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Mutiny in Canberra As Abbott Faces Leadership Challenge

– by Liam Carter

What was hoped to be a smooth text-book start to 2015 swiftly turned out to be a continuation of the ‘policy on the run’ style of government that has become synonymous with Abbott’s leadership.

The Prime Minister ended last year with a press conference that promised to “reboot” the government, a move which was accompanied by a ministerial reshuffle, a tactic borrowed from Howard’s manual. However, the government ran aground early, dumping overboard the $20 rebate cut for short GP visits. Newly appointed Health Minister Sussan Ley was sent in to clean up the mess.

This marked the first in 2015 of a series of backflips and ‘leadership calls’ that have sparked wide criticism of Abbott’s leadership style. The knighting of Prince Philip on Australia Day did nothing to help Abbott’s image. Many Coalition backbenchers perceived this as the last straw, and it was in the wake of Abbott’s ‘captain’s call’ that the leadership question came boiling to the surface after having simmered since taking government.

The root of the Liberal Party’s leadership woes lies in the nature of Abbott’s ascension to power. After a short stint under Brendon Nelson, the party room thrust the reigns into the hands of Malcolm Turnbull, charismatic millionaire and darling of the political left. Abbott wrestled power out of Turnbull’s grip due to the issue of climate change, which had divided the party. The leadership spill served the purpose of solving an internal policy dispute, but left the party wanting for vision and purpose.

Tony Abbott became Prime Minister not because the voters wanted him, but because they did not want Labor.

The Liberal Party tends to choose leaders who can deliver them from the wilderness, and into the halls of power. Now that the ability of Abbott to win in 2016 is in doubt, MPs are turning to alternate sources of retaining power. The main contenders are Julie Bishop, Deputy Leader and foreign minister, and Malcolm Turnbull, former leader and communications minister.

Both have publicly stated their support for the Prime Minister, but backbenchers have been anxiously calling each other and these potential candidates in an exercise of political survivalism. Abbott has one key factor protecting him from the gallows, and that is how hard the Coalition pummelled the ALP for changing leaders from Rudd to Gillard, and back. But contrary to the Prime Minister’s belief, there is no guarantee that a government which changes leaders will suffer defeat at the next ballot.

Paul Keating survived the 1993 election after toppling Australia’s most popular prime minister, Bob Hawke. Queensland Premier Peter Beattie was succeeded by Anna Bligh, who took the party to victory at the next election. Even Julia Gillard maintained government at the next election after hanging Rudd out to dry. These examples show that a leadership change can be survived, a reality that makes Abbott’s position all the more precarious.

A tilt on the leadership seems likely in the immediate future. On Monday, Abbott delivered an address to the National Press Club. This speech will set the course of the government, its vision for the future and the policies it plans to implement. But Abbott must be careful not to present policies that he has not discussed with the party room, in order to avoid another ‘captain’s pick’ moment. The power to make or break his leadership rests in his performance over the next week, including this speech.

Next Monday is the first party meeting since summer break, and with every disaffected backbencher all in one room together, it could make for a tense meeting. The massive swing to Labor in Queensland is in part attributed to Abbott, despite his not campaigning for the LNP. The election result saw Jane Prentice, a LNP federal member, warning of a spill on live television.

With the electorate fuming and the party room in revolt, there is a strong likelihood that Australia will have a new prime minister in the near future. The only question is who, and what policy vision can we expect for our nation from this new leader?

Photo credit: Mike Lowe

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