Leadership tension has spilled into the Nationals, as the Coalition tries to understand the chaos in the Prime Minister’s Office. By Sophie Morris.

What’s happening in Tony Abbott’s office?

Besieged prime minister Tony Abbott.
Besieged prime minister Tony Abbott.

Leadership speculation is like a disease. Left unchecked it eats away at a party and damages its ability to govern. It can also be contagious.

Amid the extraordinary clamour this week at Tony Abbott’s follies and monarchist fripperies, what went largely unnoticed is that the leadership chatter was spreading beyond just the Liberals. Its tentacles reached into the Nationals, where some MPs were privately discussing who could be the next deputy prime minister and how the instability at the top of the government could affect their leadership.

Stalwart leader Warren Truss is not expected to be ousted, but the 66-year-old is expected to retire some time this year. Already, some are tallying support in the 21-member party room for possible contenders.

This question hangs over the Nationals as they gather for their annual pre-parliamentary strategy session next week, and it has significant implications for Abbott’s leadership.

Will high-profile deputy leader Barnaby Joyce get the chance to fulfil his ambition to lead the party? The ruddy-faced conjurer of unique sound bites remains the frontrunner, but only just.

He is not a shoo-in and is viewed by some Liberals and Nationals as too risky to be partnered with a PM whose judgement is erratic. The two men were close in the past but an Abbott–Joyce Coalition now seems out of the question. Joyce’s prospects could improve, however, with a change in the Liberal leadership.

Party sources say that Michael McCormack, parliamentary secretary to the minister for finance, is a contender, and the fact he is relatively unknown could be an advantage in a government in need of stability. 

Dubbed the “anybody-but-Barnaby” option, the second-term MP from New South Wales is being backed by Liberals who fear that Joyce’s outspoken style and feisty advocacy for regional Australia could strain the Coalition. 

Joyce supporters count these attributes as his strengths and bristle at Liberal intervention in the affairs of the Nationals. And the Liberals, of course, have troubles of their own.

1 . ‘Knightmare’ begins

Abbott’s “knightmare” started as Australia Day dawned. The media release went out at 5.57am.

It is inconceivable that Abbott’s advisers were oblivious to how the public would react to his decision to appoint Prince Philip – he of the multiple titles, palaces and generous annuity – a Knight of the Order of Australia.

The oddly timed press release suggests there was an awareness it would not be a good look. Otherwise, it might have been proudly announced at a prime ministerial press conference or dropped as an “exclusive” to favoured media, to be followed up with a round of broadcast interviews. As Joyce later surmised on ABC Radio, perhaps the talks had already been underway with Buckingham Palace and, as Abbott came under pressure over summer, it was too late to pull out.

A wave of ridicule swiftly followed. It rolled through newsrooms, into lounge rooms and up to government MPs at citizenship ceremonies.

Abbott’s decision in March to restore knights and dames had few supporters within the Coalition, even among MPs who are avowed monarchists, so this latest obsequious tribute to the royals was viewed as a delusional indulgence.

Before long, the incredulity had begun to morph into bickering from Coalition MPs about the PM’s poor judgement and failure to consult.

Six questions into Abbott’s midmorning press conference, on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin, he had conceded it was a captain’s pick and was casting around desperately for other topics, with the harried look of a man in need of a lifejacket.

“I think we’ve had a good thrash of this one. Are there any other subjects that you would like to ask me about?” he implored, only to be confronted with questions about whether MPs were satisfied with his leadership.

There was nary a mention of Rosie Batty, the campaigner against domestic violence and freshly minted Australian of the Year. Her limelight was being eclipsed by a nonagenarian consort to a distant monarch and a prime minister under pressure from his colleagues and apparently lacking the common touch.

Two days later Abbott would make it up to Batty, sitting down for an awkward but earnest chat while the cameras rolled, and then announcing a national push to end violence against women and children.

His contrition at the distraction was tinged with a hint of defiance, as he continued to defend the knighthood but acknowledged the criticism, saying he would “take it on the chin” and consult more widely next time.

