The Liberal Party conundrum: Abbott must stay and go

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With Tony Abbott's polling remaining in the doldrums, how long can it be before nervous Liberal backbenchers replace him with someone more electorally popular, asks Dr Benjamin T. Jones.

In an ABC 7.30 interview on this week (4 December), Leigh Sales asked Tony Abbott if he would

"... contemplate stepping aside in order to give your party the best chance of holding on to power."

It was an extraordinary question to ask a new prime minister and one that reveals the changing nature of Australian politics. While the third year of a government’s term has traditionally been the time to woo the public, as Clive Palmer argued in his budget reply, modern politicians now seek re-election from day one. To that end, many Coalition MPs holding marginal seats are very nervous indeed.

Removing a first-term prime minster was once political hubris few pundits would bother contemplating. With Labor setting the precedent after dramatically dumping of Kevin Rudd in 2010 and Julia Gillard in 2013, could the same fate await Abbott? Michelle Grattan has suggested that Abbott has 12 months to improve the government’s circumstances before serious questions are asked. A recent article in the Japan Times was more forthright, declaring:

‘Economy woes may mean Abbott won’t last full term’.

Being prime minister is not easy.

As the eighth Australian Prime Minister (1923-29) Stanley Melbourne Bruce famously put it, you need

‘... a hide like a rhinoceros, an over-weening ambition, and a mighty good conceit of [yourself].'

Bruce certainly knew how tough the job could be. Together with John Howard, he is one of only two Australian Prime Minister to lose their own seat. And yet, even Bruce did not suffer as many difficulties so soon after forming government as Tony Abbott.

The Abbott Government never had a honeymoon period. It rode the wave of Labor’s unpopularity and instability to office, but Abbott had never endeared himself to the Australian public. Pre-election polls strongly suggested that the electorate wanted Malcolm Turnbull as Liberal leader. Even before the politically disastrous May budget, a Nielsen poll suggested this was the least popular incoming government for four decades.

The Government has not recovered from the backlash over its first Budget. Indeed, as Joe Hockey begins to consider his second budget the Liberals are still desperately trying to pass contentious elements of the first. Adding further misery, a Deloitte Access Economics study has suggested slow growth and a falling iron ore price will result in a $12.4b deficit in 2017-18 despite unpopular cuts and a promised surplus.

Abbott’s performance as Prime Minister has exacerbated matters further. His clumsy threat to ‘shirtfront’ Russian president Vladimir Putin and his attempts to remove climate change from the agenda just as the United States and China reached a historic deal on carbon emissions made him appear out of touch and ideological driven. Abbott’s performance as G20 host was derided in the LA Times and domestically he fell behind Bill Shorten as preferred Prime Minister.        

Abbott was spectacularly successful as opposition leader. He mercilessly reminded Julia Gillard of her perceived broken promise to not introduce a carbon tax. Launching his campaign in 2013 he promised that in government he would deliver no surprises and no excuses. The ABC’s promise tracker conservatively states 12 pre-election promises have now been broken, while a less forgiving analysis by IA's Alan Austin suggests 50 promises had been broken by August.

Perhaps most damaging for Abbott is the election-eve interview at Penrith Stadium where he unequivocally promised there would be no cuts to the ABC or SBS. When Malcolm Turnbull confirmed there would be cuts of 4.6 and 1.7 percent respectively, the initial response was to present them as "efficiency dividends" rather than cuts.

For nearly two weeks, Abbott denied that he was breaking a promise prompting his own backbench to plead with him to end the "verbal gymnastics". He eventually conceded his pre-election words were "at odds" with his subsequent actions. In the wake of the Victorian election, which saw a first term Liberal government dumped from office, former premier Jeff Kennentt claimed Abbott’s unpopularity and poor decisions were a "major factor".

The conundrum for the Liberal Party is that they cannot do the one thing they need.

Abbott only won the Liberal leadership by a single vote and there is no doubt if they were in opposition there would be a spill and he would be removed. Either Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, the most popular cabinet member, or the ever articulate Malcolm Turnbull, who was denied a chance to face the electorate by Abbott, would be the likely replacement.

The issue for the Liberals is that Abbott was too good in opposition. He relentlessly attacked Labor for breaking promises, allowing debt to spiral and being unstable. Having broken so many clear promises of his own and with the economic forecast being ‘deficits as far as the eye can see’, leadership and stability is the only thing the government have left.

As Abbott told Sales when she questioned his position:

"... one fundamental lesson of the last catastrophic government was that you don’t lightly change leaders."

If the Liberals were to dump Abbott as leader, it would complete the trifecta of sins for which they punished Labor.

Abbott’s grip on power is precarious. Even the ultra-conservative commentators, Alan Jones, Andrew Bolt and Janet Albrechtsen – who famously dined with Abbott at Kirribilli House to celebrate his election victory – have been critical of his performance. With consistently poor polls and unpopular policies, it is hard to see Abbott surviving another election unless he can at least win back these three influential voices.  

The choice facing the Liberal Party is not desirable. They can struggle along with Abbott and hope the sheer weight of history saves them. A federal government has not failed to secure a second term since James Scullin who was sworn in as the Great Depression hit. Then again, Australia has become more politically fickle and the long terms of Howard, Hawke/Keating and Fraser seem a lifetime ago. Were it not for the whims of Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, Abbott would have been Prime Minster in 2010 with Labor only serving one term.

The Labor Party have now been in an election winning position for thirteen consecutive Newspolls. If the trend continues too far into the new year, the Liberals will have to remove Abbott. But that is the conundrum. If they do, they will lose the last political point they held over Labor and the ranks of the politically apathetic will swell further. It is hard to claim both major parties are not the same when they increasingly act that way. 

Dr Benjamin T. Jones is an Adjunct Fellow at the School of Humanities and Communication Arts at the University of Western Sydney.  You can follow Dr Jones on Twitter @BenjaminTJones1.

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