Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Tony Abbott’s game of fallow the leader

Like the little boy in the Dutch fable, Tony Abbott stuck his finger in the dyke this week, hoping to hold back the spring of cabinet leaks. In the original, the little boy saves his country. After a night of cold fortitude, the hole is patched. Abbott is unlikely to be so lucky. The leaks keep coming as the pressure on the dam wall of his government builds to bursting.

You know a leader is in trouble when his party officially briefs that the prime minister read the riot act to his cabinet colleagues on Monday night, warning them there would be consequences for anyone caught leaking. It didn’t stop cabinet’s agenda, the one that warned against leaking, being leaked to two media outlets. The point of that leak was to show the executive had no formal submissions before it. Someone in a very senior position is clearly fed up with the political vacuum being created by a prime minister intent on saving his own job by doing nothing to upset anybody. Especially anybody who is very socially conservative. The strategy Abbott has employed since the February party room attempt to sack him has been a spectacular failure.

Voters have certainly been unimpressed and this is a message government backbenchers are getting in their electorates. Not surprisingly, despondency is the mood they bring back to Canberra. The answer, apparently, is to spin a fairytale. We know this because, wait for it, three days after the “riot act” someone leaked the government’s speaking notes for ministers. Prepared in the prime minister’s office, they advised that “if asked” about the cabinet’s agenda they were to say, “our cabinet is functioning exceptionally well”.

The government’s senate leader, Eric Abetz, ignored the advice and went on radio to confirm there were some very big rats in the ranks. He hit out at these colleagues as “gutless” and said what they were doing was a “breach of the rules”. Of course, earlier in the same-sex marriage debate he wanted any minister who supported the proposition to quit cabinet. His prime minister didn’t quite get to that. But is Abbott seriously suggesting he is prepared to precipitate a crisis in his government by sacking ministers who don’t stick to the script? His ministers don’t think so. Maybe because there is no clear script anyway. They ignored his June “riot act” with the same impertinence. An impertinence born of despair.

In parliament, Labor’s Bill Shorten seized on the speaking notes to ask: “Can the prime minister also confirm that the government is functioning so exceptionally well that cabinet ministers immediately leaked this document?” That clearly rankled, but Abbott’s answer was aimed at his own side as much as at the opposition. He said he was not going to accept lectures on cabinet solidarity from Shorten, “who backstabbed two prime ministers. He backstabbed two prime ministers, because they couldn’t run an effective government.”

And that is precisely the bind his own colleagues are in now. They are weighing up whether the cost of “assassinating a first-term prime minister” is outweighed by going to someone they judge will be more voter friendly, and effective. No one believes Abbott will go quietly, offering a bloodless transition along the lines of Liberal premier Barry O’Farrell’s successful departure in New South Wales. Despatching a leader is the harshest judgement a political party in government can make of itself. Julia Gillard, you may remember, failed to persuade the public with her line of a “good government losing its way”. But there is a big difference. When Kevin Rudd was removed he was still preferred prime minister and Labor was ahead in the polls. That coup was sudden and shocked unsuspecting voters. No one will be surprised if the desperately unpopular Abbott, who has been hanging on by his fingernails for seven months, goes. But he could, of course, damage whoever his successor happens to be, if like Rudd he stays around and embarks on a campaign of undermining revenge.

It is not only the moderates among the Liberals who are ruminating on all this. In fact, those who believe the government’s only hope of survival is to switch to Malcolm Turnbull are alarmed at the amount of footwork being done by conservatives agitating for Scott Morrison. They point the finger at Sydney right-winger Alex Hawke. “Rubbish” is the on-the-record denial. But Morrison and his allies flexed their number-crunching muscles in the election of a speaker to replace Bronwyn Bishop. They supported Tony Smith against the respected moderate Russell Broadbent. Smith won 51 votes to 22. Ironically, Abbott had given the nod to the veteran moderate. So much for his sway.

The outspokenness of Christopher Pyne, George Brandis and Malcolm Turnbull on same-sex marriage has some wondering if the moderates were finally fed up. Pyne and Brandis seem to have returned to their more middle-of-the-road political roots. Turnbull is being urged to bite the bullet and mount a challenge. Some believe he should do so before the Canning byelection, so he could claim the credit for any win. So far he is resisting. But I’m told Abbott should be much more wary of his “friends” on the right. “If he knew what they were up to, he’d die,” was the view of one MP.

Abbott’s position is so parlous every challenge his government faces is an acid test. Few doubt the September 19 appointment with Canning’s 110,000 voters will be a moment of truth all round. Abbott is sure to take any win as vindication he’s not electoral poison. As Bob Hawke was fond of saying, the bookies have to pay on a win by a nose as much as for the length of the straight. But if the Newspoll is right and there’s a 10 per cent swing against the government in the seat, he would be hard pressed persuading his colleagues in much more marginal seats. The late Don Randall was popular and built his margin to 11.8 per cent. Even before his death, the last quarterly consolidation of Newspoll in Western Australia found an 8 per cent statewide swing against the government.

Unfortunately for Bill Shorten, anything less than a 10 per cent swing could create the perception that Labor went backwards once the poll was announced. But the opposition will meet Abbott’s jobs, growth and community safety mantra head on. Labor strategists don’t believe his attempted wedge on Adani’s giant Carmichael coalmine in central Queensland will work in outer suburban Perth. For one thing, the end of the mining boom has already hit hard in the electorate that has more than its fair share of fly-in fly-out workers. False hopes of a new boom in a commodity with its days numbered and price collapsing will hardly inspire. Claims of 10,000 jobs in a mine that is struggling to get banks to finance it is more than a stretch. It is an overblown deception. Adani itself dramatically revised it down to 1464 in a land court hearing earlier this year.

The bigger point, of course, is Tony Abbott is on the wrong side of the argument when it comes to the environment and jobs. Recent polls show voters don’t think he takes climate change seriously enough and as a result is failing to do anything really significant about it. It is no accident that Labor is plugging for renewables. Australians get that the nation has an abundance of solar, wind, tidal, hydro and thermal options, and they like the idea that they are clean. Abbott’s assault on wind, piling on red tape for it while wanting to cut red tape for dangerous coal, flies in the face of this sentiment. Visiting scientists from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change thought the prime minister’s claim Australian coal was safer for the environment was risible. The international goal of keeping global warming to 2 degrees Celsius means, they say, virtually minimal to no use of fossil fuels by 2050. The timescale for projects such as Adani is 20 to 30 years. Ominously coincidental. Besides, what makes coal jobs more real than jobs in the renewable sector? As leading environmentalist and businessman Geoff Cousins says, Abbott doesn’t get it. He’s playing the past off against the future. Cousins is convinced technology and the market is the decider here, not politicians with their head in the sand.

Where the ambitious Scott Morrison stands on this is not clear. Back when Malcolm Turnbull was leader he supported the idea of an emissions trading scheme being a useful tool for abating emissions. A Turnbull supporter says Morrison is more likely to adopt a stand now that would win him votes in the party room.

The fact that Morrison is in the leadership frame so strongly is a tribute to his adaptability. At times he has appeared moderate, for example at his preselection, and recently more conservative.

When the dam wall bursts, he’s counting on not getting swept away with Abbott.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 22, 2015 as "Fallow the leader". Subscribe here.

Paul Bongiorno
is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a regular commentator on ABC Radio National Breakfast.