In an edition of his 2009 book Battlelines, updated after he became leader, there is a postscript called “Days from Hell”. The yardstick for him is October 31, 2007, when he came under fire for “abusing” dying asbestos campaigner Bernie Banton by suggesting his protest was a political stunt. He was then further castigated after arriving late to a debate at the National Press Club, where he muttered within range of the cameras that it was “bullshit” to suggest he could have been on time.

Now he might have a new addition: the day he knighted a prince and ignited leadership ructions.

It was like a pressure valve being released as MPs vented frustration at Abbott’s performance, most off the record, but some publicly. His bizarre decision gave them licence to complain about issues that had been troubling them for months. And they did. In a media that is driven by internet clicks and instant reporting, the juiciest offerings were soon leading news websites and being promoted on social media, fuelling the frenzy. It became an anonymous pile-on.

Only a few put their names to their criticism. And most of those were Queenslanders, aware of the damage it could do to Premier Campbell Newman’s re-election campaign. Liberal MP Warren Entsch urged a “significant change in leadership” but not a change in leader. Queensland Liberal National senator Matt Canavan told Fairfax Media: “I’ve seen us kick more own goals over summer than I’ve seen in the Asian Cup.” Newman declared it a “bolt from the blue” that he did not support.

Most ministers who commented publicly distanced themselves, with Kevin Andrews the only public defender and Joyce venturing some criticism, saying he believed such honours should be reserved for Australians.

Some MPs ruminated about possible time lines for change if there were another disastrous budget. Others fumed that Abbott could not afford any further clangers. To be honest, the vehemence of the response seemed almost disproportionate to the offence. Sure, it was cringe-worthy, ridiculous and poor politics, betraying a leader out of touch with his people. But the real problem for Abbott is that it followed a series of other dubious decisions, including the bungled rewrites over summer of the Medicare co-payment. 

The unkindest cuts of all came from those commentators who had in the past been his biggest supporters. At The Australian, his old friend Greg Sheridan wrote that the decision was “wrong in principle, strategically mistaken and tactically disastrous”. Broadcaster Alan Jones said his “long-time friend” seemed to have lost touch with the people in the street. By Thursday, News Corp columnist Andrew Bolt was declaring it a “very, very, very stupid decision, so damaging that it could be fatal”.

On Tuesday, Rupert Murdoch took to Twitter to describe the knighthood for Prince Philip as “a joke and embarrassment”. The next day, the media mogul decided to sheet home the blame to another source, calling for the departure of the PM’s chief of staff.

“Tough to write, but if he won’t replace top aide Peta Credlin she must do her patriotic duty and resign,” Murdoch wrote to his 557,000 Twitter followers. “Forget fairness. This change only way to recover team work and achieve so much possible for Australia. Leading involves cruel choices.” 

Abbott dismisses left-leaning social media as “electronic graffiti”, but Murdoch’s unvarnished 140-character edicts are gems of the Twittersphere, providing direct insight into the mind of a plutocrat who is more used to wielding influence in private meetings and through his news outlets.

Adding to the intrigue, Murdoch’s tweets came days after he met in New York with deputy Liberal leader and foreign minister Julie Bishop. Bishop’s star has been rising this past year and she is considered by many Liberal MPs to be the obvious alternative to Abbott, at least at this point in time. Joe Hockey, who could have claimed that title a year ago, knows how quickly such things can change. Now Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison are considered the other options.

Abbott had apparently already heeded Murdoch’s private instructions on how to run his office. The Australian Financial Review reported on Thursday that, in December, Murdoch had dined with Abbott in Sydney and urged him to overhaul his media team. Shortly before Christmas he did just that, replacing press office director Jane McMillan with deputy chief of staff Andrew Hirst and hiring ABC Canberra correspondent Mark Simkin as his chief press secretary.

But Abbott is resisting calls for Credlin to go. Just hours before Murdoch’s tweets, Abbott had exonerated Credlin – a known republican – of any involvement in the knighthood decision.

Several MPs The Saturday Paper spoke to blamed Credlin for not reining in the PM. Others lamented that she was too controlling, with the Prime Minister’s Office continuing, since the December reshuffle, to exercise vetoes over whom some ministers could employ as their chiefs of staff.

