Australia: Political Landscape Volatile as Abbott Fights to Retain Leadership

February 7, 2015 Updated: February 7, 2015

SYDNEY—After repeated gaffes and declining popularity, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott is facing open rebellion within conservative ranks and talk of leadership challenge is rife.

Former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett says both public and party support has moved away from Mr Abbott and described the Prime Minister’s position as “terminal”.

Tony Abbott was “a man of very good values” Mr Kennett said but the problems were “self-inflicted” and must be “resolved as quickly as possible”.

“We are 12 weeks away from the 2015 budget and we haven’t passed the 2014 budget,” he told ABC radio on Feb 4.

Dr Ian Cook, lecturer in politics at Murdoch University in Western Australia is shocked that the Abbott Government has come to this point.

“It’s bizarre to be thinking about them this vulnerable,” he said in a phone interview. “I am shocked.”

John Howard’s party, it was a relevant practical party and they have just ended up here.
— Dr Ian Cook
“John Howard’s party, it was a relevant practical party and they have just ended up here,” he said.

Dr Cook said the shock loss by Queensland’s conservatives, the Liberal National Party (LNP) in a seemingly unlosable election last weekend, gives some indication of Mr Abbott’s vulnerability

With votes still to be counted, the LNP under the leadership of former Brisbane mayor Campbell Newman, is predicted to win 42 seats and Labor 44, leaving Labor likely to govern with support from independents.

Just under three years ago the Queensland  LNP was riding high, their gain of 78 of the 89 seats was the largest majority government Queensland has ever recorded. In a huge turn-around, this year Mr Newman made history by becoming the first standing Queensland Premier in a 100 years to lose his own seat. Queensland is the third state within a year to reject a Liberal government.

The results have sent shock waves through conservative corridors in Canberra.

“The capacity of the electorate to turf out a first term government, even one that had such a huge majority, has clearly put the Federal Government on notice” said Professor Clive Bean, political scientist at Queensland University of Technology, in a phone interview.

Mr Newman was perceived by the community as arrogant, said Prof Bean, while the threat of state asset sales and his attack on respected sectors of the community like the judiciary and the medical profession did not sit well with voters. He never expected, however, that the Newman Government would lose.

“I didn’t think Campbell Newman would be defeated, I thought they would be returned with a small but workable majority,” he said.

Prof Bean’s surprise was shared around the country, including by candidates themselves.

“I am absolutely stunned,” Queensland MP Di Farmer told the ABC after reclaiming her seat of Bulimba. “I had no idea that people really so desperately wanted to send a message to them that this is how they were feeling.”

Leadership Challenges

Events could not have been worse for Prime Minister Tony Abbott whose popularity is so low in the polls he was forced to reassert his leadership position in an address to the National Press Club on Feb 2.

In a desperate attempt to reclaim the high ground, Mr Abbott defended his record and addressed accusations that he and his Cabinet were insular and out of touch.

In an effort to project a strong but kinder government, he flagged tougher action on terrorist groups and “better enforcement” of rules around foreign ownership, and also softer economic policies for households. Small business would receive a tax cut of 1.5 per cent from July, there would be more focus on jobs and there would be no GST changes without Labor’s approval.

Amid accusations he is too authoritarian (for which high profile Abbott staffer Peta Credlin has copped much of the blame), Mr Abbott said he had “listened and learned”. He offered to be more “consultative and collegiate” and conceded that he had made too many “captain’s picks”.

He confirmed his signature Paid Parental Leave (PPL) policy would be scrapped and replaced with a policy focused more on childcare.

He also conceded that he “probably overdid it” by honouring the Queen’s husband, Prince Philip, with a knighthood as part of the Australia Day awards. Re-instituting knighthoods and dames had been Mr Abbott’s personal initiative but Prince Philip’s knighthood, made without consultation with colleagues, left the broader population incredulous. Even Rupert Murdoch tweeted: “Abbott knighthood a joke and embarrassment.”

Many suspect the knighthood was the final straw in the Queensland elections.

“The knighthood fiasco and that kind of thing and then the talk of leadership tensions…that may have made the difference between Labor getting close and doing well enough to take office,” said Prof Bean.

Mr Abbott has made it clear he will not give up the leadership without a fight, warning potential leadership challengers: “The last thing you want to do is to make your difficulties worse.”

It was the people that hired prime ministers, Mr Abbott said. “Frankly it’s the people that should fire.”

Ironically if the Australian political system did not determine that parties choose their leaders not the people, Mr Abbott may be out already.

According to the latest Fairfax Ipsos poll, Mr Abbott’s personal approval ratings dropped from 38 per cent to 28 per cent between December and January.

Conducted over three nights in January, the poll shows Labor leading the Coalition on a two-party-preferred basis by 54 per cent to 46 per cent.

The problem now for Mr Abbott is that the horse has already bolted. While Cabinet Ministers have hit the airwaves to declare their support for Mr Abbott, two backbenchers, Queensland MP Warren Entsch and West Australian MP Dennis Jensen, have already publicly disavowed the Prime Minister.

The first to break ranks, Dr Jensen told the ABC Mr Abbott should be replaced because the Coalition was “not governing as we should be”.

The two credible replacements for leader, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull have remained low key in the turmoil, neither to date openly encouraging or discouraging the dissent.

Mr Turnbull lost to Tony Abbott by one vote (42-41) in a leadership spill in 2009, the issue  largely over his support for an emissions trading scheme (ETS).

Mr Turnbull has lain low since but his popularity in the wider electorate remains high. In a nationwide Fairfax Ipsos poll conducted November last year, he polled 35 per cent while Mr Abbot and Julie Bishop were at 20 per cent as preferred Liberal leader.

The ABC has identified 10 Coalition MPs  who would support a spill motion, while it described a further 20 as “highly disaffected or harbouring deep concerns”.

Dr Cook believes the choice for Coalition MPs will be stark.

“When they see [they’re] possibly losing, everything is going to go out the window,” Dr Cook said.