Paul Bongiorno
Tony Abbott’s foul-mouthed fury at whip Philip Ruddock

Sacked chief government whip Philip Ruddock says it’s unhelpful to discuss what led to his demise. But his prime minister linked it directly to his near-death experience at the hands of his party room. A closer look shows the paranoia driving everything Tony Abbott is doing in his dangerously weak state.

Some months ago there was an ugly confrontation between Ruddock, parliament’s longest-serving member, and the PM. It ended in acrimony, with a prime ministerial “get fucked” adding colour. The topic was the long-time politician’s post-parliament job prospects. Abbott shocked his interlocutor by giving him rude short shrift.

Wind forward to the spill motion. The result was more than a first warning: it was a political death sentence. Again there was another unpleasant exchange. A furious Abbott clearly believed his whip had run dead on him. But the veteran MP, following long practice in the parliament, didn’t believe it was his job to whip up the numbers for the leader in the party room. He told Sky News, “To be a barracker rather than refusing to comment was in my view not the appropriate way forward.” That just added fuel to the fire. His sacking was followed by the rewarding of two of the more outspoken Abbott barrackers.

The Liberal leader promoted second-term Queensland Liberal National Party member Scott Buchholz to the job. It has a 30 per cent loading on a backbencher’s pay. A nice little earner for someone who has been a National for most of his political life. He was Barnaby Joyce’s chief of staff before winning his seat. But in Canberra he attends the Liberal party room. As one Liberal tersely put it: “Culturally he’s not one of ours.” The vacant deputy whip position was given to first-term Tasmanian Liberal Andrew Nikolic. He was probably the most outspoken Abbott urger, even taking it upon himself to email colleagues warning them of the dangers of dumping a first-term prime minister.

Forget promises to change, an end to command and control and no recriminations. A week that began with a party divided over its leader ended with stunning evidence that he really doesn’t understand what healing and inclusion is all about. “Well, plainly I wasn’t as aware as I should have been of all of this,” Abbott pleaded somewhat disingenuously to Andrew Bolt. “I never want to find myself in this position ever again. And I’m confident that with the whip’s team we’ve got, I will be very much aware of what’s going on inside the party.” His new whips won’t so much be conduits as spies. To quote another MP who voted for Abbott and against the spill motion: “Good luck with that.” 

Something that should already be on the Buchholz radar is that Tuesday, March 3, is being discussed by some of his Queensland colleagues as a good time for another move on the leader. But whatever the timetable, there is undeniable momentum building for another showdown. The view is he is incapable of change. The Ruddock sacking is just another example of his appalling political judgement. Against that backdrop, the appearance of leadership alternative Malcolm Turnbull on the ABC’s Q&A program has set the tongues wagging. Labor’s Bill Shorten described it as a job application.

But one of Turnbull’s old allies in the party room shakes his head. He says Q&A only reinforces the low opinion the Liberal right has of him as a soft leftie. The communications minister refused to join the government witch-hunt of Australian Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs. Her findings of institutional child harm in the Nauru detention centre were his focus. Abbott thought it was a strong performance. At least that is what he told a news conference. Maybe he is counting on it reminding his more conservative colleagues that, unlike him, Turnbull hasn’t changed.

But the real problem for Abbott and allies such as Kevin Andrews is that the social conservatism they draw on scarcely exists. For example, their trenchant opposition to a conscience vote on gay marriage in the party room smacks of a desperate fear that the old order they champion is no longer attractive or supported. Certainly a raft of Liberal MPs on margins of 10 per cent or less have grave concerns that the direction their leadership is taking them is towards electoral oblivion. The more thoughtful believe the non-Labor side of politics needs more than flicking the switch to khaki or banging the drum on national security. The old stand-bys aren’t working. Not even that perennial favourite: blaming Labor for everything that’s going wrong in the economy.

Consider these facts as a pulse check for the right of Australian politics. The South Australian Liberals lose an “unlosable” election against a stale third-term government. The Victorian Liberals have two leaders in their first term and fail to hold government. Queensland sees a historic wipeout of a first-term whopping majority government, its premier the most prominent loser. In the Northern Territory, two or three chief ministers in the space of two years. The New South Wales Liberals seem to be travelling better, though they too have seen a first-term premier off the job. It is surely more than a coincidence. Much and all as the Abbott conservatives might hate to admit it, Turnbull was close to the mark with his TV observations. Slogans and dumbing down were patronising and ineffective. The fate of political parties in Australia is decided in “the sensible centre”.

In recent weeks we have seen some spectacular leaks coming out of the cabinet and Coalition party room – a sure sign of deep-seated dysfunction. One goes to the prime minister’s transparent ratcheting up of national security in direct proportion to his political insecurity. Marginal seat holders aren’t all that impressed. Two days after the spill motion, 30 of them attended a session with the Liberals’ federal director, Brian Loughnane, husband to Abbott chief of staff Peta Credlin. They told him the government was out of touch with the community’s real concerns. The Australian reported they questioned the extent of focus on national security. Undaunted, Abbott is pressing ahead with a national security statement to the parliament. He began setting the scene for it last Sunday with a video appealing to the nation’s worst fears and prejudices. Foreigners who want to do us harm are playing us for mugs. The statement will assure the most scared xenophobe on how he will stop them. No citizenship, no welfare. 

Labor is concerned the prime minister is intent on breaking the bipartisan consensus on national security. He’s itching for a fight. Bill Shorten is determined he will not be wedged. He released a letter to Abbott where he outlined issues still to be resolved around the holding of metadata collected by 600 of the nation’s telecommunications and internet providers. His reservations appear well founded and, according to an Essential poll, are shared by a significant number of Australians. It found 44 per cent against the retention of telephone and internet data; although 40 per cent, mainly older people, support the move. Apart from issues of privacy, the cost is problematic. Abbott says it’s about $400 million. The money has to come from somewhere – either the challenged budget or internet users. Shorten says the government should stick to the original timetable: give the parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security time to finish its work and have a bill debated in the March sittings of parliament. That may not fit with the Abbott survival strategy.

Making sense of that strategy is increasingly difficult. Abbott’s new health minister, Sussan Ley, is impressing backbenchers with her consultative approach and her willingness to listen to doctors. But she is persisting with the search for a Medicare co-payment, only she now calls it a “value signal”. George Orwell would have been impressed. Labor’s Catherine King says the minister should end the charade and “dump the GP tax”. The senate majority isn’t being fooled. Clive Palmer says his senators would never support the co-payment. Whatever it’s called, it’s dead. Makes you wonder what really has changed. Nothing is the verdict of a government backbencher who says you can’t believe a word the prime minister says. He refers to the notorious Kerry O’Brien interview in 2010. There the then opposition leader said, “the statements that need to be taken absolutely as gospel truth are those carefully prepared, scripted remarks”. But in the wake of last year’s budget of broken promises couched in “carefully prepared, scripted remarks” not even that applies anymore.

Through the fog of war, dissembling and desperation, however, the nation and its political leaders are showing resolute unity in pleading for the lives of the two Australians on death row in Indonesia. Ruddock says the unanimous resolution pleading with Jakarta for mercy was the parliament at its very best. Though Abbott gave him no more time in his job as chief whip, the father of the house says he’s prepared to give the prime minister time to show he’s up to his post.

The clock is ticking.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 21, 2015 as "Whipping up a frenzy".

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Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.

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