13 September 2015
by Phillip Coorey

If you listen to Tony Abbott's frontbench, his leadership is back in danger

Politicians can be dangerous when they congregate.
And thus it was that Liberal MPs left Parliament Thursday night after four days in each other's company once more muttering about mutiny.

The difference this time was that it was more concentrated among the frontbench than from those up the back who instigated February's failed putsch. The view was that regardless of what happens in next Saturday's Canning by-election, there will be another push on the leadership. By extension, the Treasurer, Joe Hockey, would go too.

"It's like the election, there will be one, we just don't know when." said one Liberal.

As usual events are uncertain and Balkanised, but the emerging consensus is that that Malcolm Turnbull, who is scheduled to address the National Press Club three days after Canning, would be leader.

Scott Morrison could feature, probably as Treasurer, although efforts to wrangle him away from Abbott are ongoing. Julie Bishop would stay in the mix, most likely as deputy. Others are deserting Tony Abbott, sources say, even some of those very recently on television professing loyalty.

The government's traditional media boosters are growing more anxious to keep Turnbull at bay. Ray Hadley, the 2GB shock jock who is close to Morrison, essentially implored Joe Hockey to step aside on Friday morning when, during an interview, he asked the Treasurer "to take one for the team". A dignified Hockey deflected it.

Summarised one senior player: "There's a lot of chatter among the frontbench but it's not clear where this is landing'.

"That's the worst of both worlds. The government suffers from the chatter."

Said another: "Things are accelerating pretty fast".

There was always a strong chance the leadership was going to come to a head again about now. On January 30, The Australian Financial Review reported on its front page that Abbott "has until the second half of this year to turn around the government's fortunes or risk losing his job".

The rationale of those behind the edict was that the Prime Minister had until about a year before the next federal election to reverse the government's fortunes. At the time, the government was lagging Labor in the polls by about 54 per cent to 46 per cent. The deal was that he had to close that deficit to at least 51-49.

The long deadline was designed more in hope than belief that Abbott could turn things around, but also because the Coalition needed to minimise the "Gillard factor" - the severe backlash that hit Labor following its sudden dumping of prime minster Kevin Rudd.

The plotters figured that if Abbott had been unable to redeem himself in another six-to-eight months, the voters would understand the decision, even part-own it.

Events spiralled out of control following the January story and there was push to spill the leadership on February 9 which Abbott defeated by 61 votes to 39 votes. After the vote, Abbott himself asked for six months. But the premise of that story never changed and the government has now arrived at that point - about a year from the next election with the poll deficit unchanged.

And smack-bang in the middle of all that comes the Canning by-election.

Liberals have noted with some irony that their late colleague Don Randall, whose sudden death prompted the by-election, was one of two principal instigators of the February leadership spill. "Don may do in death what he didn't in life," observed one of his former colleagues with the gallows humour so typical of politics.

One Liberal suggested Canning had possibly bought Abbott time. He said everyone returned to Parliament from the winter break grumbling and uttering foul oaths about their collective misfortune and that Randall's death and the by-election put a lid on that for a few more months.

Abbott will head to Canning again this weekend. More than ever, he needs a good result there to quell the revolt. There will be a swing against the Coalition.

Labor has not run dead in the seat and Abbott's fear is that cranky voters will heed the Labor campaign to "send Canberra a message" and deliver a bigger swing than would otherwise be considered acceptable.

For that reason, it seems inconceivable that he or his office would have planted the story on Friday to the Daily Telegraph about plans to bring forward the end-of -year ministerial reshuffle to head off a challenge.

If only because the government had a very good week with its decision to allow in an extra 12,000 refugees from Syria. Rather than appeal to the knuckledraggers and haters, it appealed to the silent majority and was pleasantly surprised by the result. Second, the story was not on page one which a sanctioned execution plan surely would have been.

One of the dumbest games that goes on in Canberra is trying to guess who leaks things and why. More than often such stories are a result of good luck or decent journalism but people turn themselves inside out ascribing motive and blame.

The trouble is that most in the government assumed the reshuffle story was deliberately placed, given the Telegraph's tendency to faithfully regurgitate the government's line on almost everything.

"Whether he likes it or not, (the Telegraph journalist) Simon Benson is seen a conduit to the PMO," said a Liberal who doubts the story was deliberately placed.

The colleagues, he said, will see it as an attempt by Abbott to get ahead of a poor result in Canning by promising to shake up the government and give it a fresh face.

Abbott may counter that leaking a hit-list of minsters and rekindling the leadership flames a week from polling day may actually lead to a worse result in Canning and not help him very much at all.

The published list of ministers to be disappeared includes Trade Minster Andrew Robb, one of the few stand-out performers for the government.

There was always going to be a reshuffle around Christmas. It is perfectly natural for a government to shake itself up a year out from an election, especially one such as this which has essentially had the same frontbench since 2009.

What has become contested is whether Abbott will be given the chance.