Tony Abbott’s leadership is now so fragile that he seems nearly beyond being able to rebalance himself.
Abbott is the victim of leaks and general destabilisation, and the continued miscalculations by himself and his office.
The Liberals’ crisis over Abbott’s chief of staff, Peta Credlin, escalates by the day. You wonder how it can go on without exploding at some point.
The most recent leak is of Sunday correspondence from the party’s federal treasurer Philip Higginson to Liberal federal executive members, demanding something be done about the conflict in having Credlin in her position and her husband Brian Loughnane the party’s federal director.
Higginson wrote: “Conflict of interest is a serious problem between the federal secretariat (responsible to the organisational wing) and the PMO (responsible to the parliamentary wing who is governing) and I find the situation if it weren’t so serious almost amusing.
"How this party ever let a husband and wife team into those two key roles, where collegiate competitive tension is mandatory and private consultations between colleagues to see that each side is served well, is a complete mystery … The persons in our party’s history that allowed it to occur should hang their collective heads in shame.”
Higginson is also highly critical of the difficulty he had in getting senior party figures to give him the details and authorities to enable him to sign off on large amounts of party expenditure.
Higginson is described by Liberal sources as a straight shooter, an expert on corporate governance who puts store on proper processes, and someone who is “blindly committed” to Abbott.
So one would think his outburst is likely to have a significant impact.
Abbott is hoping the latest Newspoll, published in Tuesday’s Australian, might bring a touch of relief. Surprisingly, given what’s been happening, the Coalition primary vote rose three points, while the ALP fell three points.
The government trails 47-53% in two-party terms – compared with 43-57% a fortnight ago. Dissatisfaction with Bill Shorten has increased sharply, although he is still well ahead of Abbott as better prime minister. Some 77% believe Abbott arrogant and only one-third of people believe he’s in touch with voters.
The trouble for Abbott is that these days he never knows what will turn up next to throw him off course.
Consider the strange story of his alleged thought bubble about Australia unilaterally invading Iraq.
John Lyons in The Weekend Australian reported that Abbott “suggested a unilateral invasion of Iraq, with 3500 Australian ground troops to confront the Islamic State terrorist group”.
Lyons said Abbott put this during a meeting in Canberra on November 25, where he was flanked by Credlin.
“After receiving no resistance from Ms Credlin or his other staff in the room, Mr Abbott then raised the idea with Australia’s leading military planners,” the story said. “The military officials were stunned, telling Mr Abbott that sending 3500 Australian soldiers without any US or NATO cover would be disastrous for the Australians.”
All very specific, and highly damaging. There is much irony in some of the heftiest recent blows to Abbott being delivered by The Australian, from which previously he had so much enthusiastic support.
At the weekend, Abbott repeatedly described the report as fanciful and false, though he appeared to leave himself a let out when he said: “I have lots of conversations with lots of people at lots of different times but the idea there was a meeting in late November where I formally asked for advice and formally suggested that a large Australian force should go unilaterally to Iraq is wrong – just wrong”.
The Saturday story had come as a bolt from the blue to Defence Department secretary Dennis Richardson and chief of the Australian Defence Force Mark Binskin.
They talked to each other, scratched their heads, and consulted colleagues – anyone who might be seen as a “leading military planner”. Both rejected the report, with Richardson at the weekend describing it as “piffle”.
By Monday the story was being carpet bombed. Richardson and Binskin issued a joint statement, saying that “at no point has the Prime Minister raised that idea with the ADF and/or the Department of Defence, formally or informally, directly or indirectly”.
In parliament, Shorten’s first question to Abbott asked whether he had “ever participated in any discussions where a unilateral deployment of Australian troops to Iraq was considered”.
Abbott was unequivocal. “No, I have not,” he declared, before reading the Binskin/Richardson statement to the House.
Lyons stood by his account. He told Sky most of those who’d said the story wasn’t true – and specifically Binskin – weren’t at the November meeting, which he described as informal.
But Defence sources insist if the suggestion had been made to military people, Binkson and Richardson would have heard about it.
Lyons said Abbott was playing “a dangerous game” – it was “unwise of him” to be making such an outright denial in parliament.
It certainly would be unwise if his denial was not watertight – which his office insists it is.
Parliamentary conventions might not be what they once were, but if the prime minister were caught misleading parliament, he’d be in a political crisis of massive proportions. It would be a resigning offence.
The focus of Lyons’ series was Abbott’s office, especially Credlin, with whom he spent more than two hours.
Just why Credlin – who has recently been keeping out of the limelight in an effort to reduce backbench and ministerial criticism of her – agreed to such an extensive session is a mystery, especially if her memory stretched back to Lyons’ scathing report on Kevin Rudd’s dysfunctional office.
Supposedly Credlin wanted to get the facts straight – one of which is that she insists she is staying put. Perhaps the Lyons articles would have been even worse if she hadn’t co-operated. But the result will be to further anger her critics.
Meanwhile Abbott continues to score own goals. His Monday security statement was supposed to play to one area of strength for him.
Yet Abbott included the lines: “I’ve often heard Western leaders describe Islam as a ‘religion of peace’. I wish more Muslim leaders would say that more often, and mean it.” The reaction from Muslim leaders was predictable.
The worst interpretation is that Abbott was seeking to tap into anti-Muslim feeling in the general community. The more benign one is that he and his office are unable to get anything right.
After all, ASIO and the police are regularly going out of their way to be positive about the assistance that has come from the Muslim community in the fight against terrorism.
Abbott could have easily praised what Muslim leaders had done so far and expressed the hope that, in a climate of increasing threat, such help would continue and grow.
So easy. Well, for Abbott and his advisers, apparently not so easy.