Tony Abbott’s victory this morning, by the narrowest possible margin, sets up a 2010 climate change election in which the Liberals will struggle to present a coherent front.
Abbott squeaked into the leadership by one vote, 42 to 41, with moderate Fran Bailey absent and unable to vote, and with an informal vote marked “no”. Julie Bishop, whose triple term as deputy leader has been marked by incompetence, remains in her position.
The Liberals have also voted by secret ballot to oppose the government-Turnbull CPRS package, reversing their support for the package last week. Whether moderate Liberal senators will abide by that result remains to be seen, given climate denialist and conservative senators last week refused to accept the previous party room decision.
Unless enough moderate senators cross the floor, the decision will hand the government a double-dissolution trigger on an issue that has ripped the party apart.
While Abbott promised to be a consultative leader and reflect all shades of opinion on his front bench, he immediately flagged interest in returning to the Workchoices reforms (albeit without the name, he said). He also again reversed his position on climate change, saying it was real and calling his own statement that “climate change is crap” “hyperbole”, marking yet another backflip on the issue.
Abbott flagged the tenor of the coalition’s campaign against the government, repeatedly claiming that the CPRS was a giant tax.
While Abbott’s victory was always a possible outcome from the spill, it was the defeat of Joe Hockey in the first round of balloting that surprised most, with Hockey dipping out 23 votes to Turnbull’s 26, against expectations that he would take most of the moderate vote and knock his leader out. This left Turnbull to face Abbott, a contest he would have thought he had a fighting chance to win. As it turned out, he only narrowly lost, and in other circumstances might have won.
Turnbull has said he will now go to the back bench but will remain in Parliament at least until the next election, and may yet remain in politics beyond the election. He did not rule out running again for the leadership and when asked whether moderate senators should vote for the CPRS, said that he had always stood up for his beliefs, in effect encouraging them to cross the floor.
Abbott, who is deeply unpopular with female voters due to his hardline and aggressive Catholicism, used his first press conference to apologise for his previous behaviour and asked to be judged afresh. His party’s enormous baggage on the climate-change issue will make that difficult against the most popular Prime Minister in decades.