After the leadership spill a difficult task lies ahead for Tony Abbott

| February 13, 2015

Prime Minister Tony Abbott narrowly avoided a leadership spill on Monday. Associate professor in political science Dominic O’Sullivan analyses the main political problems the Prime Minister is facing now.

Tony Abbott’s detractors, in the Liberal party room, are within a handful of votes of ending his prime ministership. The Prime Minister is a single ‘captain’s pick’ from a successful spill motion, which is widely expected to occur sometime before the next election in 2016.

Almost immediately after Monday’s 61-39 party room vote, signs had emerged that the task of restoring confidence in his leadership is simply beyond a Prime Minister whose leadership is developing strikingly similar parallels with that of his predecessor, Julia Gillard.

Abbott’s pre-election promises not to cut health or education expenditure follow Gillard’s failure to keep faith with a pre-election ‘no carbon tax’ commitment. Abbott’s knighthood for the Duke of Edinburgh follows Gillard posing in a women’s magazine knitting a national gift for the infant Prince George. Royal sycophantry may yet transcend harmless ridicule as it becomes a metaphor for the inegalitarianism that so offends popular opinion.

Indeed, the tensions that have emerged in the last few days between the Prime Minister and Treasurer, who remained loyal to Abbott on Monday, are tensions over whether or not the government should attempt to appease popular conceptions of fairness. Should the burden of a balanced budget retain disproportionate impact on middle and low income earners, the sick and unemployed, or should it be more widely shared.

The Treasurer remains deeply committed to an uneven distribution. Measures such as removing the ‘schoolkids bonus’, reducing eligibility thresholds for family tax benefits, the Medicare levy and higher education reforms disproportionately impact on Menzies’ ‘forgotten people’ and Howard’s ‘battlers’, whose electoral importance Abbott may have come to accept with his promise, this week, of more ‘family friendly’ policy measures. Abbott’s deeply unpopular paid parental leave scheme is to be set aside for a wider distribution of funds to assist working families.

The political problem, here, for the Prime Minister is that his new found interest in appealing to people’s respect for a ‘fair go’ risks alienating a supporter whose loyalty he cannot afford to lose – a supporter whose commitment to a balanced budget stops short of removing $21 billion in superannuation related tax concessions accruing to the better off, but does accept removing government savings incentives from low income earners. Whatever the Treasurer’s economic arguments, the offence to people’s sense of fairness is politically significant and, perhaps, undermines the sense of urgency he attaches to balancing the budget.

The Budget remains Tony Abbott’s principal political problem. It won’t balance without Senate acceptance of cost cutting measures or alternative revenue increasing measures, such as changing the tax treatment of superannuation. While balancing the budget is a promise, pursued with a legitimate mandate, the means by which it is pursued is not accepted, and the Liberal party faces a choice between the ideologically pure pursuit of unpopular policy measures or more pragmatic fiscally generous policies to satisfy the ‘fair go’, but never achieve the balance that the government seeks.

Constructing a clear and coherent message around such inconsistencies is all but impossible, and divisions over which path to take make the Prime Minister’s task very difficult and pressure to vacate the office is likely to intensify.

The Prime Minister’s party room opponents have made his Chief of Staff, Peta Credlin, a political problem. Abbott is steadfastly loyal to one widely seen by others as having a profoundly destructive influence on the administration of government. His loyalty to Credlin has become a measure of the distance that has developed between the Prime Minister and the backbench who voted so convincingly against him in Monday’s spill motion. Removing Credlin may not save Abbott’s Prime Ministership, but retaining her in his office will, rightly or wrongly, hasten his departure.

Monday’s vote was a demonstration of instability and the margin’s relative closeness of the level of division within the party room. Divisions of that magnitude don’t heal easily, and nothing more than the closeness of an election focuses the mind of a government member on the Leader as the chief salesman.

So, as was Gillard’s experience, division causes poor polling, poor polling causes anxiety, which entrenches disunity, causes further panic, further poor polling, and in the case of the previous government’s recalling of Kevin Rudd, desperation.

The question now is whether Malcolm Turnbull will be called upon with enough time to make an impact sufficient to make the Coalition competitive in 2016.