Tuesday, February 10, 2015


I can examine my heart and say I wish Tony Abbott no harm.

But I don't think that he'll be prime minister come July.

There's no recovery once you're on the ropes

The ineluctable drumbeat of history tells us once authority is lost it can never be recovered.

I laid out the prognosis in this piece for the Canberra Times . . .


It wasn’t a huge hurdle – a vote not to have a vote. This time Tony Abbott’s passed, although you wouldn't want to put money on him being in the job at the end of the year. Yesterday's devastating vote didn't hinge on either personality, policy nor procedure, however Abbott will have to change all three if he wants to hang on. And if you want to know how all this will turn out, just consider that more than a third of his party don't want to join the PM on this particular mystery tour. The point is rather that no previous incumbent of this office has ever been forced to face such a test so soon after winning election.

Recovering from such a massive vote of no confidence amongst your colleagues is a Sisyphean task. Unlike John Gorton and Kevin Rudd, Abbott’s survived his first challenge, but this is not over.  Since the war, no PM who’s faced a challenge has ever led their party to the next election. Abbott went into yesterday’s spill as the only candidate – and yet even with that advantage he couldn't win decisively. Next time he’ll face an opponent and it won't be so simple.

Yesterday was reminiscent of the moment when Julia Gillard called on her party for a vote of confidence. She received that endorsement, however it didn't stop the party demolishing her later, as the election approached. It also took a couple of challenges before Bob Hawke was removed. The only PM’s in the past 50 years who haven’t been replaced (Gough Whitlam, Malcolm Fraser, Paul Keating and John Howard) have all, eventually, let their parties to political disaster. It appears Abbott isn’t the one who will break the cycle. 

As he struggled to hang on Abbott engaged in creativity. He created a myth that the PM is somehow ‘elected by the people,' a somewhat surprising move for a defender of the Westminster parliamentary system. Perhaps he’d forgotten how strongly he supported the current constitution. Over the past week, however, Abbott has been enthusiastically rewriting both history and constitutional law, desperately striving for any advantage. He brought the meeting forward by 24 hours to deny his opponents the chance to make a case for change. He claimed cabinet solidarity required everyone to vote against a challenge or resign. He even seemingly forgot that he’d been a moving force in the challenge that destroyed Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership. That was, he insisted, in opposition and therefore it didn't count. He struggled desperately, clinging to anything and everything that would give his fading cause succour. 

Now he's won and he's promised to change; to listen; to consult. So can he turn things round? 

Experience suggests not. That vital ingredient of political success – magic – has already departed from this government. It sped away barely two months after the government had been elected, when Labor vaulted to a lead in the polls that it's never, subsequently, lost. That was Abbott’s fault . He's never resonated with ordinary Australians. He had nothing to fall back on. There was no reservoir of trust in the electorate that he could turn to after his policies fell apart. And that's why, despite the vote, it's difficult to see that enough could change in the next couple of months to prevent this insurgency from challenging again.

At his colleagues are willing to give him a chance. South Australian Senator Sean Edwards, for example, has been asking for his state’s shipyards to simply get an opportunity to tender for the new submarine contract. That's a very important point to understand. Edwards wasn't looking for any sort of special deal, just a fair chance of winning the work. Early last week he spoke to Abbott, but still he didn't see any action. Finally, on Saturday, he was quoted in the papers again. He reiterated he only desired a fair playing field. He just didn't want the contracts to go automatically to Japan because of an arbitrary decision that excluded Australian business (and his state) from the bidding process.

This time Abbott heard what was being said. He picked up the phone and spoke to Edwards again. As a result, at 9 AM the Senator’s vote was one of the 61 that re-confirmed Abbott as PM. Two hours later, at 11, Edwards was nothing out the detail of the submarine contract with Defence Minister Kevin Andrews. That's responsive.

The optimists can point to this as an example that change is possible. The government isn't finished. But a lumbering problem remains: the budget. SBS TV was the first to reveal the linkage between the timing of this challenge and the reason backbenchers are so concerned about the government's prospects. It's not simply the polls; they're worried about policy. They're not just worried that the current budget hasn't been passed; they're terrified because the same team is already hammering away at what promises to be another disaster.

This explains the timing of the challenge. The hard-heads are desperate to turn the government’s fortunes round. They don't believe that will happen unless Abbott understands the urgent need to change the people who surround him.

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