Chris Wallace
Why the Liberals can’t kill Tony Abbott

Chatter among well-heeled Liberal voters on their annual New Year’s pilgrimage to the ski slopes of Europe and North America tells the story. This time last year, on her yearly trip to Aspen, one typical Liberal from Sydney’s north shore put it this way: “He’s not doing very well, is he?” A small businesswoman married to a partner in a legal firm, with teenage children at a good private school, she was disappointed but prepared to cut Tony Abbott some slack. Back at Aspen this year, sentiment had turned sharply for the worse. “Oh, he’s just hopeless,” she said. “Hopelessly bad. He’s an embarrassment.”

Abbott was already under pressure. The person who this week leaked the story that Joe Hockey and Peter Dutton argued strenuously against his proposed $20 Medicare rebate cut for short consultations upped it. The fact of the leak, rather than its content, got journalistic pulses racing, because there’s nothing press gallery journalists like more than a leadership stoush, and it seemed to presage the beginning of a good old-fashioned destabilisation campaign. The melancholy truth for Liberals is, however, that Abbott is going nowhere fast – good news for Labor and bad news for marginal Coalition seat-holders observing their own slow ride into electoral oblivion on Abbott’s coat-tails.

Abbott’s reversal of fortune between opposition and government is a deep mystery, perplexing Liberal politicians, staffers and supporters alike. Not that there is a lot of open discussion about it in Canberra. “Everyone has to talk in whispers,” says one Liberal staffer. “Criticism is forbidden. It’s like being in East Germany and worrying the Stasi is listening.” Comparisons with Julia Gillard’s lack of political touch are becoming commonplace for Abbott but, as this comment shows, comparisons with the oppressive atmospherics of the early Rudd government, which ran on fear and humiliation, are more apt. This is reinforced by even a casual glance at the Abbott government’s staff retinue – “full of teenagers”, notes one close observer. 

Just how did opposition leader Abbott, so sure of political touch, become the clunking Prime Minister Abbott even many rusted on Liberal voters now scorn?

First, hindsight makes clear that the effectiveness of Abbott’s simple “stop the boats, axe the tax and fix the budget” attack was underwritten by the political terrorism Kevin Rudd wrought on prime minister Julia Gillard in office. Rudd making Gillard look bad helped make Abbott look good by comparison. Abbott’s leadership talent may have been overestimated in the process. His three-pronged slogan may have sounded like a simpleton’s rant in the context of a Gillard government not subject to internal Rudd strafing.

Second, Abbott did not warn anyone, including his own colleagues, that he would move the Coalition policy agenda sharply to the right in office, beyond – industrial relations excepted – the boundaries established by his conservative prime ministerial predecessor, the four-election-winning John Howard. Abbott would have posed a bigger risk to Labor had he pursued the soft and subsidising economic thrust of his original spiritual and political home in politics, B. A. Santamaria’s National Civic Council. Given his political kitchen cabinet are all moderate Catholics – Chris Pyne, George Brandis and, until they fell out, Joe Hockey – this looked like a good bet when Abbott won office. But no, Abbott’s untrammelled inner right-winger, without Howard to sit on it, burst forth. The rest is polling history. 

Third, Abbott’s chief of staff, Peta Credlin, has morphed from the flexible and pragmatic political operator of opposition to someone reputedly applying the hardest of hard right policy tests to ministerial initiatives crossing her desk – and every single one does. Both Credlin and her husband, Liberal Party federal director Brian Loughnane, are historically Liberal middle-of-the-roaders, not right-wing ideologues. “I’ve always highly rated Peta Credlin politically, and she’s really dropped the ball,” says one Liberal. “Normally she’d come in and say, ‘Tony, this political co-payment thing is killing us. We’ve got to drop it.’ But it’s not happening.” Says another: “She never showed any ideological interest. She was a total fucking pragmatist. Neither she nor Brian have ever been ideological.” There is no apparent explanation for this development, beyond Credlin being in Abbott’s orbit so closely for so long. But it is costing the government dearly. The political filter is gone. 

Fourth, in the entire history of the Australian federation, there has never been such a conflicted troika of prime minister, chief of staff and party director as Abbott, Credlin and Loughnane. Credlin being a woman is not the issue. It could be Peter Credlin in a future Australia where marriage equality is achieved, and the issue would be the same. Loughnane is responsible for commissioning polling for the Liberal Party and using it judiciously to get the government re-elected. The polling is telling him that Abbott and his operation is dragging the Coalition steadily towards likely defeat. Normally a party director in this situation would move to either make sure the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) is revamped and/or provide subtle assistance to an electorally saleable alternative capable of dislodging the prime minister and winning the election the incumbent cannot. But in the current formation, that cannot happen. 

“It’s a huge weakness,” according to one Liberal. “Having the chief of staff married to the party director is a disaster. You need the party director to be able to say, ‘You’re dying out there in the electorate.’ ” But honestly, does anyone see Loughnane bowling into the PMO and getting the staffer most accountable for the prime minister’s performance, namely his spouse, sacked? No. Nor is it any more likely, given Credlin’s awesome persona, that Loughnane would cross her by providing the subtle assistance usually given by party directors in such circumstances to attractive potential prime ministerial successors – the kind capable of winning the 2016 election.

So it is that the Liberals are stuck with Tony Abbott. The received wisdom is that the party’s internal polling has always suggested – including before Abbott became opposition leader – that he was capable of winning an election only in the case of dire Labor dysfunction, but not in more normal political circumstances. Nothing has changed since, except that Abbott’s polling has become more dire. 

But as one minister poses, “Who is running against him who could win?” Julie Bishop’s star is ascendant. Joe Hockey still has hopes. Malcolm Turnbull’s baton is within ready reach in his knapsack. Boat blitzer Scott Morrison is a party room darling. Abbott loyalist Chris Pyne, the other potential candidate, won’t run while Abbott is around. In any case, as a well-placed staffer says, “There’s no appetite among any of the key contenders – not Hockey, Bishop, Turnbull or Morrison – for a fight. They’re unhappy, yes. Very unhappy. But not the unhappiness like, ‘Now we’ve really, really got to do something.’ ”

Part of the reason is “the Gillard/Rudd problem”, as it is known – a reference to the awful political costs visibly incurred by Labor in protracted prime ministerial struggles between 2007 and 2013, the conspicuous part of ugly leadership doings that date back to the late 1990s. No Liberal MP in their right mind wants to go through that. Memories of the days when knives were sharp and flashed readily against Liberal prime ministers are long gone. There is no one much around who recalls Malcolm Fraser’s lethal manoeuvres against prime minister John Gorton, for example, or Gorton’s revenge gestures against the man who white-anted him and went on to the prime ministership, Billy McMahon. 

What used to be practised with fine but bloody virtuosity in federal Liberal ranks is now a lost art. The ALP, enjoying its first leadership stability for a third of a century, is the big beneficiary. One of its now best-loved former prime ministers, Paul Keating, once characterised his own derring-do political style as “downhill, one ski, no poles”. Abbott is more like the alpine park ranger who lays the charges for planned avalanches, only to bury himself in the blast. Liberal backbenchers worry they are going to be buried with him.

Paul Bongiorno is on leave.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 24, 2015 as "Why the Liberals can’t kill Abbott ". Subscribe here.

Chris Wallace
is a political historian at the Australian National University, Canberra.