Tuesday, 10 February 2015 

I believe the team of Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard is the best leadership team for the Liberal Party and therefore part of the best leadership team of the Coalition for the country.

Kevin Andrews nails it

Consider this. In 1971, when Gorton was challenged for the leadership, Fraser had resigned as Defence Minister and openly attacked Gorton on the floor of the House as “not fit” for the PM’s office. The result was a leadership vote, a tie and Gorton resigning. In 1981, Fraser was the target this time with Peacock resigning as IR Minister over Fraser’s industrial relations policy and (something we’re not supposed to talk about these days) his refusal to withdraw recognition from Pol Pot. Peacock again used the floor of the House to openly attack Fraser in a speech accusing him of eroding the Cabinet system. The result was almost a year of open hostilities, finally ending when Fraser called a leadership vote and saw Peacock off.

Then we had what was supposed to be the third challenge to a sitting Liberal PM yesterday. This time there was no ministerial resignations, no open attack on the Prime Minister from the floor of the House, in fact no challenge at all. Nothing. Not a peep.

The only thing that came close to a challenge was Lucy’s wry smile as Turnbull made his “Captain’s call” jibe, which for the media was considered enough of a challenge to allow us all to settle back and pretend it was business (sort of) as usual.

Having come away with a third of the party voting no confidence in the Prime Minister, Abbott is seen as mortally wounded and Turnbull is now appearing like a master tactician for doing nothing – as opposed to all the other silly billies of recorded political history who actually made a fuss.

In reality, however, Turnbull was constrained from making an open challenge by exactly the same factors that are causing problems for Abbott right now. Turnbull’s lack of challenge suggests he has no solution either.

With Labor’s instability having now spread to the Liberals, it is prompting a lot of thoughtful pieces about how the electorate is more fickle, volatile, etc. added with some stuff about 24-hour news cycles and social media to make it seem terribly new thinking.

Most of it’s rubbish. The issue’s not with the electorate. It wasn’t NT voters who decided to dump a Chief Minster one day and reinstate him the next. Any significant changes in the electorate’s relationship with politics happened years ago, with the erosion of organised labour’s ties with the ALP. And even that wasn’t that big a deal as far as the electorate is concerned.

But it is as far as the political system is concerned, given that’s what it was based on. And it’s the inability to avoid this any longer that is the real source of the political crisis going on today. The rise and fall of Rudd was a major catalyst for the parties being forced to grapple with their reason for existence, first the Liberals, and later Labor. For Labor, the Rudd years showed that this grappling centred on the role of unions and the power brokers in the ALP now that they have lost their social relevance.

But for the Liberals this grappling with what they’re about is likely to be more difficult because the problem is almost purely political. As Norman Abjorensen summed it up nicely in a piece last year, the Liberals have really only ever existed to oppose another political party. It means that while Labor sees its problems as an institutional one of unions having too much power relative to their diminished social role (or unions going out to campaign to showing that they should have that power), for the Liberals it is presented as almost wholly a political problem both ideological and organisationally. How difficult this makes it for the Liberals to understand what is going on was evident yesterday.

Abbott took over the party leadership when the dilemma between the party’s political agenda and its lack of electoral appeal had blown wide open. His election was a sign that the party was willing to forfeit the next election to maintain its brand. What this meant for a party that whose whole purpose was gaining power to stop Labor was obscured as the turmoil in Labor saw it kow-towing to the Liberals’ agenda and making it seem electorally relevant.

Gillard and Rudd Mark II made Abbott into a credible opposition leader and gave him a cover that was removed when he took office. This explains why such a supposedly brilliant opposition leader that can apparently tap into the electorate, can so singularly fail to do so once in government. In government Abbott did all the things that both Labor and the Liberals thought were supposed to work: stop the boats, make “economically responsible” cuts, talk up terrorism, send troops off, strut around world forums – all things that were supposed to work for Howard – but none of them did for Abbott.

