After weeks of mutinous destabilisation by backbenchers, the fate of the prime minister is now in the hands of his cabinet ministers. By Sophie Morris.

Plotting the anti-Tony Abbott forces

There is irony in the fact that two men who owe their careers to John Howard have become lightning rods for discontented backbenchers who want to end Tony Abbott’s leadership.

Arthur Sinodinos, Howard’s former chief of staff, and former Howard government minister Mal Brough are talking to MPs who are keen to see the Liberal leadership crisis resolved.

The unease intensified in a week in which it was revealed by The Australian that Howard himself was “mystified” Abbott had not made the transition from opposition to government.

Howard reportedly said he still backed Abbott but accepted that, if there were a leadership change, it would be to Malcolm Turnbull.

For Abbott, a long-time acolyte of the former prime minister who once famously claimed to be Howard’s “love child”, this must be hard to stomach.

Just as it must hurt to be at odds with The Australian, with which he has long enjoyed a mutually supportive relationship. Abbott dismissed as “fanciful” a report in the newspaper claiming he suggested a unilateral invasion of Iraq, with 3500 Australian ground troops to confront the Islamic State terrorist group.

The furore around this report, by John Lyons, nevertheless prevented Abbott announcing that Australia would send extra military trainers to Iraq. It fell to New Zealand Prime Minister John Key to reveal that plan while announcing his troops’ deployment.

Now cabinet ministers who have watched Abbott’s leadership destabilised by a backbench revolt are on notice that it will be up to them to take the next step to end his prime ministership if they deem this necessary. The MPs who prepared the way for the first leadership spill motion consider their work done. They believe that frontbenchers, who have hitherto presented a façade of unity, will now need to step up if they want to end the instability at the top.

As the government lurched from one damaging leak to another, Turnbull was being urged by supporters to abandon his “clean hands” strategy and declare his ambitions.

Towards the end of the sitting week, timing was still fluid, with speculation there could be a change as soon as next week, if Turnbull decides to bring it on. Or it could be delayed until June, post-budget. Abbott’s critics claim the numbers have shifted in the past fortnight, with the prime minister losing some supporters from South Australia after confusion over his promises on submarines.

Since the spill motion on February 9, his critics say Abbott has only made things worse. They cite the sacking of chief whip Philip Ruddock late on the Friday following the spill motion, and the promotion to deputy whip of pugnacious first-term MP Andrew Nikolic, as well as the prime minister’s linking of Indonesian aid to the fate of Australians on death row, and his aggressive pursuit of the president of the Human Rights Commission, Gillian Triggs. 

Under pressure, Abbott reverted to instinct and came out fighting. His pugilistic style was on full display during his attacks in parliament on Triggs. But it’s an instinct that his critics fear better suits an opposition leader than a prime minister.

Turnbull used a press conference on Wednesday to imply that there is another way to lead, which need not be so confrontational.

Not only did he provide a character reference for Triggs and argue the focus should be on her report into children in detention, he also vouched for the party’s federal treasurer, Philip Higginson, who had complained in leaked letters that the husband-and-wife team of Abbott’s chief of staff Peta Credlin and Liberal Party federal director Brian Loughnane has a stranglehold over the party. In doing so, Turnbull also contradicted Abbott’s claim the governance issue raised by the leaked letters was a “storm in a teacup”. 

In his letters to members of the party’s federal executive, Higginson wrote: “I am overwhelmed daily by the sheer vitriol, and pent-up animosities, and enmities that exist, and we are all personally affected by it and contributing to it, the longer the conflict of interest exists.” 

Higginson is a long-time friend and supporter of Abbott’s, so MPs doubt he was intentionally undermining the prime minister, though the leaking of his letters is viewed as an act of deliberate sabotage. 

Abbott’s supporters claim the prime minister has found his mojo again and made himself and his office more accessible. They say his decision to get out and visit electorates and focus on national security has led to his improvement in Newspoll for the Coalition, to a four-month high. They also argue his move on Ruddock was justified and that the new whips team will give Abbott a better handle on what is brewing on the backbench. But many MPs believe the mood in the second sitting week of 2015 was even more fractious than the days immediately after the leadership spill motion on February 9.

Even for a prime minister who relishes conflict, Abbott is fighting on many fronts with a dwindling number of loyal lieutenants. His most active and senior supporter is Treasurer Joe Hockey, whose fortunes are tied closely to the prime minister’s. But even this relationship is strained, as their rhetoric diverges on the fate of budget measures and some MPs urge Abbott to cut Hockey loose. Scott Morrison seemed to be auditioning for Hockey’s job, making the case in a Press Club speech on welfare reform on Wednesday for long-term structural changes to deal with budgetary pressures.

