From a ‘near-death experience’ in February to preparing the Coalition for the next election, it seems Tony Abbott may be an old dog with new tricks. By Sophie Morris.

Tony Abbott rises from the ashes in election run-up

Tony Abbott during question time on Tuesday.
Tony Abbott during question time on Tuesday.
Credit: AAP

When Queensland Liberal MP Luke Howarth requested an audience with Tony Abbott this week, to petition him for $6 million to upgrade the Dolphins sports stadium in Redcliffe, he was granted a meeting pronto.

“I haven’t got the money yet, but I’m onto him,” says Howarth, a first-term MP from the marginal seat of Petrie in Brisbane’s northern suburbs. “The PM is more accessible now. If you ring his office, you can get in to see him.”    

Howarth was among a group of unaligned MPs whom Abbott begged in February to give him six more months as prime minister to turn around the government’s ailing fortunes.

Five months later, Abbott has sailed unscathed through one of the most risky periods for a political leader, the final parliamentary fortnight before the long winter break. He has survived the Killing Season.

Rather than being consumed by leadership tensions, his government has been cutting deals to pass legislation, first with the Greens on changes to the pensions assets test, and then accepting a Labor offer on the petrol tax rise. Legislation was passed to slash and rejig the renewable energy target and a stitch-up with Labor shored up the legal footing of offshore detention.

Within the party at least, Abbott has staged a remarkable recovery since his “near-death experience” on February 9, when 39 MPs voted against him, even though there was no declared challenger.

The Coalition still lags behind in the polls and deep divisions are evident in cabinet, but Abbott has firmed up his support among backbenchers, thanks in part to what some are calling a “charm offensive”. Not only are MPs welcome to knock on his door about matters as trivial as the local oval, they are also invited to drinks sessions in his office and included in meetings with ministers. 

So far, there have been two “special meetings” in the cabinet room, with Abbott, his ministers and the 15 MPs who chair the Coalition’s backbench policy committees. Learning to listen may have saved Abbott’s leadership.

To those who think writing about the leadership is an unhealthy press gallery fixation, this is also a story about how authority is derived within the Coalition and how this affects the workings of government. Woe betide the Liberal leader who ignores the backbench. Labor leaders can, and must, court factional powerbrokers, some of whom do not even sit in the parliament, but a Liberal leader must maintain relationships with a wide network of individual MPs. John Howard learnt it the tough way, when he was ousted as opposition leader by Andrew Peacock in 1989 in a surprise coup. As prime minister, Howard made a point of being approachable to any Liberal MP.

After being shocked by the level of support for a spill motion, Abbott seems to have learnt it, too. 

Backbenchers, such as Howarth, crave attention. They like to be able to go back to their electorates and talk of how they have raised their local issues at the highest levels. Perhaps even include a photograph in their newsletter.

Andrew Laming, who publicly backed the spill motion in February, says the efforts at re-engaging backbenchers have been effective. “He had a strong enough win with unaligned MPs who believed he needed more time, and he has used that time well,” says Laming.

Former detractors are now convinced Abbott will lead the Coalition to the next election, though views are mixed on Joe Hockey’s future as treasurer.

Liberal senator Arthur Sinodinos, whose public support for the leadership spill emboldened other MPs to back it, says the spill motion was crucial in reviving the performance of a struggling prime minister and government.

“Clearly the government’s position has improved. I think the spill contributed to it. People who try to weave a story that things were going to come good anyway are not being sincere or do not understand political dynamics,” says Sinodinos.

“I think the way [Abbott] has performed lately, he has earned the right to take us to the next election.”

Yet Sinodinos adds a caveat: “The issue for us in the run-up to the next election is to make sure that, in policy and other commitments we make, we leave room to do things and are not too hemmed in by promises.” 

Some MPs were frustrated in recent months that Abbott definitively ruled out changes on policies including superannuation and negative gearing. These promises, made in an attempt to score political points against Labor, flew in the face of mounting calls for reform of superannuation concessions, including earlier advice from Treasury Secretary John Fraser.

