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Will Tony Abbott Make It To One Term?

Unrest within government ranks and terror at the prospect of a Labor win in 2016 might lead to political regicide. Or Tonecide.

Image by Ben Thomson

After the 2013 election, there was only one thing the Australian electorate knew with absolute certainty: barring an accident or a Harold Holt tribute dip, Tony Abbott would make it to the next election unscathed.

Leaving aside your position on Labor's policies, or even the execution of them, the six years of Labor rule from 2007 to 2013 had been politically disastrous. If politics is all about appearance, then Labor was a joke of its own making. No matter how disliked Rudd was within the party, the panicked knee-jerk reaction to a dip in the polls with a swift change in leadership hurt Labor more than a one-term defeat at the polls ever would.


The combination of numerous factors, including a fascination with a new Prime Minister, meant that when the voting public was presented with a choice between Labor and the Coalition, their response was a decisive "eh".

Labor's subsequent win wasn't so much a Pyrrhic victory as a stay of execution, and the public's increasing mistrust of the government was as much to do with the nebulous rules of Parliament as anything else. The change in leadership was a stark reminder that we vote for parties, not heads of state; that the deals done with the Greens and independent MPs were necessary evils, that either side would have been forced to enter into to form government.

And then they went and did it again.

Kevin Rudd, like an addict on his seventh attempt to find a vein, finally deposed Julia Gillard and returned, ever so briefly. This was a victory far more important to Rudd than the Federal election itself, with the eventual loss at the polls regarded as an afterthought than a real defeat.

The damage to Labor is still being felt, and it's the ripple effects of that decision that they'll be fighting against in 2016, far more than anything Tony Abbott's done. But the damage done to Federal politics is far deeper.

The idea of a party deposing a sitting first-term Prime Minister has gone – in five short years – from an unthinkable option to be taken in the direst of circumstances, to an absolute inevitability. Following the 2013 election, critics of Tony Abbott did not bother merely looking ahead to 2016 in anticipation of his eventual defeat: conditioned to expect an immediate first-term change in leadership, they immediately began speculation that the Left's false prophet Malcolm Turnbull was waiting in the wings for his chance, one that would come sooner than later.


Once an idea is planted, it's impossible to remove it. Seriously, go rent Inception if you don't believe me. A big, red, shiny button has been placed in front of us. It's not a matter of if: it's a matter of when. It's 24 hour news cycle thinking, where a continuously changing story is the only satisfying outcome. The only way to stop people so used to Prime Ministerial depositions wondering when the Prime Minister will be removed is simply to remove them.

This has never been clearer than in the past week, when speculation flared up that unrest within government ranks and terror at the prospect of a Labor win in 2016 might lead to political regicide. Or Tonecide.

"If there's one lesson to be learnt from the fate of the former government in Canberra," said Abbott in response to the rumours, "maybe even the former government in Victoria, is that you do not change leaders. You rally behind someone and you stick to the plan."

The recent cabinet reshuffle was supposed to clean the slate for the new year, but the unrest caused by the backflips over the GP co-payment proposal only highlighted that the problems were still there. The lesson taken away from this is that it is very difficult to sell the public on a policy that will mark a significant change in culture.

Which leads us down the path to this: in 2015, it's very difficult to sell Australians on a change to the healthcare system. But they're now very familiar with the idea that a leader can be removed if they're not working out. Many Coalition MPs must be thinking very hard about the path of least resistance.


"For the first time since 2009 when he was bundled out of the leadership," wrote Mark Kenny in Thursday's Age, "Malcolm Turnbull's name is being mentioned positively by influential figures on the party's right – something that was inconceivable not so long ago."

If they're really considering Turnbull, then things must be getting serious.

As is often the case, the current crisis was calcified by an unexpected human moment. Speaking with Neil Mitchell on 3AW, Tony Abbott took a call from a listener. Abbott seemed happy to hear from him at first, particularly when the caller described himself as a "through-and-through" Liberal supporter. But then things turned sour. After calling the Prime Minister the world's worst salesman, the caller referred to his policies on education and Medicare: "You've done so many backflips, people don't know where you are going." He told Abbott that a lot of people didn't like him, and then, with all the venom of an Aqualish in a Mos Eisley Cantina, added: "As a Liberal voter, I don't particularly like you."

If it was a plant by Labor, it wasn't a particularly effective one given the caller cited Bill Shorten getting the keys to the Lodge as the worst case scenario.

It was only one caller's opinion, but it soon became the catchcry of the Left keen to highlight Abbott's growing unpopularity, and of those in the Right unhappy with the direction of the government.

If the Prime Minister was hoping to execute a grand gesture to make everyone forget about that 3AW episode, then giving Prince Philip a knighthood probably did the trick, in the way that shooting yourself in the stomach makes everyone stop noticing your twitchy eye. Bestowing honours upon a non-Australian whose primary achievement has been Having Lots of Honours was a bit too much to bear, with members of Abbott's own cabinet anonymously telling the media what a joke it was. Even die-hard conservative commentators like Chris Kenny entered into the fray; a worrying sign for Abbott, who dismissed criticism thusly: "Social media is kind of like electronic graffiti." And this telephone contraption will never take off.

Abbott is set to give a speech to the National Press Club on February 2, where he's promised to outline the course correction he'll be undertaking in 2015. Despite the 3AW caller's misgivings, he's going to have prove himself a master salesman to win over not the country, but his base. It's their support he'll need in the year ahead.

Whether or not he wins re-election in 2016, if Abbott hangs onto the Prime Ministership until then, it will be a real victory. Because if a third consecutive Prime Minister is unable to see out a full term, then it will probably be time to turn to the type of non-consultative dictatorship that people believe we're in whenever the other side is in office.

Follow Lee on Twitter: @leezachariah