As Malcolm Turnbull falters, a Tony Abbott return looms as a possibility
When Robert Menzies lost power in 1941 after having headed an ineffective federal government for just two years, no one gave him a chance of again being prime minister. Yet in 1949 Menzies was not only re-elected, but remained in power for 18 years , a record term.
Bearing this in mind, what are the odds of a comeback by Tony Abbott?
If Liberal MPs weren’t loyal to a leader who won eight seats from Labor at his first election and a further 17 seats at his second, they’re quite capable of turfing a leader who lost 14 seats to Labor at his only election so far.
After just scraping back into government, courtesy of a separate National Party campaign that was much stronger than their own and Labor’s gratuitous attack on volunteer firefighters in Victoria, Liberal MPs are in no mood for more turmoil.
Yet as federal parliament returned, and Labor’s intransigence on all the key policy issues became clear, it is dawning on Liberal MPs that they haven’t so much won government as earned three years of legislative and parliamentary frustration. It will be almost impossible to obtain a Senate majority for government reforms. And in the House of Representatives, after the appointment of a speaker, Malcolm Turnbull’s government lacks an absolute majority, which means that even there it is vulnerable to Labor’s guerrilla tactics.
Indeed on Thursday the Turnbull-led coalition was humiliated by losing a series of votes on the floor of the lower house.
Stopping his numerically challenged government from continuing to look impotent seems unlikely from a PM who was so outgunned and so severely embarrassed by the federal Opposition.
And outside parliament Turnbull is far from mastering the art of dialogue with the Australian people. He always seems more comfortable with other people like himself , prosperous, fashionable and politically correct , than with the outer-metropolitan and regional voters who swing elections.
Turnbull is not yet being consistently undermined as Tony Abbott was. The cabinet is leaking but, so far, the leaks don’t seem orchestrated towards a particular challenger. That could change, especially if Foreign Minister Julie Bishop or Treasurer Scott Morrison conclude that the government is doomed or that the Prime Minister is trying to humiliate them.
It’s rare that a government’s fate should seem sealed less than three months after an election but, as any serious legislative programme looks like mission impossible, voters could easily conclude that the only way to improve the government is to change it.
While Bishop may think she could be prime minister, a deputy who’s lost three leaders is hardly someone party members, or the public, would trust. Although Morrison may believe that he’s the anointed one, his performance is starting to make Joe Hockey look good. Christian Porter, and especially Josh Frydenberg, have leadership potential but neither are likely to be ready to head the party this term.
Turnbull obviously thinks Abbott is still a threat , why else would he have excluded the most experienced and capable MP from the cabinet?
One or two ill-judged observations aside, Abbott has tried to be a team player since last year’s coup. He’s defended the government’s record, had some interesting things to say about world affairs and campaigned for Liberal Party reform in the rotten borough of NSW. He’s accepted that he shouldn’t have given up so easily on improving section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, admitted that knighting Prince Philip was a brain snap, conceded that he held onto his paid parental leave scheme for too long, and regretted annoying colleagues by cracking down on long-tolerated perks. Yet his biggest political mistake, the 2014 budget, was also a sign of the political courage his successor lacks.
Abbott’s still doing his surf patrol, serving with the local volunteer fire brigade, riding his annual pollie pedal for charity and, next week, spending his few days every year in remote indigenous Australia. Indeed even Pauline Hanson seems to have forgiven him for putting her in jail!
This week, for the first time, Malcolm Turnbull’s approval ratings dropped below Bill Shorten’s. Although the party polling largely held up, in the next few months Turnbull could easily face the kind of consistent poll deficit used to justify his coup against Abbott.
No-one likes to change leaders but no MP wants to lose an election either. Three things MPs know about Abbott is that he wouldn’t run an inert campaign, he wouldn’t hesitate to attack Labor and he would frame the political choice in very stark terms. So don’t be surprised if in coming months he starts to look more like a renewed leader than a political has-been.
Emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University, Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 39 books, including his memoir ‘ My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey.’
The Canberra Times, September 3, 2016