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04 March 2015
by Yale Stephens


FOR THE SECOND TIME in a week, a new opinion poll has signalled a dramatic recovery in Coalition support, with the less-than-reliable Fairfax-Ipsos poll’s 51-49 lead to Labor apparently validating the four-point rise recorded by Newspoll last week. If these polls buy the Prime Minister time and should he survive, Tony Abbott must make changes, for even in recovery, he is burdened by unacceptable liabilities that continue to imperil his government.

Some will find it incredible that having opined on Friday that Abbott should resign, I am today talking about changes to sustain himself in office; the two narratives are not as contrary as first blush might suggest, however, for underlying everything else we have discussed here about the fate of Tony Abbott’s Prime Ministership has been the decades-long support for the man I am reluctant to withdraw, and would do so only if utterly convinced his position was terminal.

Make no mistake, Abbott’s flirtation with his political mortality in the past few months has been real, and may yet prove fatal. As it is, I think his tenure as PM hangs by a thread.

Yet that thread appears to have acquired modest reinforcement, with the appearance of a second poll in six days suggesting some kind of recovery in the Coalition’s electoral stocks; it began with the Newspoll last week that I suspected was a rogue result, and now continues with a Fairfax-Ipsos poll which, whilst looking suspiciously generous to the government, nonetheless seems to confirm Newspoll’s baseline finding of a significant improvement in its position.

The Ipsos poll — appearing in the Fairfax press today — shows a three-point increase in the Coalition’s share of the two-party vote to 49%; it finds the conservatives’ primary support rising 4% to 42%, with Labor’s falling by the same amount to 36%, with an 11% cut in Bill Shorten’s lead over Tony Abbott as preferred Prime Minister (to 5%) and a deterioration and improvement in Shorten’s and Abbott’s personal approval numbers respectively.

I remain deeply sceptical of these sorts of numbers, coming as they do in the wake of continued leadership machinations within the Liberal Party, and after the emergence of credible reports of a further decline in support for Abbott among Liberal MPs relative to last month’s spill attempt following his failure to deliver on various undertakings he gave to retain his leadership.

They are, however, likely to buy Abbott a reprieve, the question of just how trigger-happy those MPs determined to drive a leadership change might in fact be notwithstanding: for even in the face of apparently rising support, those disenchanted retain more than enough reasons to feel aggrieved, and we will come to some of those (ageing) issues shortly.

But after several “barnacle removals,” resets, a (botched) reshuffle and the onset of “good government,” Abbott — provided these figures buy him more time — is surely now on his last, last chance to fix his government and salvage his tenure as Prime Minister.

The Coalition, which rapidly squandered the post-election glow from its big win 18 months ago, descended into an election-losing hole after last year’s budget and has remained there ever since, and even the numbers from the Ipsos poll — if replicated at an election — would still hand Labor a tiny majority if the 4.5% swing they represent was uniform.

It is true that Abbott has faced obstacles to governing that he (or any other leader) would face, and about which little can be done: specifically, the poor position of the Coalition in the Senate and the wilful hostility toward the government of those who hold the balance of power in it.

Labor’s blind, blithe, unreasoning and unreasonable opposition to everything in sight doesn’t help, of course.

But many of this government’s problems have been self-inflicted: and inflicted through decisions given Prime Ministerial imprimatur where common sense and shrewd judgement ought to have restrained Abbott rather than the indulgence of ridiculous, outdated and misplaced shows of loyalty being permitted to push his government to the electoral precipice.

And if these polls truly represent a modicum of breathing space for Abbott, they should be regarded as unexpected, and the last time such an opportunity is likely to present itself.

I can say little more than to reiterate two key points this column has made for months now; I am convinced that the key to repairing the Abbott government lies in two personnel changes which, if made, should flow through to other appointments and other aspects of the machinery of government that remain besmirched and compromised by the effects of those roles that are integral to its smooth and productive operation.

The first is the Chief of Staff, Peta Credlin; what I am hearing from multiple well-placed sources paints a picture of political destruction that cannot and must not be permitted to destroy the government from within.

There are good reasons for Liberal MPs — including a contingent of senior ministers — to be aghast at the continuing influence and control Credlin wields, and the almost unilaterally negative effect this has on the government’s standing, its ability to prosecute its case, or even to fashion a feasible political case at all.

We have discussed these matters ad infinitum and I do not propose to revisit them in detail today. Newer readers can, of course, access a selection of the relevant material through the “Peta Credlin” tag in the tag cloud at the right of this article.

I have opined in the past that the loyalty Abbott shows to those around him is admirable, and increasingly rare in politics; even so, loyalty without insight into wider circumstances can quickly become blind, and at some point Abbott is either going to have to accept that his trusty adviser has become a liability and get rid of her, or accept that his colleagues will dispense with his own services in order to get rid of her themselves.

Indeed, if a second strike against Abbott’s leadership is launched despite the better polling numbers of the past week, Credlin will have gone a long way toward motivating those who initiate it.

And with a second budget due to be delivered in two months’ time — and with it, the last real opportunity to credibly attempt the structural reforms the government was elected, in part, to deliver — Abbott needs to replace Treasurer Joe Hockey as a matter of some urgency, and arguments about the poor signal such a move might send are fatuous: just as it is with Credlin, Abbott’s loyalty to Hockey has been shown up as misplaced.

The Treasurer (with or without Credlin’s direct input and sanction, depending on whom you listen to) has already fudged one budget and cannot be entrusted with a second; MPs and voters are entitled to have no faith at all that Hockey — a decent and otherwise able guy — is up to the demands his present portfolio make upon him.

As it is, I am reliably told a little ginger group of economically literate backbench MPs is working on the germs of an alternative budget, “just in case:” and the fact this is happening at all is an unbridled indictment on Hockey and his capacity to inspire any kind of confidence whatsoever.

Far from amounting to a sign of weakness, a straight swap of Hockey’s portfolio with Malcolm Turnbull’s would enable the Treasurer to save face, be retained in a senior domestic portfolio, and lock the aspirant Turnbull into a solid role to which he is arguable the most suited MP in Coalition ranks.

It would also show Abbott is comfortable enough to promote a rival at a time of ostensible threat to his own position.

But if these changes are not made, it is difficult to envision any real or sustained recovery in the government’s stocks, and should the downward slide resume, the consequences will be catastrophic.

The outcome of the NSW state election be damned: the next Labor government in Canberra is likely to commit untold damage to this country, and if Abbott remains in office and gets the next round of key decisions wrong — which the retention of Credlin’s influence will do little to avert — then Labor’s chances of prevailing at the next election become frightening.

Should that occur, rogue polls holding aloft the iron sulphite prospect of non-existent electoral Nirvana will count for naught.

Abbott has had an existential warning of his political mortality in the past few weeks. If the Ipsos and Newspoll numbers offer him the chance to get on with the job, he would be unwise to regard the opportunity as anything other than the very last one he will get.