Liberal defeats sound a warning for Abbott

The Conversation

Tony Abbott reminded his party room this week that it was the 20th anniversary of the “unloseable election”. In 1993 John Hewson, for whom Abbott worked at the time, was defeated in a poll that almost everyone thought he was a dead cert to win.

Abbott is confident he’ll reach The Lodge but is perennially worried about a breakout of complacency. He also knows things can suddenly change. A Kevin Rudd takeover would transform the battle.

Recent events highlight another potential danger for Abbott – one lying beyond an election win. Two first-term Liberal government leaders have fallen in quick succession. Last week an embattled Ted Baillieu handed over the Victorian premiership; on Wednesday Northern Territory Chief Minister Terry Mills, who defeated a Labor government just last year, was replaced. Mills' colleagues didn’t bother with the nicety of waiting for his return from Japan. He was informed by telephone his services had been terminated.

Abbott claimed the Baillieu affair was different from the 2010 coup that removed first term PM Rudd. Yesterday he looked hard for a silver lining in the NT, finding it in new Chief Minister Adam Giles becoming the first indigenous leader of an Australian government.

The take-out from the Rudd and recent Liberal experiences is that today’s parties have minimal patience with their leaders, even when they head new governments. The fact Julia Gillard’s leadership hangs by a thread reinforces the point – it’s extraordinary that Labor would even contemplate dispatching two PMs in quick succession.

The authority of a prime minister, premier or chief minister seems to have become as much hostage to the opinion polls as that of an opposition leader, who is naturally more disposable. The time lines for judgment are getting unnervingly short, which has implications for governments contemplating tough policy.

John Howard, Abbott’s hero, model and mentor, had a bumpy first term. It is very possible Abbott, if elected, could too. He has set himself formidable challenges, in particular by promising that if the Senate blocked the repeal of the carbon tax he would go to a double dissolution. He hopes he would not be forced to carry through this threat, but if he was, and the polls were bad as the fresh election loomed, one can imagine serious jitters in his ranks.

Abbott would arrive in office without the high personal popularity that can buttress a PM who wants or needs to take hard decisions. The honeymoon could be short. Dealing with the media could become a nightmare.

In office Abbott would favour fewer doorstops and the like (he currently avoids harder gigs, such as Lateline). The media would still need to fill the 24-hour cycle; addicted to hype, they would be frustrated if a non-hung parliament meant less happening and if there were less access.

There would be another dynamic. Sections of the media who’d cheered him in opposition would be looking for a policy purity he would be unlikely to deliver.

So would some of his own. Managing his followers could be trickier than now, when the smell of power is a sharp discipline. Abbott is astride a party containing strong views. Despite being of the broad right and supported by it, he is more centrist than many colleagues who could become dissatisfied at his pragmatism.

There is also potential in a new government for inexperience to take its toll.

This happened in the early days of Howard. Abbott’s office is very risk averse with shadow ministers, for example restricting their appearances on TV shows.

Ministers are inevitably more exposed. If they’ve been over-sheltered in opposition they can be easily accident prone.

Abbott has said that his present frontbenchers can expect to occupy their same jobs if the Coalition wins government. Even if he didn’t follow this to the letter, he has constrained his flexibility to get the best ministry possible.

That would be bad for him on two grounds. The team would not comprise the maximum talent available. And ambitious backbenchers could become resentful at being passed over for under-performers whom they regarded as time-servers.

The prime ministership doesn’t provide automatic protection from leadership aspirants, as Labor experience shows. Malcolm Turnbull has been behaving impeccably. But what would happen if Turnbull, frustrated at being confined to the communications portfolio, saw Abbott floundering? His ambition would be rekindled. To say nothing of that of Joe Hockey.

For all his campaigning success, Abbott still gives the impression of being under-cooked as a PM-in-waiting. There is a danger that in power he could be swayed by those – whether colleagues, advisers or associates – who have passions (often negative) and agendas that would not make for a good Abbott government.

