Having won the face-off with Tony Abbott, the Prime Minister-designate Malcolm Turnbull now has two more pressing tests to deal with.
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.
The Political Weekly: A flash of anger and a terrible joke headline our weekly review of Australian politics.
Pretty much everything said and done in the Parliament over the next fortnight will be done with an eye to how it plays out in the Canning by-election.
It’s an understandable preoccupation, given the poll is being depicted as the ultimate test of Tony Abbott’s leadership. And if the voters of Canning remain as unimpressed with the PM and his Government as the rest of the nation appears to be, Abbott is headed for turbulent times.
The PM won’t go down without a fight, quite literally, and will ask Cabinet this week to sign off on Australia joining the US air strikes against Islamic State in Syria.
This chest-beating exercise would normally be a vote-winner for the Government, but it has become complicated by the response of the Australian community to the plight of the Syrian people fleeing the death and destruction that wracks their nation; the very same devastation to which Australian fighter jets will soon contribute.
Even with the emergence of the heart-rending imagery of the Syrians’ flight, the PM might have been tempted to stall any decision to accept more refugees from the region until after the Canning poll, given that Australians have recently shown more antipathy than empathy to asylum seekers.
But Abbott was left with little choice once Australia’s most popular politician, NSW Liberal Premier Mike Baird, and other Liberals made it clear that Australia needed to do more. So the PM has done some fancy footwork, accepting the need for Australia to take in more asylum seekers from Syria, but emphasising this will not increase the overall number of refugees resettled in Australia.
In case the voters of Canning missed the nuance of this commitment, which is to avoid offending voters who oppose any increase in Australia’s refugee intake, the Western Australian newspaper made it clear, stating:
Tony Abbott is unwilling to increase Australia’s overall refugee intake beyond an already planned rise, instead of just making more places available for Syrians at the expense of other nationalities under the existing 13,750 cap.
Abbott will be hoping this commitment, along with sending Immigration Minister Peter Dutton to the United Nations to offer “assistance”, will neutralise (or at least quieten) voters’ humanitarian concerns about Syria so that they can focus instead on the terrorism-busting benefits of blasting the nation to smithereens.
This is because the war on terror is pretty much the only thing left going for the Abbott Government as it prosecutes its case in Canning. The Coalition’s only other natural strength, a reputation for superior economic management, has taken a beating in the West following the economic downturn that occurred there under the state Liberal Government’s watch.
And while much of Western Australia has an unemployment rate less than the national average, the Mandurah region in Canning has almost double the national unemployment rate at 10.8 per cent. This has created the unusual situation where federal Labor is campaigning in the by-election on an issue that has traditionally been the Coalition’s strength, namely jobs.
Along with the union movement, to which Labor Leader Bill Shorten owes a few favours, the Opposition is using foreign worker permits under the yet-to-be-ratified free trade agreement with China to whip up voter anxiety about job availability and further undercut the Abbott Government’s standing with voters.
Some of Shorten’s colleagues are disconcerted, however, by the Opposition Leader’s apparent willingness to trash an important trade deal for political expediency.
Labor-aligned columnist Troy Bramston writes in The Australian today that former Labor PM Bob Hawke said opposing ChAFTA was “against Australia’s best interests”, and that these sentiments had been echoed by most of the Labor state premiers. Bramston also lists other Labor supporters of the trade deal, which include Bob Carr, John Brumby, Simon Crean, Martin Ferguson, Luke Foley and Peter Beattie.
Nevertheless, it is unlikely Shorten will back down from this xenophobia-tinged campaign until the Canning poll is decided.
His colleagues may feel, as Bramston suggests, that this approach puts Labor “at risk of trashing its legacy on free trade and forging the modern Australia-China relationship” but Shorten’s priority is clearly to deliver support for the unions who delivered for him at national conference, and to give Abbott a mighty scare in Canning.
And with the parliamentary vote to ratify CHAFTA not expected until after the by-election, there is scope for the Labor Leader to come back to the fold if he so chooses.
Clearly, the Prime Minister has more to lose from the Canning outcome than the Opposition Leader, but both men have stooped to either whipping up foreigner-anxiety or appeasing xenophobia in order to maximise their party’s vote.
Western Australian voters will have been observing this at close range for the past fortnight, and now it is our turn to see the unedifying spectacle writ large on the national stage. Regrettably only those who live in Canning have the chance to do something about this sorry state of political affairs. The rest of us must wait until next year’s election.
The Political Weekly: Voters are more likely to believe a politician if they say something negative about their opponent than if they say something positive about themselves.
