It’s on? How Abbott’s leadership is in doubt … again

It’s on? How Abbott’s leadership is in doubt … again

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.

Political leaks leave voters in the dark

Political leaks leave voters in the dark

To say the relationship between journalist and politician is symbiotic is to describe a fundamental truth; one could barely function without the other.

This mutual need defines the deeply problematic nature of the relationship, particularly when it comes to “anonymous” leaks.

Leaks to the media play an important part in the transactional world of politics, where the journalist who receives the exclusive information gets kudos for the coveted scoop while the leaker achieves their objective without leaving any fingerprints.

Doyen of the Canberra press gallery, Laurie Oakes, claims democracy “can’t work without leaks”. That may be so, but when a politician leaks to the media only the MP knows the true purpose of the subterfuge, while the journalist accepts being an unwitting accomplice in return for the exclusive.

Oakes has over past decades made an art form of getting political leaks. And he’s never shied from this clandestine form of journalism, noting that “people use me and I use them. It’s the way reporting has always worked.”

As a result, a number of modern political history’s turning points have been the result of a surreptitious drop to Oakes.

In 1980 he was given 15 minutes in a car park to go through confidential budget papers, the contents of which he revealed the night before the budget’s official release. In 1991 it was Oakes who blew the lid on then Prime Minister Bob Hawke’s failure to deliver on the secret “Kirribilli agreement”, which was a promise to stand aside for Treasurer Paul Keating after the 1990 federal election. And in 1997 it was Oakes again who used leaked material to expose Howard Government ministers who were rorting their travel allowances.

More recently, Oakes used information leaked from a confidential cabinet discussion during the Rudd era, which undermined then Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s stance on paid parental leave and the aged pension and delivered a killer blow to her 2010 federal election campaign.

While on this occasion political observers were fairly sure about Oakes’s source, and why the information was leaked, the purpose of other leaks is not always so clear.

This is particularly the case during leadership stoushes, when one side can issue leaks ostensibly from their opponents in an attempt to cow or destabilise them. The most recent likely example of that tactic was when the Prime Minister’s supporters were said to have leaked that leadership contender Malcolm Turnbull had the numbers, but Turnbull supporters said this was merely an attempt to pressure him to declare his candidacy.

Given that nothing may actually be as it seems when it comes to political leaks, what are we to make of Oakes’s column on the weekend suggesting PM Abbott may bring on an election soon after this year’s budget?

Oakes claimed in his weekly offering that the PM is “itching to hit Bill Shorten” and has been boasting the Government could win even if the Coalition started the election campaign four points behind Labor.

Quoting “colleagues”, a “Cabinet minister” and “a bureaucrat involved in the Budget process”, Oakes speculated whether a double dissolution election would be held soon after the anticipated good-news budget, particularly given the Government could hardly afford to deliver another voter-friendly budget (with no spending cuts) before the scheduled election in 2016.

The telltale indication whether this is Oakes idly connecting the dots or a concerted leak from the Government can be found in the words of the quoted Cabinet minister. According to Oakes, the senior minister had “sneered at the idea only a few weeks ago” but has recently said a DD election is “not beyond the realms of possibility”.

Yet without knowing who encouraged Oakes with such information, it is impossible to know its true purpose.

The proposition could be as simple as it looks, with the Government floating the idea through a respected journalist in an attempt to gauge the voting community’s appetite for an early election.

It could be a veiled threat to the independents and micro party representatives on the Senate crossbench, signalling that if their cooperation is not forthcoming the Government will implement reforms to Senate voting before holding a DD election that would bring about their defeat. Oakes notes this is a consideration, and that “to avoid angering Senate crossbenchers while it still needs them, the Government would probably only legislate those reforms just before an election”.

Then again, this leak could be about the PM’s still-tenuous hold on the Liberal leadership, with Oakes noting an election held shortly after the budget would head off any challenge. The prospect of an early election might also motivate a leadership contender to move swiftly after the budget to bring on another spill vote.

If so, the leak to Oakes might not be about Abbott trying to shut down Turnbull, but an attempt by Turnbull supporters to gird his loins, or even by the Bishop camp to flush him out.

Who knows? This is the rub when it comes to the mutually-dependent relationship between journalists and politicians. Leaks to the media can ensure that politicians and governments are held to account, but when politicians leak for tactical reasons their objectives are hidden by the same cloak of anonymity that protects whistle-blowers.

The pact of secrecy that allows politicians to use journalists for political means, and rewards those journalists for being little more than a cipher, does not strengthen democracy – as Oakes suggests – but belittles it.

Collusion between politicians and the media might help to meet their objectives, but it goes nowhere towards meeting the transparency needs of the voting public.

Dragon’s Diary: Too much of a good thing?

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I’ve read a lot of posts over the past couple of weeks in which friends have reflected on 2014. For most of them it has been a pretty shitty year.

I feel somewhat guilty and very humble because the year has been good to me, particularly professionally.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in recent years it’s to be thankful for the good things in life.

And so I’d like to acknowledge 2014 as a good year, and recognise the people who made it that way. This is me, giving thanks for 2014…

Continue reading “Dragon’s Diary: Too much of a good thing?”