It would have been thought that the failure of Gillard and Rudd Mark II, having done similar, would have given some warning signs. But it’s clear yesterday that the way that the Liberals understand the failure of Labor is not the policies, but the instability. This is despite the only time Abbott came under pressure and the Coalition lost its lead in the last two years of Labor was when it went through its worst period of instability on the return of Rudd.

The irony is that in balancing two sides of the party, it has created an unstable situation for Abbott. He really has no use for either side of the party, neither a right that is electorally unviable, or a left that is indistinguishable from Labor – hence the detachment from the party and an autocratic style that emulates Rudd with a similar relationship to his party.

But neither do either side of the party really have any use for Abbott. As Chris Berg noted, what has been forgotten is that this instability was not started by Turnbull but by those that would normally most oppose him taking the leadership, the conservative columnists and climate change sceptics like Jensen and Simpkins, disappointed with his failure to implement their agenda. As someone who came in to protect the brand, Abbott was now under pressure for failure to do so.

This points to not only the hollowness of support for Abbott, but the difficulty of Turnbull challenging him. If Turnbull had an electorally winning platform, he would antagonise the right even more than he has up to now. If he gave into the right, it would undermine the one attribute he had, his popularity. Turnbull’s waiting until he is drafted really comes from him having no other choice.

It’s natural that, given all this, Abbott’s practically sole concern is to rebuild his base in the party. Hence the only really new things he had to say yesterday were all about his relationship to the party and how he can rebuild his support. As to what to do about the dire standing with the electorate, well there’s nothing really he can do.

So what next? It would be tempting to wonder if the right, having instigated this instability, then suddenly going quiet, with those like Howard and Bernardi appearing only at the last minute, had shifted its priority from replacing Abbott to just stopping Turnbull in his tracks. The talk was that Morrison, probably their preferred choice, was not yet experienced enough in senior portfolios to take over. This sounds phoney, probably the numbers weren’t there yet. If so, it would suggest that Turnbull might have just missed the best chance he had to regain the leadership.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Tuesday, 10 February 2015.

Filed under State of the parties, Tactics

Tags: , ,


19 responses to “Implosion”

  1. Ralph on 10th February 2015 9:13 am

    Excellent under-the-covers analysis. The tide has gone out on all political players and they’re all standing around completely nakes with no idea of what to do. They all may as well abandon the now brand names of Labor and Liberal, and simply refer to themselves as ‘Red’ and ‘Blue’, much like they do in Thailand.

  2. Sam Roggeveen on 10th February 2015 9:56 am

    “(Abbott’s) election was a sign that the party was willing to forfeit the next election to maintain its brand.”


    You have made this argument a number of times, and it seems to me a lot hangs on this claim. But Abbott himself has admitted to Paul Kelly that he was elected leader by accident, and even then it was only by a single vote. Correct me if I am wrong, but you seem to endorse Kelly’s argument that the 2009 spill was a vote on the Liberal Party’s very soul; that Turnbull was about to tear the party apart over the ETS. But if that’s true, why wasn’t the vote for Abbott more emphatic?

  3. Riccardo on 10th February 2015 4:18 pm

    Great comment ralph and great post TPS


    I would suggest that even the ‘project’ of making the liberal ‘brand’ viable of itself only appeals to the right of the party.

    And who is that. The Cabinet members apparently voted mostly as per convention to stop the spill, but everyone else not bound voted overwhelmingly to get rid of Abbott – and try to save themselves. Ie the project of the Right of trying to protect the Rightist brand is only supported by a few cranks. And we know who they are, Abetz and Bernadi couldn’t be more blatant about it.

    ie suspect we might as well become pro and anti Thaksin as there is not much else left in our political class to vote for.

    Also the media have a funny role – to take a public event of some significance and completely twist its meaning. Saying the public want ‘reform’ when they clearly don’t. They want ‘unity’ but don’t vote for governments that way.

  4. Riccardo on 10th February 2015 4:20 pm

    BTW coups are never popular, except in Fiji and Thailand where it seems great economic progress is being made without the monkey of two party politics.

