Three things to consider before dumping Abbott

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Are the Liberals overlooking their best prospective leader? Julie Bishop. Photo: Stefan PostlesNo one is talking a spill this week or even in the next few weeks. And the recent polls are good for the Coalition – and what’s good for the Coalition is good for the Prime Minister.

When I first became aware of a possible move to dump Tony Abbott in January 2015, the thinking was that nothing much would happen until the second half of the year. So the timing of the spill was unexpected. It caught a majority of the party room by surprise. There was not enough time to really think through the issues.

The party room needs time to thoroughly consider all the risks and the choices.

As I said after the spill, if there is going to be another one, it would be months yet. That is still my view. I didn’t say that from any insider knowledge but for the simple fact that dumping a Prime Minister can’t be just undertaken out of the blue.

There are risks whichever way the party room goes.

Some backbenchers will now be thinking that they may not lose their seats after all. They might also be thinking that the public don’t really like dumping a leader in his or her first term.

So that is the first risk to consider: namely, would dumping the leader spoil the Coalition’s prospect at the next election?

The second basic risk, again particularly for the marginal seat holders, is that by keeping Abbott, they will lose their seats. You don’t have to be cynical about the motives of marginal seat holders. For many first time MPs if they lose their seat their hopes will be dashed and most will never get the chance to return. So they have a lot at stake.

The third risk is that the party room changes the leader only to find that he or she is not as good as expected. That’s what happened in Victoria last November. The question now is whether the new leader in NSW, Mike Baird, will do better. If Baird wins, the team that says “anybody but Abbott” will reckon the Baird precedent is enough to make the change.

But are Malcolm Turnbull, Julie Bishop or Scott Morrison likely to win the next election? Would they be better than Abbott?

It’s a huge leap to go from being a successful cabinet minister to becoming Prime Minister.

If the party room wants a change they will then have to consider policy.

No one could fairly say that Turnbull has been anything but a team player since he lost the leadership in 2009. He is a respected senior minister and as a result is popular. But he also has some barnacles, the ones who, without consent from Turnbull, latch onto him principally to promote him as a means to attack Abbott. This game of matching and contrasting political figures for political advantage is very common. We know Turnbull rates well with the public but one question is, did he rate well when he was Opposition leader? Why didn’t he hang on to the leadership and would the Coalition’s political base really like him as PM?

It’s a bit odd to compare Abbott and Turnbull as one more left and one more right. But this sort of talk is going around. One former colleague of mine told me that the problem with Turnbull is that “he’s just not a Liberal!” Another wit said the trouble with Tony is that he was reallyDLP not Liberal (as in the Democratic Labour Party made famous by another Catholic, B.A. Santamaria.)

The political labels of left and right do not tell you much about policy views, especially within the Coalition. Look at some of the evidence. Both Abbott and Turnbull have agreed on many issues: they both supported a tax on carbon in the last term of the Howard government. Then look at some of Abbott’s allegedly right wing credentials: they include his big government paid parental leave; his opposition to individual agreements; his support for a Labor referendum to enhance federal powers over local government; and his limited efforts on freedom of speech.

Turnbull is a republican, but so are some right wing liberals. The differences between the two are probably more obvious on social policies like gay marriage. They might have some difference on the ABC as well, but as with the Human Rights Commission and the ABC, neither of them will be advocating their abolition.

The truth is that the Liberal party is a broad church. If I had to put a leader label on any of the candidates then I’d be looking closer at Julie Bishop. The majority position in the Liberal party room is slightly centre right. I think she fits that category better than the two blokes. But I don’t like labels and I think character is also very important. Maybe that will be the real question in a future spill.

Peter Reith is a former Howard government minister and a Fairfax columnist.

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