Grattan on Friday: fall of Liberal leaders carries warning for Abbott

Tony Abbott faces new challenges as a prospective PM. AAP/Alan Porritt

Tony Abbott reminded his party room this week that it was the 20th anniversary of the “unloseable election”. In 1993 John Hewson, for whom Abbott worked at the time, was defeated in a poll that almost everyone thought he was a dead cert to win.

Abbott is confident he’ll reach The Lodge but is perennially worried about a breakout of complacency. He also knows things can suddenly change. A Kevin Rudd takeover would transform the battle.

Recent events highlight another potential danger for Abbott – one lying beyond an election win. Two first term Liberal government leaders have fallen in quick succession. Last week an embattled Ted Baillieu handed over the Victorian premiership; on Wednesday Northern Territory Chief Minister Terry Mills, who defeated a Labor government just last year, was replaced. Mills’ colleagues didn’t bother with the nicety of waiting for his return from Japan. He was informed by telephone his services had been terminated.

Abbott claimed the Baillieu affair was different from the 2010 coup that removed first term PM Rudd. Yesterday he looked hard for a silver lining in the NT, finding it in new Chief Minister Adam Giles becoming the first indigenous leader of an Australian government.

The take-out from the Rudd and recent Liberal experiences is that today’s parties have minimal patience with their leaders, even when they head new governments. The fact Julia Gillard’s leadership hangs by a thread reinforces the point - it’s extraordinary that Labor would even contemplate dispatching two PMs in quick succession.

The authority of a prime minister, premier or chief minister seems to have become as much hostage to the opinion polls as that of an opposition leader, who is naturally more disposable. The time lines for judgment are getting unnervingly short, which has implications for governments contemplating tough policy.

John Howard, Abbott’s hero, model and mentor, had a bumpy first term. It is very possible Abbott, if elected, could too. He has set himself formidable challenges, in particular by promising that if the Senate blocked the repeal of the carbon tax he would go to a double dissolution. He hopes he would not be forced to carry through this threat, but if he was, and the polls were bad as the fresh election loomed, one can imagine serious jitters in his ranks.

Abbott would arrive in office without the high personal popularity that can buttress a PM who wants or needs to take hard decisions. The honeymoon could be short. Dealing with the media could become a nightmare.

In office Abbott would favour fewer doorstops and the like (he currently avoids harder gigs, such as Lateline). The media would still need to fill the 24 hour cycle; addicted to hype, they would be frustrated if a non-hung parliament meant less happening and if there were less access.

There would be another dynamic. Sections of the media who’d cheered him in opposition would be looking for a policy purity he would be unlikely to deliver.

So would some of his own. Managing his followers could be trickier than now, when the smell of power is a sharp discipline. Abbott is astride a party containing strong views. Despite being of the broad right and supported by it, he is more centrist than many colleagues who could become dissatisfied at his pragmatism.

There is also potential in a new government for inexperience to take its toll.

This happened in the early days of Howard. Abbott’s office is very risk averse with shadow ministers, for example restricting their appearances on TV shows.

Ministers are inevitably more exposed. If they’ve been over-sheltered in opposition they can be easily accident prone.

Abbott has said that his present frontbenchers can expect to occupy their same jobs if the Coalition wins government. Even if he didn’t follow this to the letter, he has constrained his flexibility to get the best ministry possible.

That would be bad for him on two grounds. The team would not comprise the maximum talent available. And ambitious backbenchers could become resentful at being passed over for under-performers whom they regarded as time-servers.

The prime ministership doesn’t provide automatic protection from leadership aspirants, as Labor experience shows. Malcolm Turnbull has been behaving impeccably. But what would happen if Turnbull, frustrated at being confined to the communications portfolio, saw Abbott floundering? His ambition would be rekindled. To say nothing of that of Joe Hockey.

For all his campaigning success, Abbott still gives the impression of being under-cooked as a PM-in-waiting. There is a danger that in power he could be swayed by those - whether colleagues, advisers or associates - who have passions (often negative) and agendas that would not make for a good Abbott government.

The bigger Abbott’s majority, the greater the safety net he would have; if a Rudd ascendancy was followed by a Coalition government with a narrow majority, he would be more vulnerable, within his own party, as well as electorally.

In the coming months he needs to be preparing intensively for handling office, a quite different task from managing opposition.