If a prime minister has to resort to tricky tactical manoeuvres and look-over-there assertions to cling to power, then his time is probably up, sooner or later.
“The only question for our party is do we want to reduce ourselves to the level of the Labor party in dragging down a first-term prime minister?” Tony Abbott said early Sunday in a statement, which he subsequently read out before television cameras without taking any questions.
But quite evidently that is not the only question for the Liberal party. Repeating Labor’s disunity is certainly a factor, but the Liberals have already gone so far down that road they can’t possibly turn back and brush off all their old lines about “ending chaos and confusion”. Even if Abbott manages to survive a spill motion the whole country now knows a good section of his own backbench does not have confidence in him.
And if he doesn’t survive voters may not judge the Coalition as harshly as they judged Labor, because the problems with this government have been out in the open. As was the case under Kevin Rudd’s Labor, the Liberal party is railing against prime ministerial command and control, but unlike Labor the public is also railing against the Coalition’s policy decisions and might therefore be more understanding about a change.
And there are other obvious questions too. Like “what will the prime minister do if he stays?” The budget is deteriorating and the deficit is getting bigger, but the prime minister says the “hard work” is done. “We seem to be saying the house is still burning, but it’s OK because it might be burning a bit slower in a while,” one despairing Coalition figure said Sunday.
Big parts of the last budget still languish, rejected by the public and the Senate, but he’s sticking with them. Finance minister Mathias Cormann insisted on Sunday that no minister had ever suggested to him that last year’s budget was unfair. If true, that puts the cabinet about a million miles out of step with views in the electorate.
Reserve Bank governor Glenn Stevens and new treasury secretary John Fraser told cabinet last week business confidence and growth would benefit from a successful and clear medium-term economic plan.
Another question for the Liberal party is: “What will be gained by waiting to put this question to the test?” Many are worried that could mean the NSW state election becomes a referendum of the federal Coalition’s performance and that the budget process falls hostage to a desperate prime minister second-guessing the politics and the polls.
And another question is what would an alternative candidate do differently or better – also impossible to answer in a climate where none has formally declared. Turnbull and Julie Bishop have been speaking in code – for example by insisting the leadership is the gift of the party – contradicting Abbott’s claim that only the electorate should be able to vote him down. Turnbull inched close to a declaration Sunday morning. Bishop left all her options open. While the leadership fight is conducted as a kabuki play, it is pretty hard for MPs and senators to properly assess their options.
But in the end many are distilling the situation down to very different questions from the one posed by Tony Abbott this morning.
If a prime minister retains power by bringing forward a vote on what is effectively a no-confidence motion against him, without a proper party room debate before that vote is taken, and with the clear threat that any ministers who are known to vote for the spill would have to lose their jobs, if he keeps his job after repeating his same old slogans when asked about the future, should anyone have confidence that anything has changed – whether in comparison to this government or the last one?
Lenore Taylor, political editor