Tony Abbott will be back in Canning this weekend for his third visit. Far from Labor claims that he would distance himself from the byelection, he is putting himself on the line. That’s despite the fact that all the feedback says he is very unpopular there.
If the swing against the Liberals is modest, Abbott’s presence will mean he can get some extra milk out of the result. If it is big, he’ll get extra blame.
A week out from Canning, the government has been consumed with unhelpful reshuffle talk after Friday’s Daily Telegraph ran a story claiming Abbott was believed to be planning to axe up to six ministers.
Among those listed as allegedly at risk were Kevin Andrews, Eric Abetz, Ian Macfarlane, Andrew Robb, Nigel Scullion, Michael Ronaldson, Jamie Briggs and Bob Baldwin.
Particularly damaging was that, because the Prime Minister’s Office regularly briefs the Daily Telegraph, it was immediately assumed by many around the government that the story came from there. Later, speculation moved onto Social Services Minister Scott Morrison, who also has close relations with the Daily Telegraph – his office flatly denied he was the source.
While the source or sources remained a matter for conjecture, the harm was clear.
Within hours Abbott was forced to declare: “I’ve seen some reports this morning about a reshuffle. They’re wrong. Reports of end-of-year reshuffles are absolutely a dime a dozen.”
This was meant to calm alarmed ministers and smother the speculation. But the denial said little of substance.
Abbott does plan a reshuffle before Christmas, whatever the specific moves. Only a few days ago he said: “I never rule out reshuffles because it’s not unusual to have a reshuffle, particularly as a year draws to a close.”
Abbott needs to revitalise his team but also has to try to keep things stable. These twin objectives are almost impossible to achieve, given that his embattled situation means the disgruntlement of losers can be more than usually damaging. To reshuffle a year or less from polling day is a positive if a leader is operating from a position of strength. It is an opportunity to refresh and look towards the future. When the leader is in deep trouble, it’s a lot more complicated.
Abbott’s central conundrum is Treasurer Joe Hockey, who hasn’t successfully sold the economic and budgetary messages. Abbott has slightly changed his language on Hockey’s future. Instead of giving an absolute guarantee, he said this week that it was his “very strong expectation” that Hockey would be treasurer for the government’s third anniversary.
Those in the government who argue Hockey will not or cannot be pushed say that would destabilise Abbott and lead to a spill move. Others believe it only could be done if Hockey were willing to leave parliament – otherwise he would cause too much trouble.
Any reshuffle that saw Hockey still treasurer would be followed by commentary asking why Joe remained in the job.
Even shockjock Ray Hadley, friendly to Hockey, told him bluntly on Friday: “the gloss has gone off you” and suggested that “serious Joe” had alienated colleagues. Hockey replied that he had “cut a few of their budgets. Some of them aren’t very happy.” The ministers might reply it is not so much the cuts as Hockey’s less-than-effective performance that has them critical.
There are lots of other problems for Abbott in putting together a reshuffle.
In theory it might seem logical to move on former Howard government ministers such as Robb and Andrews, who’ve been around a long time.
But Robb, with the various trade agreements under his belt, is acknowledged to have been one of the government’s best performers. To tap him on the shoulder against his will – and he wants to continue in the trade job – would be to send the negative message that high achievement had no value. It is understood that the Prime Minister’s Office contacted Robb on Friday to assure him they were not involved in the Daily Telegraph story.
As for Andrews, he has only recently arrived in defence, and actually is said to be performing better than people expected. One defence minister, David Johnston, has already come to grief – to have a second do so would look, to invoke Oscar Wilde, distinctly careless.
That having been said, Abbott does need to find room to promote some of his parliamentary secretary and backbench talent and more women. That means casualties, but he would need to be careful in picking them.
Meanwhile, in the week after Canning Malcolm Turnbull addresses the National Press Club. The function was scheduled before the byelection date was announced but, depending on the result, the occasion could become very significant.
Canning’s former member, Don Randall, was the seconder in February of the unsuccessful spill motion against Abbott. He told colleagues at the time that he was driven by the need to hold his seat.
Now leadership talk is running again as the bad polls focus government MPs’ attention back on issues of survival.