Abbott saw off the leadership spill motion 61 votes to 39. But if he narrowly won that battle, he is not winning the war.

Last year, when Liberal backbenchers began raising concerns with frontbenchers that Abbott was leading them into a quagmire, they were told that if there were to be any momentum for change, it would need to come from them, the foot soldiers. It would not come from the generals in cabinet.

The narrative of these leadership ructions has been of a backbench revolt, yet cabinet has not been without massive and damaging leaks, particularly in recent months. Now a growing number of frontbenchers have lost faith the prime minister can salvage his leadership, though most had willed him to succeed after the spill motion and some still do.

But what started as an “organic” revolt is becoming more organised, with Sinodinos and Brough emerging as key players in this past week.

When asked about Abbott’s performance since the spill motion, Brough says the focus must be on the public, not the government. “Anything else I have to say regarding those issues, I’ll say privately,” he says. “I’ll continue to use vehicles that are open to us to express my views, positive or otherwise.”

In the Liberal Party, there are loose groupings of MPs but, in the absence of powerbrokers who can wield influence over preselections, power is much more diffuse than in the Labor Party, where factions can shift the allegiance of whole blocs. When Abbott won the leadership from Turnbull in 2009, South Australian veteran senator Nick Minchin wielded this sort of power on the party’s right-wing and was influential in the leadership change. No figure of similar standing has emerged to replace him. 

In the current party, Sinodinos comes closest to this role, although he is no longer on the frontbench. He resigned as assistant treasurer last December after standing aside for a year during ICAC investigations. He blames the Prime Minister’s Office for the leaking of his resignation, but three days after the spill motion he offered to help Abbott get things back on track. It seems this offer has not yet been taken up, and now it may be too late.

The source of Sinodinos’s power is his long and close relationship with Howard, for whom he was chief of staff. His public comments around the spill motion were decisive, but at that stage he was not actively organising any opposition to Abbott. In the lead-up, he told Sky News his support for Abbott was “not unconditional” and said on the eve of the vote that he would support the spill and was disappointed the PM had brought it forward by a day. 

Along with Brough, who returned to parliament in 2013 after losing his seat in 2007 and is frequently described as “ambitious”, Sinodinos is now seen as pushing for a rapid resolution of the leadership drama. It is being discussed as bigger than Abbott. Instead, talks are revolving around the need to end the era of dysfunction and toxic politics that began with the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd governments and has extended for 18 months under the Coalition.

1 . Backbench concerns

The backbench concerns about the government’s direction and the fact that Abbott had not made the transition from Opposition to government began as early as last April, when the Liberals came close to losing the third senate spot at the West Australian senate election re-run. Complaints intensified around the May budget.

Before the budget was even released, there was an extraordinary leak from the expenditure review committee, about a debt levy on high-income earners. 

Teresa Gambaro, a Queenslander who was an assistant minister in the Howard government, made her concerns public early. 

“I think there needs to be much more backbench communication and that clearly hasn’t happened,” she told ABC Radio the week before the budget. “As a member of the party room, I was never told that there was going to be a proposed tax levy. It’s bad policy. We said we were going to be a government of no surprises and I think this is absolutely a breach of trust.”

But to understand how Abbott ended up so besieged, we must reach back even further than the budget. Some MPs trace the genesis of the crisis around Abbott’s leadership back to the first of his “captain’s calls” in March 2010, when he made a unilateral decision from opposition to announce a generous paid parental leave scheme, funded in part by a levy on big businesses.

The party subsequently took this policy to two federal elections and into government, yet MPs suggest that way back then, within three months of becoming leader, Abbott had already begun to “burn his internal political capital”. Responding to Coalition MPs’ criticism of the scheme at the time, Abbott told the party room it had been his decision. ‘‘Sometimes it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission,’’ he said.

It took him almost five years to realise that forgiveness was not forthcoming, before ditching the policy a month ago.

Through the 2013 campaign, in his determination to win office, and guided by a disciplined strategy overseen by Credlin, Abbott narrowed his options for governing, laying a series of booby traps that would later ensnare him. There were the ironclad promises that would need to be broken. He pledged “no cuts to education, no cuts to health, no changes to pensions, no change to the GST and no cuts to the ABC or SBS”.

But the line that would haunt him most from his speech at the 2013 Coalition campaign launch was when he correctly identified Labor’s biggest weakness. “The worst deficit is not the budget deficit but the trust deficit,” he said. “This election is all about trust.”

