Dumping Abbott no guarantee of Liberal recovery

After facing down the leadership spill Abbott gushed to Channel Nine’s Karl Stefanovic of feeling “young and vigorous and at the height of your powers.”

Meanwhile leadership rival Malcolm Turnbull and other Liberal MPs were reported to be using a “secret agent-style” app to conduct their communications.

Since the Queensland election rout and the bizarre decision to knight Prince Philip, Abbott’s days as Prime Minister have been numbered. A poor outcome at the NSW election could be the last straw.

But with so much of the Liberals’ scant credibility staked on their claim to represent stable government after the volatility of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years, no one is yet willing to confront the inevitable and contest the leadership.

The Coalition’s small recovery in the polls may hold off another challenge until after the budget. A Fairfax poll in early March had them trailing Labor by just 49-51. But as pollster Jessica Elgood explained one reason is, “Voters appear to already be factoring in Abbott’s potential departure.” Other polls have shown a much smaller recovery, or none at all.

Both Turnbull and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop are more popular than Abbott. Even Scott Morrison is touted as a potential leader, softening his image from brutal border patrolling Immigration Minister into cuddly family man in his new role as Minister for Social Services.

But a leadership change is no guarantee of the Liberals’ return to popularity. Key to Abbott’s self-destruction has been his cuts and fee increases for Medicare and universities. All the Liberals are united on the need for budget cuts and attacks on workers, differing only on how to deliver the attacks.


Turnbull is the standout contender, with the polish and refinement that Abbott lacks. Some even claim he might be in the wrong party, that his “progressive” views belong in the ALP.

But on the fundamental issue of the budget, Turnbull has set himself the task of merely improving the sales pitch, not altering the substance of Abbott and Hockey’s plans. Turnbull has prided himself on increasing the price of postage stamps as Communications Minister.

It’s to be expected that this former head of Goldman Sachs and Australia’s second richest parliamentarian worth $186 million will continue the Liberals’ agenda of cuts and privatisations.

As Liberal elder Arthur Sinodinos pointed out, “The fact of the matter is, Turnbull is a capitalist. He believes in market principles. Yes sure, he’s socially progressive in inverted commas on certain issues but so are many others in the party”.

In contrast to Abbott’s open homophobia Turnbull attended the 2015 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras and is one of the few Liberal MPs to support same-sex marriage. But his party doesn’t even allow a conscience vote on marriage equality. Given the need to appease the party’s conservative base, and to retain the backing of the Nationals, it’s likely he would stay quiet on marriage equality.

On other issues the difference is purely a matter of style.

Turnbull backed Abbott over his appalling comments about Aboriginal people in remote communities making the wrong “lifestyle choice”, remarking, “He does spend a week a year living in an Aboriginal community, he’s very, very committed to it and I think he does have a very good understanding.”

His martyrdom as leader of the Liberals over the CPRS, for some, enhanced his climate change credentials. But the CPRS was never going to reduce emissions, and in the negotiations Turnbull secured amendments to the package that would have further increased compensation to polluters, while exempting agriculture—hardly the latte-sipping urbanite of Nationals’ nightmares.

Since then Turnbull has made his peace with Abbott’s Direct Action and has ruled out reviving even useless market mechanisms like the carbon tax or an emissions trading scheme.

As Abbott followed up his announcement that “good government begins today” with the witch-hunt against Gillian Triggs, Turnbull refused to join in. But his only response was to talk up the government’s efforts to get children out of detention—with no apology or condemnation of the abuse of asylum seeker children.

As opposition leader he advocated the return to Temporary Protection Visas and offshore processing, while lambasting Rudd for being “soft” on boat arrivals. Long before Abbott made the slogan his own Malcolm was droning that “only a Turnbull government can stop the boats”.

So long as Turnbull remains committed to the policies that are at the root of the Liberals’ woes, a change of leaders would bring no more than temporary relief. It’s our job to make sure that, whoever replaces Abbott, their honeymoon is brief.

By Lachlan Marshall


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