The Politics    Friday, August 7, 2015

Safety not guaranteed

By Sean Kelly

Tony Abbott may be closer to disaster than he realises

When I first began working in politics, I had to make a huge shift in the way I consumed news. Rather than reading one newspaper a day – or two, if I had a bit of extra time up my sleeve – I suddenly had to read upwards of ten. I also had to keep abreast of what was being reported on several radio stations, and have detailed knowledge of what the various television channels had decided was the issue of the day, and how they had chosen to represent it.

Very soon I came to wonder how on Earth I could ever have previously believed I knew what was going on in politics. After all, a story one newspaper held up as gospel truth was often refuted elsewhere. Gaps in one paper’s version of events were filled in by another. Each morning’s media cycle presented an elaborate jigsaw puzzle: having only one or two pieces didn’t get you very far. But with a complete set and a bit of intuition, surprising pictures made themselves apparent.

For example: sometimes, reading one paper, you might come across a sentence that, by itself, might go largely unnoticed in an article focused on other matters. Peter Hartcher had a fine article on expenses a week ago that touched briefly on Tony Abbott’s performance, and in particular included this sentence: “Abbott's leadership was ‘finely balanced’ in the Liberal caucus, one of his more supportive MPs said privately this week.”

Nice detail, tuck it away for later. But then you discover, in a Dennis Shanahan article focused largely on Bronwyn Bishop’s failings, that “an element of threat to [Abbott’s] leadership was beginning to creep into Liberal discussions [before Bishop was removed]”. In a different paper, Mark Kenny made a similar point: “this was morphing quickly into a full-blown leadership crisis for Abbott, amid growing concerns about his judgment every bit as dangerous for him as the same doubts were to Rudd and Julia Gillard.”

There was more. Peter van Onselen: “Were an empty chair allowed to run the country, Tony Abbott’s prime ministership might be in trouble.” Michelle Grattan: “There are mixed views among Liberals about whether Abbott’s leadership is secure for the next few months.” Phil Coorey: “The Bronwyn Bishop expenses scandal has left Tony Abbott exposed to a fresh whispering campaign about his leadership.” Niki Savva: “Absent improvement, pretty soon [Liberal MPs] could again be asking themselves why they have someone in the top job they think can’t do it properly. It will not be ­rhetorical.”

This is not a simple rollcall of anti-Abbott journalists.

On the other hand, nobody is saying there will be a challenge to Abbott’s leadership. Nobody is writing that numbers are being done, or calls being made – and it is reasonable to conclude that these things are not happening.

So what does all this mean?

It means, first, that the Bishop scandal gave rise to a fresh round of discussion among Liberal MPs about Abbott’s abilities. Second, the wide reporting of those discussions means they were not isolated. Further, given the confidence of that reporting, I’d say the discussions were sufficiently widespread to mean a number of MPs had little concern about confirming the discussions to reporters, feeling safe in the knowledge that the journalists were going to come across the information anyway. 

But it is also clear that, at this point, those discussions are going nowhere. The occasionally febrile nature of leadership reporting would have ensured at least one sensationalist piece of speculation appearing somewhere if a genuine explosion were in the offing. It is not.

But this type of trend, spread in fragmentary form across media outlets, is watched very closely in Canberra. The prime minister’s office will be very slightly nervous, and rightly so. The PM is safe in his job – at this moment. But as was observed at the time of the February near-spill, this is the problem with leadership chatter: once it arises, it never fully goes away. The PM is now one or two disasters away from that chatter becoming a clamour.  


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Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.


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