Within weeks of the budget, backbenchers were feeling the anger of constituents who felt their trust had been abused. When they sought to raise these concerns with the Prime Minister’s Office, some MPs claim Credlin gave them a tongue-lashing. In the case of Wyatt Roy, parliament’s youngest MP, The Australian’s columnist Niki Savva revealed that Abbott yelled at Roy when he suggested at a dinner for marginal-seat holders in May that the government should acknowledge broken promises, apologise and move on.

Roy, a second-term MP from the Queensland seat of Longman, is no longer talking publicly about the leadership. But in the days leading up to and following the spill motion, he made some salient points. While other MPs were still hedging their bets on the future of the leadership, Roy – who was recently referred to in the senate by Liberal Chris Back as the “prime minister of Australia in 2050” – had obviously decided his long-term career prospects lay beyond Abbott. He spoke soon after the spill motion of the need for politicians to engage in a conversation with voters, rather than lecturing them. And he called for more “forthright and open discussions” within the government. 

Gambaro, a moderate, outlined similar ideas in an opinion piece in The Australian following the LNP’s electoral routing in Queensland on January 31. Gambaro entered parliament in 1996 but knows what it’s like to lose her seat. She lost the seat of Petrie in 2007 but was then elected in the seat of Brisbane in 2010. She lamented that the Liberal Party was no longer the party she joined 20 years ago, calling for informed dialogue rather than “sloganitis”. “Any political figure or party putting political interests ahead of the wishes of the ‘punters’ will quite rightly be shown the door,” she warned.

On the eve of the spill motion, she declared: “We cannot govern ourselves in an internal climate of fear and intimidation. And that is the unacceptable situation we have endured for the past five years.” 

Neither Gambaro nor Roy are seen in the party as MPs whose views would necessarily sway other MPs. Neither is fellow Queenslander Andrew Laming, who was also outspoken around the spill. Yet their willingness to speak out, even when there was no declared challenger, emboldened other Abbott critics, contributing to the momentum towards a spill.

Laming, an ophthalmologist, says government MPs had already been concerned as last year drew to a close that a reworked GP co-payment, unveiled by Abbott on December 9 in an attempt at “barnacle scraping”, would ensure the government’s travails continued into the new year. 

Those concerns were heightened when doctors, returning from summer holidays in mid-January, declared war on the government’s revised co-payment proposal. 

“With the reshuffle of December and Sussan [Ley] as the new minister taking it off the table, there was the feeling there was the opportunity to put the failures of 2014 behind us,” says Laming. “But that was really shattered with the Australia Day announcement.”

After attending official Australia Day ceremonies, Laming says he went to 22 private events, including backyard parties, where Abbott’s decision to knight Prince Philip was roundly mocked. “This was an overwhelming source of ridicule for the government on our national day,” he says. It also compounded the LNP’s woes in the final week of the Queensland state election campaign.

When the prime minister made what colleagues had helpfully dubbed his “make-or-break” speech at the National Press Club two days after the Queensland election, Laming was not even watching. Within hours, Laming released a statement announcing his intention to pursue a private member’s bill to abolish knights and dames. Later, he would drop his bill, saying the spill motion that took place a week later was a de facto vote on it.

Brough also did his bit in bringing about the spill motion. Talking to doctors on the Sunshine Coast, the day after Abbott’s press club speech, he argued Medicare spending on GP visits was not out of control, contradicting the government’s budget message. 

Laming now says the PM has his full support. But when Abbott removed Ruddock as whip late on the Friday following the spill motion, Laming said this was “scapegoating of Godzilla proportions” at a time when there should be healing, not wounding. 

After the Queenslanders had made the case for change, it was over to the West Australians. Dennis Jensen, who triggered the spill that installed Abbott in 2009, went on ABC Television’s 7.30 on February 3 to say he had already informed the prime minister he no longer supported him. Three days later, WA Liberals Luke Simpkins and Don Randall officially called for a spill. 

This past week, while the open war on the leadership was in abeyance, guerilla skirmishes continued.

2 . Clear intent

To the casual observer, it would have seemed a standard speech from a backbench MP. But when Gambaro spoke in the house of representatives on Monday, she was reading into the Hansard a pointed rebuke of her prime minister.

On top of that, she was making clear who her preferred leader would be – Julie Bishop.

“At a time when it appears that nuanced subtlety, respect and courtesy is disappearing from our world,” said Gambaro, “Minister Bishop has shown diplomacy to be an art that transcends the blunt instrument of sabre rattling.”

She stopped short of using the term “shirt-fronting”, but her intent was nonetheless clear. It was a deliberate barb.

There will be more of this to come. From the subtle little digs to the big betrayals, it’s death by a thousand cuts when the leadership is perceived to be terminal.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 28, 2015 as "Plotting the anti-Abbott forces".

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

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