Over the last 12 months, the idea that Tony Abbott might be dumped by his party has gone from impossibility to a vaguely muttered “what if” to actively speculated to, now, the business end of the transaction: who, when and how.
That is, who will replace him and who else goes, when should it be done, and how to do it so voters, who retain the bizarre, unconstitutional idea that they elect prime ministers, not MPs, aren’t overly offended, as they were when Kevin Rudd was dumped. Liberal hardheads might want to give some thought to the other consequence of Rudd’s removal: the resulting chaos he inflicted on Labor for a further three years, though whatever faults Abbott might have, he’s surely too much of a party man to behave as badly as Rudd did.
The who isn’t overly complicated. The voters’ preference, Malcolm Turnbull, so alienated many of his colleagues as leader that they said “never again” — but many Labor MPs said the same about Rudd. Moreover, News Corp doesn’t trust Turnbull, far too much his own man, who is not above taking potshots at Rupert Murdoch and who by both ego and experience is unafraid of media moguls of any stripe. Scott Morrison is the tribune of the Right, but he lacks wider electoral recognition and appeal. Julie Bishop’s weakness and strength is that she has been above domestic politics as Foreign Minister, so she’s untainted with the budget debacle but also hasn’t dealt first hand with the problems of implementing domestic policy reform. But the case for Bishop, who met Murdoch last weekend, over Turnbull is strengthened because if Abbott goes, Treasurer Joe Hockey will need to go as well, and the government can best use Turnbull’s talents in Treasury, where he will do a vastly better job of selling the government’s economic agenda than the hapless incumbent.
The how is less of a problem than it appears. Abbott is politically toxic, with disapproval ratings comparable to Julia Gillard at her absolute nadir. Kevin Rudd, and Labor were still polling well when he was removed. The dispatch of Abbott is more likely to be greeted with relief by voters than confusion or anger — indeed, the removal of Abbott and Hockey could induce a surge in confidence among voters that could snap the economy out of its current malaise, with flow-on benefits for employment and the budget.
The when is the problem. Analog-era political thinking would be that Abbott should have the whole year to turn it around, and if he failed to do so, removed early in 2016 or even in the traditional political killing season at the end of the year. That would give Bishop/Turnbull the best part of 2016, and most importantly a budget, to establish her or himself before going to the polls. But that thinking no longer holds: the entire political-media cycle has now dramatically accelerated, and what used to take months now takes days under the eternal spotlight of a 24/7, social media-fueled process.
That means it needs to be done sooner than the end of the year — giving credence to the six-month deadline reported by Phil Coorey today. The problem with that deadline, however, is that it means this year’s budget will in effect be wasted. Despite the persistent lack of evidence of “budget bounces”, both the government and some commentators appear to think that a family-oriented budget (funded by what is unclear, given Hockey has already blown the deficit out three times now) will restore the government’s fortunes. What the budget can do is enable the government to start rebuilding its economic credibility with voters, which is supposed to be one of the Coalition’s strengths but at the moment is looking as weak as its reputation in most other areas.
Leaving the leadership as a festering sore until after the May budget will mean any political benefits from the budget will be lost — indeed, it would almost guarantee it, since one of the biggest problems facing Abbott is that voters have simply tuned out on him and just aren’t interested in any economic messages he might be offering. In practice, that means February or March, since Parliament doesn’t sit in April while the government hunkers down and finalises the budget.
Abbott will seek to restart his restart on Monday when he addresses the National Press Club, though don’t expect to see Peta Credlin in attendance, as she’ll be photographed as much as her boss. A strong performance from the Prime Minister — watch for the spin from Abbott loyalists — will hold off the critics for a time, even if tomorrow’s Queensland election goes badly — and a surprisingly strong result for the LNP up north will calm things down, too. Anything less than Abbott at his best, however, will be the political equivalent of blood in the water. And the parliamentary year will start the week after, and the regular drip of polls will return. Two or three bad polls and it may well be good night Tony.