  5. The Piping Shrike on 10th February 2015 5:19 pm

    Sam, Abbott was an accidental candidate because at the last minute the right shifted support from Hockey because of his equivocation on climate change and the ETS.

    In the run up, the right and the Nats were open sceptics (when Abbott made his “climate science is crap” remark). It’s hard to recall now but this was electoral poison, there was widespread support for an ETS and the right’s scepticism risked marginalising them. That’s why they toned it down a bit after Abbott took the leadership. But it was widely viewed that the Libs had forfeited the next election.

    Then Labor went to work ….

  6. Riccardo on 10th February 2015 6:32 pm

    I’ve just come from researching some unrelated matters on governance in Singapore. Yes, its detractors cry, it is the Lee family private wealth fund, dictatorship blah blah blah, but it genuinely occurs to me they want to have ‘good government’ at least in the contexts that the middle class experience government.

    I tend to believe in demand led political models, and that leads me to believe there is no demand for good government in Australia, no matter the spin.

    Because good government is both hard work and a matter of getting detail right, none of which appeals to

  7. Andrew on 10th February 2015 9:41 pm

    A thought-provoking article. I liked the last sentence in particular. I agree with it.

    It seems the commentariat were interpreting and portraying – to suit their so-called ‘narrative’ – the spill motion as ‘Turnbull’s challenge’, hanging on, and interpreting according to their ‘narrative’, every uttered word and line and everything they could find or fabricate between the lines.

    My guess is that Turnbull could be as far from the destiny he was born to as ever. Certainly, he did let a few hints out about standing for leader, but he had no choice, despite probably preferring to be drafted into it a little later in the election cycle. If he was unsure of how the spill ballot would go, he had to be prepared and prepare others for what he would do if a leadership vote followed a spill. He knew that if the motion won the day he had absolutely no choice but to stand for the leadership job; it could be his only chance, as well as his best. Holding his fire, keeping the proverbial tinder dry and so on, and feigning loyalty, while it might have appealed to some of the commentariat – those determined to interpret whatever he did as demonstrating political astuteness – would have left him looking like a very damp squib, and with the prospect of having to engineer a second upheaval during the next 18 months, failing the party’s begging him to take over. No doubt he thought his hints and signals in themselves might encourage a few to vote for the spill, but they would also make his position equivocal enough to go back to being ‘loyal’ if necessary.

    Anyway, we had a spill in the context of there being not one declared potential candidate for leadership.

    Fact is, though, that despite his apparent popularity Turnbull can’t point to any significant achievements in opposition or in government, or in bringing on a republic. The NBN became a joke which in turn became a new Telstra monopoly. As TPS implies, what policy ideas or platform does he have? The commentariat don’t seem to care, just as they didn’t care about Abbott’s void. People seem to have all sorts of very woolly ideas about who Turnbull is, what he stands for, what policy platform he might have on the drawing board, what abilities he would have to implement it in the context of a party that has been taken over by wingnuts.

  8. Peter Warrington on 11th February 2015 6:40 am

    Hockey split the moderates. whether deliberate or not. Abbott couldn’t have beaten Turnbull in a 1-1.

  9. The Piping Shrike on 11th February 2015 4:58 pm

    ? It was a 1 to 1. Hockey was eliminated in the first round.

  10. Dianne on 12th February 2015 5:12 am

    Turnbull could well have missed his chance Shrike. I wonder though if that chance had been there for the taking.

    Anyway I can’t see why many ALP supporters continue to see him as the acceptable face of ‘conservatism’.

    What could he possibly offer resentful voters?

    He is on record as supporting all budget measures. His ministry has overseen the dismantling of the NBN and sweeping cuts to the ABC.

    Why ‘the Left’ keep seeing him as some sort of messianic saviour is beyond me. He even wears a Bue Tie.