Labor has been accused of ‘running dead’ in the Canning by-election, but there’s a second intriguing shadow campaign being waged as well.
Of the many words that could describe Tony Abbott and his Government, “bumbling”, “incoherent” and “embattled” readily spring to mind. Yet in recent days, the most apt description of all would have to be “desperate”.
Like a cat struggling to avoid a bath, Tony Abbott has been scrabbling for purchase; desperately latching on to anything within reach in the hope of escaping his dire situation.
Abbott knows he’s in for a beating at the Canning by-election in a few weeks. Voters are likely to accept Labor’s invitation to send the PM a message, knowing there’s no associated risk of throwing out the Government altogether.
With the vote said to be close at the commencement of the by-election campaign, and the Liberal candidate placed sixth on the ballot paper, there’s a chance Labor may even win the seat. But whatever the magnitude of the final swing against the Government – and there will be one – Abbott’s opponents will ensure the PM is held responsible for the outcome.
Abbott could almost be forgiven at this point for wondering what on earth he has to do to win favour with Australian voters. He repudiated the unpopular 2014 federal budget and followed it up with an expensive do-no-harm budget in 2015. He stopped the boats (arriving), and demonised asylum seekers enough to get majority community support for offshore detention.
And then there’s the succession of flag-based announcements that he made to heighten voter awareness of the terrorist threat the Government is apparently protecting them from.
And yet voters have not responded according to plan, consistently indicating to opinion pollsters that they remain steadfastly ungrateful for the PM’s beneficence.
Similarly, Government parliamentarians are not feeling particularly grateful, especially those defending marginal seats. Coalition MPs are becoming increasingly anxious about the ineffectiveness of the “budget, boats and terrorism” strategy. And since the non-leadership spill in February, the Prime Minister has in turn become increasingly anxious about their anxiety.
The Canning by-election threatens to bring this simmering restiveness to a boil.
Abbott is said to have once told country independent MP Tony Windsor that he’d do anything to become PM, other than sell his arse. Yet now that he’s Prime Minister, it appears Abbott will do anything to save his arse.
That apparently includes bombing Syria, because there’s nothing like a bit of military action to warm the hearts of voters. The emergence of news that the PM’s office actually asked Washington to ask us to join the air raids, and that Australia’s involvement would add little to the exercise, confirms this latest sortie in Abbott’s war on terrorism is little more than a desperate grab for patriotic votes.
The involvement of Border Force officers in last week’s aborted Operation Fortitude could easily be seen in the same vein, despite the PM’s protestations of “nope, nope, nope” when asked if he knew about the exercise, and Minister Dutton’s denial that he or his office had sighted the offending media release.
If the initiative had proceeded, the working and middle class voters of Canning may well have approved of visa-rorters being summarily dealt with by jackbooted customs officers.
Despite beating the drums of war in the air over Syria, the PM is also waving cash under the noses of voters just in case the flags don’t work. Or at least the Treasurer is, with Joe Hockey raising the prospect of tax cuts, apparently coincidentally with the by-election.
Troublesome details, such as how the tax cuts will be funded, will not be known before the Canning poll, which renders Hockey’s proposal another likely act of last resort, simply aimed at winning over voters.
Regrettably for Hockey, once the Canning outcome is known and Government MPs call for retribution, it appears the PM is prepared to put even the Treasurer’s job on the line to save his own.
In a last ditch attempt to head off any leadership manoeuvring by Malcolm Turnbull or Julie Bishop in the lead up to the Canning decision, the PM’s office leaked a suggestion to the media that the ministry could be reshuffled at the end of the year. This tactic was aimed at dousing talk of another spill, hopefully due to ambitious MPs assuming they had a better chance of promotion under Abbott than his competitors.
According to media reports, the PM is considering giving the Treasury portfolio to Scott Morrison, who is increasingly seen as the heir apparent by the dominant conservative faction in the Liberal Party. The idea of dumping Hockey for Morrison was leaked to the media on Friday, and the news was followed by a hatchet job on the Treasurer on Sunday in the PM’s favourite tabloid.
If Morrison were to accept the role, he would essentially be siding with Abbott and no longer available to team up with Turnbull or Bishop in any leadership contest. Conservative Liberals would stick with Abbott and Morrison, ensuring that neither Turnbull nor Bishop had enough votes to prevail.
To gauge how such a change would go down with voters, the prospect of Hockey being dumped for Morrison has been leaked again to the media today, this time with a suggestion that a double dissolution election could be held in March. This move is the political equivalent of Abbott putting all his money on black; it’s a high stakes gamble by a luckless man who has everything to lose.
