Desperate Abbott struggles to maintain control

Desperate Abbott struggles to maintain control

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.

Is a cabinet reshuffle worth the instability?

Is a cabinet reshuffle worth the instability?

Coalition MPs have woken this morning to an opinion poll that suggests voters are pretty unimpressed with the Government’s untidiness over the past week.

Today’s monthly Ipsos Poll is the first to be published since Treasurer Joe Hockey dug himself into a Sydney mortgage-sized hole over housing affordability, and the Prime Minister and his Immigration Minister couldn’t get their answers straight on whether people smugglers were paid hard cash by Australia to turn their boats back to Indonesia.

Iposos has recorded a 3 per cent drop in the Coalition’s primary vote (to 40 per cent) since last month, and an increase in Labor’s vote of 2 per cent (to 37 per cent), which after the allocation of preferences gives a two-party preferred result of 53:47 in Labor’s favour. Ipsos’s post-budget poll found the major parties to be at 50:50, and this latest poll brings it into line with the other published pollsters Roy Morgan(53:47), Newspoll (52:48), and Essential (52:48).

Whether or not these other polls will show a similar deterioration in the Government’s position when they are revealed in coming days, it’s fair to say voters don’t like it when ministers look incompetent. And while Treasurer Hockey might have kept it together for the initial salesmanship of this year’s budget, he’s been all over the place since then.

Even setting aside the mishandling of changes to paid parental leave by suggesting new mothers were rorters and frauds, Hockey has reverted to the Sloppy Joe of old, making up tax policy on the runcasting doubt on the PM’s iron-clad commitment not to tamper with superannuation, and opening up a debate on housing affordability that the Government really could have done without.

According to today’s Ipsos poll, 69 per cent of voters living in capital cities say homes in their area are unaffordable for first-time buyers. This amount increases to 80 per cent for Sydney-based respondents.

While the Treasurer hasn’t yet resorted to complaining about his lot, as he did last year when things got tough, his position is again being eyed by the more ambitious and impatient among his parliamentary colleagues.

Talk has already emerged about a possible ministerial reshuffle prior to next year’s federal election. However, just like the last time such talk surfaced in the media, this is more likely the work of ambitious MPs pressuring for change and jostling for positions than the PM flagging his intentions.

The fate of wholly-unimpressive Attorney-General, George Brandis, has been placed in the media’s sights by at least one anonymous backgrounder, while the extended absence of Government Senate Leader Eric Abetz to deal with a family matter has prompted others to suggest Finance Minister Mathias Cormann should be placed in the leadership role.

According to one commentator, “Abbott had always planned a big reshuffle in the second half of 2015, to take a fresh team into the 2016 election.” But that statement is more likely the wishful thinking of an over-looked backbencher than a reflection of Abbott’s current thinking, particularly considering the PM essentially brought forward the traditional pre-election ministry reshuffle to the end of last year.

Whatever the Prime Minister ultimately does about his ministry, the move will be inextricably linked with the state of his leadership within the Liberal Party. The hardliners within the party are reasserting their dominance, having seen off the leadership hopeful Malcolm Turnbull at the failed party room spill in February, and split the Turnbull-Bishop dream-team vote by cultivating the Foreign Minister’s own leadership aspirations.

Meantime, the hard-right’s heir apparent, Scott Morrison, has essentially swung in behind Abbott to bolster the PM’s position on two of the right’s emblematic issues: national security and same-sex marriage. The former Immigration Minister publicly backed the national security proposal, which divided Cabinet but has strong backbench and community support, to strip Australian citizenship from sole nationals who were found to be terrorists. As a possible alternative, Morrison also proposed suspending their residence rights rather than cancelling sole nationals’ citizenship altogether.

In doing so Morrison has clearly set himself apart from the Turnbull-Bishop “legal eagles” on the matter, and aligned himself with the majority of the backbench and the populace. He has also differentiated himself from Turnbull on gay marriage, an issue the hardliners are reportedly claiming could destroy Abbott’s leadership if he allows a free vote. Interestingly, Bishop has not yet declared her hand on the matter, although she has said in the past she’d consult her electorate if Liberal MPs were given a free vote on legislation to legalise gay marriage.

It’s hard to see how the pragmatists in the Liberal right would tear down a prime minister on an issue that has such strong support in the community, even if there are claims the Coalition could lose Senate seatsif it stops resisting the change.

Focus group research conducted last month showed that voters take a dim view of political instability. Given the choice between Turnbull, Bishop or Abbott, “Abbott is a long way last,” according to the market researcher who conducted the focus groups, Tony Mitchelmore. But if asked whether they wanted Turnbull, Bishop or stability, then “stability wins”.

This antipathy for government sloppiness and instability will be driven home as the televising of The Killing Season reminds voters that this was what they most despised about the Rudd-Gillard years.

Today’s opinion poll results are sure to cause anxiety in Government ranks, and throw fuel on the smouldering ambitions of ministerial and leadership aspirants.

But if there is anything to be learned from the poll dip, to the extent that there is one outside the margin of error, it is that voters want stable government. Any thought of throwing out an accident-prone Treasurer, who has privately threatened to cause havoc if demoted, must be carefully weighed against the public perceiving the Government as not being able to keep its house in order.