Another central player in February’s drama, backbencher Dennis Jensen, said at the time he did not think the prime minister could salvage his leadership. Now, he says he was wrong.

“Tony Abbott’s in a very strong position now. All the talk about leadership is gone,” says Jensen. “After the spill motion, Tony could have gone one of two ways: opening up and being more inclusive, or retreating into a fortress mentality. He did the former and it’s worked.”

At the Coalition’s party room meeting on Tuesday, Abbott was keen to discuss the government’s reworked proposals for stripping the citizenship of dual nationals involved in terrorism. The legislation, to be examined by a parliamentary committee over the winter break, is a long way from what was originally discussed in cabinet, which was the subject of extraordinary leaks amid warnings it would be unconstitutional. While these concerns have been assuaged somewhat, lawyers still have issues with the revised proposals, including that they are too broad and will result in people languishing in indefinite detention.

Abbott has also asked the committee to consider making the proposed laws retrospective and has promised further legislation dealing with sole nationals.

The backbench is, by and large, behind Abbott’s whatever-it-takes approach to combating terrorism. It’s an issue on which they have flexed their collective muscle, with 44 of them signing a letter this month backing Abbott, as cabinet ministers demurred. Yet it is not the only or even the overriding issue for many MPs.

On Tuesday, for instance, in the final party room meeting for six weeks, a series of MPs wanted to raise their pet issues, including the closure of regional TV stations, water use in the Murray-Darling Basin, and the prospect of a bank-deposit levy.

According to several accounts, Abbott let MPs have their say, in a way that he might not have done last year, when he had been known to cut people off or sit them down if they deviated from his agenda.

When MPs raised the appearance of Zaky Mallah, a convicted criminal who was acquitted of terrorism offences, on Q&A the previous night, Abbott channelled the anger that animated them. “We all know Q&A is a lefty lynch mob,” he said, promising to consider a government boycott of the show. Later, he escalated his rhetoric, controversially declaring on Thursday that “heads should roll” at the public broadcaster.

When he eventually got around to detailing the citizenship-stripping proposals in the party room, they were universally supported. But it has not all been smooth sailing for Abbott since the spill motion. Within days, he was copping criticism for sacking Philip Ruddock as chief whip and installing pugnacious first-term MP Andrew Nikolic in the whips team.

Two weeks later, another flare-up seemed imminent. Some MPs were uncomfortable with Abbott’s aggressive pursuit of Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs. For a day or two in late February, Malcolm Turnbull’s supporters were urging him to declare his hand, but he did not. The moment passed, and it may not return.

For then came budget season and, with it, garlands for Social Services Minister Scott Morrison’s achievements and a bouquet of handouts that backbenchers could take back to their constituents, relieved that this year they were selling largesse rather than austerity.

It may be too much of a stretch to say Abbott’s leadership is safe – MPs observe there are no guarantees in politics and Abbott’s tendency to overreach can be risky – but the fact that it is a good deal safer than a few months ago is thanks in part to Bill Shorten.

This year’s kinder budget has been a tougher target for the Labor leader than last year’s and, burdened by Labor’s troubled leadership history and his own role in it, he has been unable to make mileage from the Coalition’s tensions at the top. This week Shorten warned caucus there was a good chance an election would be called before parliament is scheduled to resume on August 10. News on Thursday that the prime minister’s office had set aside time for any Coalition MP to update their photograph with him for use in electorate material fuelled such speculation, but Abbott said the government had been elected to serve three years and anyone thinking this way needed “a Bex and a good lie down”.

Howarth, meanwhile, will keep campaigning for the new Dolphins stadium. The plans would upgrade the existing capacity from 3000 to 10,000, in a seat that was won by less than 500 votes at the 2013 election. As some pundits watch for senate voting reforms as a signpost to an early election, the sports complex in Petrie may be as reliable a barometer. If the Dolphins stadium gets its cash, it’s a fair bet an election is nigh. 

For even as Abbott is drawn to wage a strident good-versus-evil battle against terrorism, parish pump politics will always win out in marginal seats. And as Abbott has learnt, a leader only remains a leader for as long as he heeds his followers.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 27, 2015 as "Phoenix rising".

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

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