Tony Abbott tumbles from landslide to leadership heave
Analysis: Party rebellion could usher in fifth Australian PM in seven years
Australia’s prime minister Tony Abbott: poll ratings have languished since last May’s budget, which was widely criticised as unfair to the lower and middles classes. Photograph: Saeed Khan/AFP/Getty Images
Australian prime minister Tony Abbott is a very fit man, and is regularly filmed on a pre-dawn cycle around Canberra or his constituency in Sydney.
This weekend most of Abbott’s exercise will come from picking up the phone and calling his Liberal Party colleagues. His political future is riding on a party room vote on Tuesday, when Australia could have its fifth prime minister in just over seven years.
Backbencher Luke Simpkins, who pulled the trigger on what is known in politics here as a “spill”, is succinct about why he has done so. “I think most people around the country, unfortunately, have stopped listening to the prime minister,” he said.
Speculation that a leadership spill was imminent has not let up since Abbott, an English-born ardent monarchist, announced last week that Prince Philip would get an Australian knighthood. (Abbott reinstated the Australian honour of knights and dames last year.)
The public reaction ranged from bemused to outraged, while the reaction within his own party was that Abbott may have crossed a line. Even his strongest supporters said it “wouldn’t pass the pub test”.
The prime minister’s poll ratings, as well as that of his Liberal-National coalition government, have languished since last May’s budget, which was so unpopular and widely derided as unfair to the lower and middles classes that it still has not passed the upper house, nine months on.
The budget contained a proposal to remove the cap on university fees, which the opposition Labor Party says will lead to degrees costing AU$100,000 (€68,530). The government also planned to slash family and childcare benefits.
Even more contentiously, it proposed a fee for every visit to a doctor, 82 per cent of which are currently not charged for. The doctor’s fee policy has changed many times since May, including three times in a week recently, but still has not passed.
Before Christmas, Abbott acknowledged that things were not going well and said he was would knock “one or two barnacles off the ship”.
It hasn’t worked. In the most recent poll, Labor was on 56 per cent and its leader, Bill Shorten, on 43 per cent to Abbott’s 41 as a “better prime minister”.
Rupert Murdoch, who controls more than 70 per cent of the daily metropolitan newspaper market in Australia, all of which routinely backs the Liberal Party, looked for a scapegoat after the “knightgate” and doctors’ fees debacles. He used Twitter to say Abbott should sack his chief of staff, Peta Credlin: “Tough to write, but if he won’t replace top aide Peta Credlin, she must do her patriotic duty and resign.
“Forget fairness,” Murdoch added. “This change is the only way to recover team work and achieve so much possible for Australia. Leading involves cruel choices.”
Not having to be told twice, Murdoch’s columnists immediately busied themselves with page after page calling for Credlin’s head.
Those in non-Murdoch papers and the broadcast and online media, meanwhile, concerned themselves with real news, rather than attacking the help.
The process of what happens in Tuesday’s party room meeting is nebulous. There are no written rules, so Abbott could decide there will be a show of hands rather than a secret ballot . If a vote on whether to proceed with the spill passes, there will be a call for challengers.
Bishop says she will vote against the spill motion, but has pointedly not ruled out running against Abbott if the motion passes. Turnbull, normally not media shy, has gone to ground.
Turnbull would soak up votes on the moderate wing of the party (known as the “Wets”), but would also need votes from the dominant right of the party, the “Drys”. The Drys backed Abbott against Turnbull in 2009, but political expediency makes strange bedfellows.
Abbott was a brilliant opposition leader who made the then Labor government look like a rabble. He won the 2013 election in a landslide, but has since found that governing is a lot harder than coming up with three-word slogans about how bad Labor is.
But Labor will be quiet this weekend. They want Abbott to stay on and lose next year’s election (the term of office is three years).
Meanwhile, there is a hearse outside Parliament House and the engine is running. Even if he does survive on Tuesday, it will, sooner or later, contain Abbott’s political career.