The Politics    Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The PM moves another step closer to crisis

By Sean Kelly

Tony Abbott may have made one “Captain’s Call” too many

If a week is a long time in politics, a parliamentary week can be an aeon.  

On Friday I wrote that the PM was now one or two disasters away from low-level leadership chatter rising to a clamour. Yesterday’s Newspoll, in which the Coalition went backwards for the third straight poll, was perhaps half a disaster. Today brought another half-disaster – perhaps even a whole one. Events are moving quickly.

Still stewing over being refused a captain’s call on yesterday’s election of a new Speaker, the prime minister got his revenge by sneakily announcing another, of sorts.

This morning, in the Liberal party room meeting, after Queensland MP Warren Entsch raised the matter, Tony Abbott said there would be a debate on same-sex marriage and whether there should be a conscience vote. His party had expected that debate to come, eventually. Not a huge shock. They had also expected it to be followed by a vote in the Liberal party room – so the PM surprised everybody when he said there would in fact be a joint party room vote, meaning both the Liberals and the Nationals would get a vote.

This was significant. The Liberals alone might have voted to have a free vote in the parliament. But the Nationals are far more aligned with the PM’s position against same-sex marriage. A joint party room vote is much more likely to ensure a defeat for a free vote in the Coalition, and therefore a defeat for a free vote in the Liberal Party, and therefore a defeat of same-sex marriage in the parliament. (At this point it seems the vote will be postponed to another day.)

The PM defended his decision by saying that he was just doing what he had said he would before the election. The truth is the PM had conveniently said several things before the election – on one occasion he was clearly referring to the Liberals having a party room vote, on at least two more he talked about a Coalition party room vote. Given the Nationals took a clear policy against same-sex marriage to the election, the PM could have gotten away with either stance – technically. Those crowing “broken promise” don’t really have much of a case.

Unfortunately for the PM, technicalities are not the only thing that matter in politics.

It’s true the PM had to make a choice. Either, in a sense, would have been a “captain’s call”. But that only really matters if you take the unexpected path. If he’d done what everybody thought he would and given the Liberals their own vote, he might have annoyed some conservatives in his party but he would have skated on through. 

But by ambushing his own party, he ensured his decision would become the story – the last thing a weakened PM can afford. He even got blowback from one of his most trusted lieutenants, Christopher Pyne, who in the Liberal Party meeting said the decision would be seen as “branch-stacking”.

It is still too early to tell if we are in full-blown leadership crisis mode. But the tempo has risen fast.

A few days ago backbench complaints were sparse and measured. Today they are everywhere, and there is a clear code to them: Abbott has not done what he said he would when we let him survive in February. “Suddenly it’s six months later and we’re in trouble again”, one told the Australian, referring to the PM’s self-imposed six-month deadline to turn things around. Another complained to the Australian Financial Review about the fact Abbott was not “consulting as he promised".

That word, “consulting”, is crucial to understanding not just the current near-crisis, but the deeper weakness that now afflicts Abbott, and affects our country. Once upon a time it meant talking to his colleagues and coming to a reasoned decision himself. It seems lately to have morphed into something much more restrictive: a demand that the PM, a man whose political judgment can no longer be trusted, make no more decisions.

Our prime minister has been straitjacketed by his own MPs. At this moment he is not so much their leader as their errant charge, who must do what they say – or else.

That is an appalling position to have reached, and unsustainable. There are only three ways forward now, for this current situation will not last. The PM must find a way to rebuild his authority – which, paradoxically, may require taking risks his party does not want him to. If he cannot find a way to do this, the party will remove him. Or, I suppose, Abbott could choose to go to an election, though with the polls as they are that would be not so much crazy-brave as plain crazy.

We have just endured almost a month of controversy around politicians’ travel expenses. Now we seem set to be consumed by a process story that could easily have been avoided, and perhaps another leadership frenzy in a nation that has more than had its fill of them.

For the sake of the country, something needs to change, and fast.

 

Today’s links

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.

@mrseankelly

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