15 September 2015
by Laura Tingle
Tony Abbott Has No-one But Himself To Blame
Tony Abbott has no-one but himself to blame for the collapse of his prime ministership, a collapse so comprehensive and spectacular that it left open the return of Malcolm Turnbull – despite the hostility of the Coalition's conservative wing.
It is a collapse so comprehensive that is likely to see a major reshaping of the cabinet, and of the Coalition's agenda between now and the election.
It is also a collapse of a corrosive style of politics that has dominated Canberra, but delivered very little to the electorate, for the past six years.
His opponents were confident that the numbers had moved in Turnbull's favour with the shift of Julie Bishop, and Scott Morrison running dead.
But the move against Abbott on Monday was not only a successful early surprise but comes at a time when there was little Abbott can promise to deliver to his MPs.
He was going to be mortally wounded whatever the outcome of a Monday night ballot.
Malcolm Turnbull called for the spill after question time.
It is not just the polls that have been looking sick for months. The fuel in the Prime Minister's political tank has been running low for months. He has not even been able to get the national security issue to work in his favour in recent times.
While Abbott supporters complain of destabilisation by Turnbull supporters, it is hard to think of a prime minister whose position has been undone by such a spectacular set of own goals: everything from overseeing the 2014 budget strategy, to Prince Phillip's knighthood, to a favouritism for the Daily Telegraph which left his cabinet believing a story last Friday about a cabinet reshuffle had come from the Prime Minister's office.
He has become a walking, talking three word slogan, unable to grasp the economic debate, unable to promote a positive agenda, perpetually framed in his opposition to Labor.
Even fighting for his political life on Monday night, his first line of defence was to say the Coalition is "not the Labor Party".
The question for voters – and business – is whether Malcolm Turnbull, if he wins a ballot, can now reshape not just the political agenda but the way politics is conducted to deliver better governance.
Turnbull's public declaration on Monday afternoon that he was running against Abbott summarised the Prime Minister's multiple vulnerabilities.
"It is clear enough that the government is not successful in providing the economic leadership that we need", Turnbull said.
"It is not the fault of individual ministers. Ultimately, the Prime Minister has not been capable of providing the economic leadership our nation needs. He has not been capable of providing the economic confidence that business needs."
But Turnbull also addressed Abbott's abysmal political failure in moving beyond his success as Opposition Leader and emerging as a national leader who could competently manage the processes of government as well as drive debates, rather than simply create division.
Tony Abbott has promised 'good government' and 'adult government' but instead presided over a vindictive regime that has alienated much of the Coalition's traditional constituency, voters in several states, and large slabs of his colleagues.
Voters of the Left may be yearning a change on policies like climate change and same sex marriage, but they are likely to be disappointed in the short term if Turnbull wins.
The capacity of Turnbull to get crucial economic debates back on track will be much more important, not just for his own survival, but for the Coalition's unity in coming months, and for determining how it shapes up against Labor.
Already, the Nationals, aghast at the prospect of a Turnbull return, have been speaking of forcing a rewriting of the Coalition agreement.
Their influence should not be underestimated: it proved significant in Abbott's own success against Turnbull in 2009.
Labor's own history means that it will be constrained in attacking the Coalition's assault on a first term prime minister. The long wallow in political woes – compared to the very quick fall from grace of Kevin Rudd in 2010 – also raises questions about whether voters will be quite so concerned about the downfall of Tony Abbott.
However, it is Labor which will be the group most horrified by a return to Malcolm Turnbull.
Instead of coasting towards the possibility of an historic victory after just one term in opposition, Turnbull's ascension would change the political contest. Labor would find itself fighting an opponent who appeals much more to the centre of the electorate, which is why Bill Shorten raced out on Monday night to paint him as "an active member and minister of the Liberal government for the last two years".
"Malcolm Turnbull, along with all of his cabinet colleagues, have supported Tony Abbott and the Liberal government with two bad budgets, presided over rising unemployment, the same unfairness, the cuts to pensions, the cuts to schools, the cuts to hospitals, the $100,000 degrees and the collapse of confidence in our economy," Shorten said.
The one thing Labor will still have going for it at the end of Monday night is the deep, deep divisions within the Coalition being on display for all to see.