  11. Riccardo on 12th February 2015 9:40 am

    I think people believing Turnbull is ‘moderate’ would have misread him on economic issues. I see no reason why he would not be ‘hard’ on economics, admittedly, I can’t see him deliberately inflaming the issue the way the loony right seem to enjoy doing, until they get the predictable blowback.

    Where Turnbull appeals to the left is the social issues, but that said, I would have said these social issues are now very much ‘centre’ rather than ‘left’ just that the right and their friends have portrayed their own position (anti gay, anti non-white, anti-women) as mainstream

  12. Riccardo on 12th February 2015 12:55 pm

    BTW Shrike, the Norm Abjorensen article is excellent and up your street. Clearly your anonymous actual identity is not Norm, but the fit is amazing.

    Extending on that article, people have often asked why there is an ALP and is it really a ‘left’ party.

    Recruiting thousands of male, Catholic, uneducated white men to the cause is hardly going to give you much of a ‘left’ party except insofar as the nuns at your parish school hammered the virtues of socialised health and education spending. Certainly they never would have championed any other leftist cause.

  13. McMuffin on 13th February 2015 3:44 pm

    The point about forfeiting the election federally makes a certain sense, Shrike. It explains why Abbott made no particularly strong effort to woo the independents. But the conservatives seem to have allowed that to morph into an aversion to government. This holds particularly at the state level, where they should hold South Australia and been returned in Queensland and Victoria. Arguably, the roots go further back when Howard lost the popular vote but won on seats. Now there’s a real near-death experience, one that appeared to inject some discipline on their various factions. If Abbott survives to the next election, he may not be so lucky. Neither might his successor. As for what Turnbull might offer, there’s at least an appearance of competence, and just possibly the actual thing, though there’s no guarantee. It’d be moot if the loony Right’s anyone-or-thing-but-Turnbull-even-opposition position doesn’t change.

  14. PH on 13th February 2015 9:17 pm

    TPH – thanks. I’d long thought that the Libs saw their raison d’etre purely in oppositional terms. I recalled Hewson’s “Fightback!” (with the perfectly unnecessary exclamation mark) and then Abbott’s “Battlelines.” Fortunately Pyne, rather stupidly I thought, let the cat out of the bag earlier this week when he listed a Lib objective as ensuring that “Labor never held power again in this country.”
    In a 2 party system that looks like enduring for at least a little while longer, to have one party so narrow in its conception of its role diminishes us all, quite apart from any direct impact on how they choose to run government.
    And of course you’re right on the money with the sudden withdrawal of previously axiomatic support for Abbott from the ‘attack dogs’ of the Murdoch stable: he’s trashing the brand and ruining the chances of re-election. From a bunch of self-interested (insert noun here, I don’t want to get too scatological) whose personal lives are only enhanced by a conservative government.

  15. No Crap App: w/b 9 Feb 2015 | No Crap App on 13th February 2015 10:53 pm

    […] Piping Shrike: Implosion […]

  16. Michael on 14th February 2015 11:22 am

    It’s already over for Abbott – he is in an unrecoverable position like Gillard was mid-term. While Gillard was competent in managing government she made many un-forced political mis-steps which after a short time allowed the media to position her as unelectable and therefore ripe for taking down and she got nothing but negative comment.
    After a dream run in opposition from the media who practically turned into a cheer squad for Abbott he has both proven beyond doubt his incompetence not just politically both more devastatingly at governing. He has achieved nothing of note, which is just as well because the right’s agenda has no popular support.

  17. Dianne on 15th February 2015 5:01 pm

    And he’s racing …
    ScoMo is out of the stalls.
    Interesting to see Malcolm and Julie’s reaction to the new, soft and cuddly Scott launched this weekend.

  18. The Piping Shrike on 16th February 2015 5:17 am

    Let the backgrounding commence!

  19. Dianne on 1st March 2015 6:33 am

    I think the ‘back grounding’ has now muscled itself on to centre stage.

    Some would have it that Andrew Robb sees himself as a contender.

    Imagine Robb as PM and Truss as deputy.


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