Publicly, Education Minister Christopher Pyne and Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said she should stay. “Peta Credlin and Tony Abbott have played a remarkable role in getting the Coalition into government after just two terms,” said Pyne. “We couldn’t have done it without Peta Credlin.”

2 . IR policy

It was one of those weeks in federal politics when speculation about leadership begins to drown out all else and Coalition MPs express surprise when a journalist calls about other issues.

The Saturday Paper had planned to write about the industrial relations battle this week, which has been revived by the launch of a long-promised, wide-ranging Productivity Commission inquiry. 

In such a climate, however, even policy is seen through the prism of the leadership. The fate of a policy as electorally sensitive as industrial relations depends, after all, on the leader’s ability to prosecute it.

In a sign that his derring-do approach may extend beyond just knighthoods to other risky topics, Abbott had already weighed in to the debate.

After declaring WorkChoices “dead, buried and cremated” in 2010, he revived its spectre last week by mounting an argument for stripping away penalty rates, to keep his bottle-o open at Easter.

“If you don’t want to work on a weekend, fair enough, don’t work on a weekend,” he told Radio 2GB last Friday, the transcript curiously absent from those archived routinely on the PM’s website.

“But if you do want to work on a weekend, and lots of people, particularly young people, particularly students, would love to work on a weekend – you want to see the employers open to provide jobs … there are lots of places that are now closed that used to be open.

“The hotel I stay in [in] Melbourne doesn’t open the restaurant on a Sunday night anymore because of penalty rates. You try to get to a bottle shop over Easter and it’s almost impossible because of penalty rates.

“I don’t begrudge people the money … but in the end there’s a balance that’s got to be struck here and my preference will always be in favour of more jobs.”

His comments were a gift to unions, already plotting a campaign to exploit anxiety around the Productivity Commission’s review of the workplace system.

Five issues papers, published last week by the Productivity Commission, tackle a range of topics, but some in the Coalition were surprised at the attention they gave to canvassing changes to penalty rates and the minimum wage, which had not been specifically mentioned in the terms of reference set by the government. 

A sign of the sensitivity around this review was that the government chose to announce its terms of reference after 3pm on Friday, December 19, at a time when it would attract the least possible coverage.

Since the Howard government overreached with WorkChoices, after winning control of the senate in 2004, the Coalition has struggled to prosecute the industrial relations agenda that is part of its DNA.

It teeters on a tightrope as it tries to persuade core business supporters that it will respond to their pleas for reform without spooking workers that it will slash their entitlements.

And Abbott seems to be losing his balance, in these and other matters. 

Business leaders have made it clear they want him to use the Productivity Commission review to build the case for reform. Unions and Labor are ready to pounce when he does. 

Labor’s workplace relations spokesman, Brendan O’Connor, says the government must rule out cuts to the minimum wage and penalty rates. “They haven’t done that, which suggests they have an ambition to change radically the industrial relations landscape of the country.” 

Australian Council of Trade Unions president Ged Kearney makes it clear that Abbott will not avoid a stoush, even by ruling out certain things. The unions’ message is very much tied to his personal record. “If he decides industrial relations is too hot a topic, that won’t stop us saying: ‘Don’t necessarily trust him,’ ” she says. “We will take to the streets. There is no doubt about that. We will do that right through the period of the Productivity Commission inquiry, which runs through to November, so close to an election.”

Some Coalition MPs are well aware of the risks and urge caution on Abbott, but there are also backbenchers who think the government cannot abandon a topic that matters so much to its business supporters.

If this week is anything to go by, Abbott does not pause to calculate risk but is more than ready to embrace it for a cause close to his heart. His Labor opponents may hope that he shows the same reckless courage and overreach in his approach to industrial relations.

More likely, however, having officially exhausted his reserves of political capital, he will now lack any grunt to push for hard reforms.

And if this is the case, one has to ask: What’s the point of being in office at all?

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 31, 2015 as "What’s happening in Abbott’s office?".

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Sophie Morris is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.

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