If he can survive the aftermath of the Canning by-election, the PM has just over a year until he faces the voters again. Even though the latest date on which the federal election can be held is January 14, 2017, the deadline is mid-December in a practical sense because elections are never held during the summer holidays.
Poorly polling governments such as this one have been known to turn their fates around in the final 12 months of an electoral term. But looking at the PM’s track record to date, it is difficult to say whether he has the political smarts or capacity to do so.
The increasingly desperate ploys being used by Abbott only reinforce that perception. The more he clutches desperately at ways to bring voters back to the Government, the more Abbott appears unfit to lead it.
The Political Weekly: our politicians gave voters whiplash as breathtaking displays of political acrobatics and pratfalls competed for our attention.
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This week, the Prime Minister will visit a number of remote Indigenous communities in northern Australia. According to media reports, the PM’s entourage will include cabinet and junior ministers as well as senior departmental officials.
No doubt a small battalion of support staff will be there as well, if only to marshal the journalists brought along to document the PM’s annual outreach campaign.
If this year’s week in the north is anything like the last one, it will be hard to identify what benefit, if any, this travelling road show brings to the local communities that feature as backdrops for prime ministerial pic-facs.
As Fairfax journalist Michael Gordon wrote last week, there has been little progress on Indigenous issues since the PM last went bush in 2014. Instead, Indigenous Australia has experienced:
…budget cuts, a growing shift away from Indigenous to mainstream organisations for service delivery, a Closing the Gap report card showing no progress in some areas and regression in others, and some ill-chosen remarks about “lifestyle choices” that were seen as provocative and utterly ill-informed.
There is little reason to doubt the PM’s good intentions when it comes to improving the lives of Indigenous Australians; he has been an advocate for change since visiting remote Indigenous communities as health minister during the Howard years.
Abbott’s visit to the grave of Eddie Mabo this week also suggests he is determined to be more than just another white fella PM who passes through before the wet season commences.
Since the 2013 federal election, the PM and his Government have squandered a handsome electoral lead in the state, which no doubt contributed to the decision by WA MPs Luke Simpkins and, ironically, the former member for Canning, Don Randall to call the leadership spill vote against Abbott in February.
And now, at the commencement of the by-election campaign following Randall’s death, the new Liberal candidate for Canning faces a 10 per cent swing against him (or more accurately his party). If this threatened backlash persists until polling day, it could potentially wipe out Randall’s previously strong margin of 11.8 per cent. And if the Greens continue to grow their vote in the west, their preferences could even push Labor over the line, making life for PM Abbott considerably more difficult.
This makes Abbott’s decision to go north this week even more curious.
Everything the Government does in a communication sense over the next four weeks should be targeted at the voters of Canning. This is because the convergence of mainstream media paired with the adoption of social media ensures everything said and done on the east coast is transmitted to the west coast in real time.
So even if the PM thought it wise to physically stay distant from the Canning campaign (other than to appear at the launch), his advocacy of Indigenous issues this week simply muddies the campaign narrative.
Like most Australians, the voters of Canning are more interested in jobs than they are about constitutional recognition. A recent poll by the Australian National University found that 82 per cent of Australians supported removing clauses from the constitution that “discriminate on the basis of race”.
But when asked to nominate the two most important problems facing Australia today, only 1 per cent of respondents nominated Indigenous affairs. The top three issues were the economy/jobs, immigration and terrorism.
The Canning by-election is all about jobs, and Labor has wasted no time in staking out the “jobs” territory. This is somewhat ironic given “jobs and growth” is meant to be the Prime Minister’s latest mantra; at least it is according to twice-leaked Coalition talking points last week.
And it certainly seems to be the case given the numerous press conferences (read: picture opportunities) held by Abbott in past days, during which he apparently focused on jobs while variously climbing a fence, looking determinedly at cattle, surveying a shipyard, posing with cafe staff wearing pink uniforms, and looking at machinery while wearing a hard hat.
So if “jobs and growth” is the Coalition’s overarching theme at the moment, and if “jobs and growth” are so important in Canning, it is simply poor communication strategy for the Prime Minister to be on the opposite side of the country talking about Indigenous health, education and constitutional recognition.
Yes, it is important for Abbott to fulfil his commitment as the “Prime Minister for Indigenous Australians”. But given his need to do well in Canning – not to mention improve the Government’s poll standing more broadly – Abbott’s boys’ own adventure in Cape York seems like self-indulgence at a time when discipline in communication is particularly needed.