The bigger Abbott’s majority, the greater the safety net he would have; if a Rudd ascendancy was followed by a Coalition government with a narrow majority, he would be more vulnerable, within his own party, as well as electorally.

In the coming months he needs to be preparing intensively for handling office, a quite different task from managing opposition.

Michelle Grattan is a Professorial Fellow at University of Canberra. This story first appeared on The Conversation. Reproduced with permission.

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A sorry state of affairs.
Government of the people by the people for the people was ever a bucket list item.
The overriding rule is that he who holds the gold makes the rules.
The "gold" can be power and connections, faction support, corruption (lets all follow NSW).
but most certainly not "a level and balanced playing field".
Constituents are like corks on the ocean and no number of corks can control an oceans current (political party faction).

We are doomed to continue to be on the receiving end of crap government in the foreseeable future - most certainly Federal and, in many cases, also State.
Just having those federal and state power plays (GST anyone) ensures a vitriolic climate in our parliaments.

It's most certainly not in the best interests of us Hoi Polloi who are supposedly the grateful recipients of "good government"

The danger for Abbott will come from Queensland risky blunt privatisations, if they chop all the jobs there without developing the economy and creating new jobs, PPP or other, it will hurt far more than the change of premier in Victoria and NT, specially if the downturn in job opportunities hits before Septembre and rebuilding from the flood and recent cyclones is depleted by the tax take.

Some people talk of Rudd returning to the Labor leadership.
Rudd was removed because he was useless, no-one could work with him and the party 'lost its way'.

It would be a foolish move of Labor to bring Rudd back. I don't think the public appreciate the level of self-destruct mode that the Labor party would go into if Rudd returned!

Rudd's 'slick' talking might be popular with the public, but that does not change the fact that he could not run a government (many QLD people already told us that) and many people could not (and refuse to) work under his autocratic management style.

And how would a Rudd return be explained ? The party REALly lost its way under Julia and Rudd wasn't that bad afterall ? We made a mistake ? The Liberals would be given instant ammunition!

And to those who want Rudd back just so that they can vote him out, I would suggest that we don't want Rudd back at any time or at any price!

I remember when labour lost in NSW. There was a feeling of relief, it wasn't animosity towards labour, it was pure relief, that we could get away from factional power plays. The power of the NSW right was scary.

Craig Thompson, singing ministers, ministers that want to create marine parks larger than Europe, ministers that cant project the difference between $3 billion and $168 million, the continual desire to replace the states, the desire to muzzle free speech.

I've had enough and I voted for them. Tony could not be worse.

Yep "Tony could not be worse", One has to remember that Howard was fairly inept, in fact cringe worthy, when he became P.M. He grew into the job, and love him or hate him, he represented Australia or Australians rather well. JWH just hung around to long, and Rudd was a younger version o him. Even P.M. Gillard comes across as in charge whereas Abbott during interviews, does not. But, overall, like you, I want a change of government. Hopefully Abbott may surprise all of us. Cheers.

Little Kevie Dudd was given the flick because he was a spineless twirp - we the electorate are unanimouse on this one!! It's only the irresponsible media who think Labour's ills would be solved by his resurrection - mind the stench. The Coalition will win the next election, the booty however, will the greater depression!!!

Yes, Tony is not only under-cooked, he is raw. If Tony and his team win the next election; they won't get to serve a second term. We have had mediocrity thrust upon us in the way of government and opposition for over 5 years now, and if the liberals can't come up with something that's a lot better than what they are offering, they have a problem, and we have a problem as a nation. Tony won't be able to hide from the hard questions forever, and when the campaign proper gets under way, Julia and the media will make confetti out of him. Wake up Liberals, changing horses mid stream might not seem such a good idea, but it's better than sitting on you hands watching you chance to do something great for the country slip through them.

Why do you sindicate this garbage? If I wanted to read this type of rubbish I'd go out and get a green left weekly. Stop debasing yourself Business Spectator. Leave Grattan for the true (labor/communist) believers.