The votes are in and the Liberal leadership spill has been averted. Tony Abbott remains the Prime Minister after a party room meeting at 9am confirmed his leadership. The Liberal Party voted 61-39 against a spill of the Leader and Deputy Leader Positions. Just how far into this story are we? Is it a novella or a saga which will continue to play out before our already astonished eyes? Australian politics since 2007 has certainly been an epic tale and will likely continue to be a volatile environment for all of the players, from the voters to the politicians.
The first point to make is both an obvious and not so obvious conclusion. On the face of it the vote of the Liberal Party caucus was an emphatic one. More than half of the MP’s gathered voted at the very least to give the Prime Minister more time.
On the other hand, 39 members of his parliamentary team – over 40% of them and likely multiple ministers – delivered a vote of no confidence in his leadership. And it is a point made by many observers that this is an untenable position. Former Prime Minister Bob Hawke did not save his leadership from a very similar vote to that which the Liberal Party delivered today. And Julia Gillard did not recover from a much better position than the one furnished to Tony Abbott by Liberal MP’s.
It can easily be argued that the Prime Minister would not be able to recover politically if he received as little as 25 or more votes in today’s ballot. The public have largely switched off and that is largely because of Tony Abbott, but also Joe Hockey. It is not the fault of any backroom figures and any move to shift the blame to them is just ridiculous. Politicians make the final decisions and while it is the job of staffers to persuade against particular directions, it is not their fault if good advice is not heeded.
There can be little doubt that Tony Abbott’s leadership will continue to further implode. Prime Minister Abbott has had months to stop making mistakes, without the threat of a leadership spill and has not done so. In recent times he has even appeared to be making fun of his penchant for ‘captain’s calls’. Tony Abbott should be solemnly proving by his actions, at every opportunity, that he is no longer going to make these unilateral decisions. He has not.
The PM can continue to talk about getting himself and the party out of this invidious position, but it will likely be to no avail.
If there was any small skerrick of a chance of Tony saving himself and the Coalition, then the government would have to change or dump some of the policies. The overall narrative simply has to remain, and the public will accept that. Voters accepted the debt had to go under John Howard and Peter Costello – for 12 years. At the very least, the co-payment idea and knights and dames must no longer be countenanced, even at arm’s length or in consultation with others. Recent history shows any changes will be cosmetic.
The current Treasurer’s commission has to be terminated too, regardless of whether Tony Abbott wants to stay in the job or not. Joe Hockey has gone from a pretty good Shadow Treasurer to a hopeless and abrasive embarrassment in the Treasury portfolio. Mr Hockey lacks the temperament to be able to deal with difficult negotiations. He has been far too stubborn. The trouble here is that the best candidate for the job is also the ideal replacement to Prime Minister Tony Abbott – Malcolm Turnbull.
The Treasury portfolio does deliver a difficulty in terms of the leadership equation. If there is no change of the leadership of the Coalition and at the same time, the Treasury portfolio, within a month, any new economic team after that would have less than two months to prepare the budget.
If the Liberal Party were to give Tony Abbott a further 6 months as leader and keep the Treasurer, as has been reported, then problems would arise on that front too. An incoming leadership team and their likely new bean counter would have to sell or quickly dump elements of a budget delivered by a politically compromised team.
Obviously the situation is absolutely dire. The Coalition will be in an even worse position if a likely transition to a new leader is not handled well. Another spill would not look great, even thought it would almost certainly deliver a new Liberal leader. The Liberal Party will need to be mature and know that the best way forward, whether it be almost immediately or after 6 months, is an orderly transition. Tony Abbott will have to swallow his pride and resign when it gets to that point.
This is not an easy situation to be in. But it is a situation cultivated by less than a handful of people and allowed to continue by dozens more. The actions of a few in that handful of people could determine how the next 18 months plays out.