Something extraordinary happened at the Liberal federal council in June. When Tony Abbott flashed his ballot card to his deputy Julie Bishop and Alan Stockdale he made a terrible mistake that may come back to haunt him.
Abbott's ballot had Stockdale's name on it. "Check it out, mate" he might have been saying. "I voted for you". Unfortunately (for Abbott) cameras captured the flash, and the man he had promised to vote for – Peter Reith – became privy to an infidelity of sorts.
Abbott had encouraged Reith (a powerhouse who took on the unions, most memorably the Maritime Union while serving under John Howard) to run for the presidency, implying he would have his support. Reith had promised, in return, to drop his interest in industrial relations reform.
Peter Reith eventually lost to the incumbent Liberal party president Alan Stockdale by one vote, 56-57, and he can now do what he wants. Like a girlfriend who stumbles upon a viral video of her man doing naughty things, he has lost his heart's desire but gained his freedom. As Liberal president Reith would have been shackled, bound to behave and serve the leadership interest. He may now pursue two agendas that could cause serious Abbott headaches: IR reform and party reform.
Policy vs. posturing
Just this week Reith released a "33 page post-mortem" analysing the Liberal's election loss in 2010. The increasingly-heard criticism that the Liberal Party is devoid of policy (Abbott is regularly accused of sloganeering and bashing Labor policy stances without generating genuine alternatives for voters) is addressed, and blamed in part on an unaccountable executive. The balm suggested by Reith is a sort of 'separation of powers' — a break-down of the tight relationship between the party leader, the president (still Alan Stockdale) and federal party director Brian Loughnane.
While Abbott has come out in the support of the Reith report – and the victorious Stockdale has even vowed to implement Reith's recommendations – the moves would be contrary to Abbott's interest. As commentator Christian Kerr told Phillip Adams on Late Night Live:
"[Abbott] is not a detail man. He's a sound and motion man. He comes out and says a few lines, and it's very difficult to pin him down on anything. Labor just can't seem to get their hands around his neck!"
In fact, as Gillard's popularity continues to plummet, commentators are beginning to question her focus on policy detail — once considered her great strength. Insiders whisper that trying to sell the details of the carbon tax scheme (like the price and compensation package) is misguided, and works against the prime minister. Kerr himself urged a return to debate about the broader environmentalist issues 'that made this such a huge topic just four years ago'.
'She has failed to capture the idealism' he said.
The perils of industrial relations reform
Returning to the Liberals: if that party – prompted by Reith – adopts a more policy-focussed strategy, it will be bad news for Abbott. His leadership style (which is working for him at present) simply does not square with that.
In addition to party reform, Peter Reith has vowed to push for IR reform. This is something Abbott wants to avoid at all costs, given that Labor won the last election in part due to massive opposition to WorkChoices. Hatred of WorkChoices was so sweeping that opposition MPs have had to appease the public, reassuring voters that it is "dead, buried and cremated" and they won't try to bring it back.
Reith has come out and praised Liberal state premiers Ted Baillieu and Barry O'Farrell for their action on industrial relations reform, holding them up in contrast to the 'slower' Abbott, who has – surprise, surprise – yet to take a concrete position at federal level.
Abbott has reportedly attempted to quash debate about IR reform even within Liberal ranks, fearing Labor will smell blood in the water and begin its anti-WorkChoices campaign: a proven coalition-killer.
A revenge of sorts
If the snubbed Reith gets his way, IR will become a big issue. And Tony Abbott – the leader who won't take a stance – may finally be forced to. Avoiding policy has served Abbott well so far, and if Reith succeeds Abbott will be plunged into prickly territory, better navigated by a different sort of man.
If the Liberal defeat in 2010 is anything to go by, WorkChoices – and the taking of a stance – could sound Abbott's death knell.