Grattan on Friday: Liberals sweat over timing of next tilt against Abbott

Prime Minister Tony Abbott is facing further threats of a leadership spill. AAP/Mick Tsikas

Canberra, thanks to politics being its main industry and the politicians being non-residents, is the quintessential fishbowl. When a leadership change is contemplated, people watch keenly to see who dines out with whom.

So it was duly noted when Malcolm Turnbull, Scott Morrison and Greg Hunt were together on Wednesday at a restaurant on the Kingston foreshore.

Turnbull is the alternative to Abbott. Morrison, the new social services minister, would be treasurer in a Turnbull government.

And Hunt? Remember he and Malcolm were hand in glove on emissions trading all those years ago.

“Maybe they were discussing the impact of climate change on social security,” quipped one sceptic.

In Canberra, the question on Liberals’ lips is not if Abbott will be replaced, but when.

A poster of Abbott parodying Barack Obama’s 2008 ‘Hope’ campaign. AAP/Joel Carrett

On Thursday, the pressure grew with Turnbull supporters saying that leaving it until after the budget will be too late and action should be taken next week, which would also be helpful for the New South Wales election. Those putting the delay argument are worried about getting in front of opinion in the party’s rank and file outside parliament.

After he headed off the spill motion earlier this month, the balance of opinion was that Abbott wouldn’t be able to regroup. That’s proved the case.

Abbott is being undermined by strategic leaks and, in the brutal way of these things, they’ll continue unremittingly.

Leaked emails written by the party’s federal treasurer Philip Higginson – who claimed to be so frustrated by its direction he’s resigning his position – dramatically highlighted the conflict of interest in having Peta Credlin and her husband Brian Loughnane running the Prime Minister’s Office and the Liberal secretariat respectively.

Abbott’s aggressive handling of the government’s battle with Human Rights Commission President Gillian Triggs – object of his vitriol because of the “Forgotten Children” report – was pitched at his conservative base inside and outside the party.

But it looked appalling to be bullying a woman who holds a statutory position and is standing up for children. Turnbull pointedly distanced himself from the tactics.

On the policy front, there was blowback from a proposal to charge foreign homebuyers an impost. A new Australian troop commitment to Iraq was effectively announced by the New Zealand prime minister, John Key, rather than by Abbott – who apparently wants to take it to the party room in his new consultative style.

The unsuccessful spill motion was driven by a rag tag crew of backbenchers, who mustered a hefty 40% of the party room.

The focus is moving up the chain. “This is now up to the generals, as in cabinet ministers,” says one MP. “If there is a problem they think needs fixing, they’ll have to step up.”

The ministers are in the “talking” stage. Some will see opportunities, others find themselves caught in the middle, and there’ll be those filled with fear.

Julie Bishop answering a question by impersonating an emoji on Channel Nine’s Today program. Channel Nine

Deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop is awkwardly placed. She’s faded as an alternative to Abbott, and had a bad parliamentary week, stumbling on questions about the Triggs affair. But she appears to keep her options open, and is much in the public eye, one minute the serious, measured voice on foreign affairs, the next doing what BuzzFeed Australia described as the “world’s first political emoji interview”.

Morrison’s leadership ambitions are manifest, and he’s using his new portfolio to parade his talents and completely remodel the harsh face of his border control days. His support in the party is increasing but his time is not yet; becoming Turnbull’s treasurer should suit the 46-year-old just fine.

Turnbull has some useful associations among his senior colleagues. Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane was his negotiator with the Rudd government over the emissions trading legislation in 2009 before it all ended with Turnbull’s demise and Abbott’s elevation.

Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, indefatigably spruiking for Abbott before the spill motion, also has links with Turnbull, to whom he turned for help with Clive Palmer in some Senate bargaining. Cormann could expect to move up the Senate hierarchy under a shakeup.

Those wanting leadership change think Education Minister Christopher Pyne is ready for it, and believe Immigration Minister Peter Dutton would assess the situation pragmatically.

But there’d be losers.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Defence Minister Kevin Andrews, Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Treasurer Joe Hockey on Thursday. AAP/Lukas Coch

As Joe Hockey prepares to release next week a snapshot of nation’s long term future, half his mind will be on a more immediate and personal timeframe. Under a leadership switch, he’d be out of Treasury. Would he get a ministry? Would he storm off to the backbench if he were offered one? On any scenario, his outlook would be bleak.

That of Defence Minister Kevin Andrews would likely be even bleaker.

The less-than-impressive Senate leadership team, Eric Abetz and George Brandis – it was another bad week for Brandis – would be fretting just now.

And Andrew Robb, regardless of performing well as trade minister, would be apprehensive at the thought of a return to Turnbull, to whom he delivered a lethal blow in the struggle of 2009.

When MPs come back next week, the high level “conversations” will intensify. Their end point we don’t know, but one thing is clear – the command-and-control regime run by Credlin, Abbott’s chief of staff, will not be able to contain them.

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