With the latest Newspoll quarterly showing the government consistently trailing the opposition 46-54 it’s beginning to look plausible, though not especially likely, that Tony Abbott will be replaced before the next election. The two favourites among the commentariat are Julie Bishop and Scott Morrison. The former because she has been so stately and dignified in the performance of her duties as Foreign Minister, the latter because he has been relentless in courting the favour of the Liberals conservative power base.
In third place is the people’s choice Malcolm Turnbull. The former leader is adored by the public but isn’t well loved within the Liberal Party. Turnbull doesn’t fawn over Abbott and John Howard enough, he’s too quick to distance himself from the embarrassing culture wars and doesn’t stick to the briefing notes. When his cabinet colleagues were studiously referring to the governments changes in funding to the ABC as “efficiency dividends” Turnbull happily conceded that they were cuts, but insisted that they were necessary cuts. It’s the kind of subtle disobedience at which Kevin Rudd excelled, Malcom wont outwardly rat on his own party –that would be disloyal. Instead he argues the case for the Liberal Party but in a slightly less emphatic, more equivocal way. He comes out of it looking discerning and reasonable while his colleagues are left looking foolish and out of touch.
Turnbull’s willingness to promote himself in a manner which leaves his colleagues high and dry accounts for the difference in perceptions of Turnbull inside and outside of the political class. The political class see him as selfish and vainglorious but those outside of the beltway have no great love for our politicians. When Turnbull upstaged Attorney General George Brandis on the issue on metadata retention, many observers probably felt Brandis was getting his just deserts. But Brandis was humiliated and his parliamentary allies incensed.
Joe Hockey normally comes in fourth place. The Treasurer was once the frontrunner but 2014 has been unkind to Joe. He attempted to lockdown his status as heir apparent at the beginning of the year and it backfired horribly. Now Hockey is attempting to resurrect his political capital but he’s a long way behind the other three. At forty nine years of age he has time on his hand, but for now the Treasurer is not a contender.
In my opinion this analysis underestimates the requisite preconditions for a change of leadership before the next election. Morrison, Bishop and maybe even Hockey would all be strong contenders if Abbott won the next election healthily then decided to retire but none of them are remotely capable of pushing Abbott off the throne.
Morrison’s popularity is restricted to the partyroom and exists mostly among Abbott’s close supporters. Abbott’s polling would have to be dire for them to contemplate supporting a challenger and if the government was polling badly enough to drive Abbott’s supporters to disloyalty, Morrison would hardly be the one capable of saving them from the baseball bats.
Bishop is more viable than Morrison. The Foreign Minister is fairly popular with a very large portion of the electorate. But her popularity in no small part comes from her portfolio. Bishop seldom strays outside of Foreign Affairs and in choosing to do so she has escaped cross examination of her governments domestic policies.
Those of us who recall her brief stint as shadow treasurer are unconvinced that Bishop can effectively communicate large quantities of specialised policy detail across a large range of economic portfolios. And she will need to demonstrate this in order to be a leadership rival, rather than a potential successor .
One minister who does seem to have most of the facts at his finger tips and who isn’t afraid to bludgeon an interviewer with them is Education Minister Christopher Pyne, but Pyne has other problems.
There is only one figure in cabinet whose political abilities are such that it would be worth it for the government to go through the gruelling ordeal of tearing down a Prime Minister and that figure is Turnbull. Turnbull’s ability to wax lyrical on economics and finance would radically alter the equation. The Coalition could run a fierce scare campaign about Labor’s economic mismanagement that would actually hold water now that they had a leader who seemed well versed both in economic theory and contemporary economic reality. It would be with great reluctance that the party would reward Turnbull with the top job but it would be with even greater reluctance that they would countenance executing Tony, so their disdain for Turnbull hardly comes into it.
It may be that the Liberals will never topple Abbott, that they would sooner lose their own seats than turn on the man that brought them back from the wilderness. But if a coup does occur before the next election, due in 2016, there is only one person who could plausibly lead it and that is Turnbull.