kept things going. Unfortunately for us, only the two journalists are in a position to judge their sources’ true intentions.
Such is the way of a leadership challenge; much of it is run through the media, and the motivations of the players aren’t always obvious. Whether “it’s on” or whether it’s not, only one thing is certain – very little of what we read and hear about leadership manoeuvrings are truly what they seem.