Leadership tensions are set to overshadow the final week of the Canning byelection campaign, in which a Fairfax-Ipsos poll has the Liberals on course to retain the seat but with a swing against them of around 10%.
Turnbull camp sources have confirmed a report by the Nine Network’s Laurie Oakes that a government whip, Andrew Nikolic, texted Malcolm Turnbull on Friday wanting him to make a public statement ruling out a challenge to Tony Abbott. Turnbull indicated his practice was to say nothing so as not to fuel speculation. Oakes said a minister close to Abbott also contacted Turnbull along similar lines.
Turnbull backers now predict the leadership will come to a crunch this year, and there are reportedly some who would like that to happen this week because there will be a three-week parliamentary break after Canning. But other Liberal sources discounted an early move.
How the situation unfolds from now on much depends on ministers.
The Ipsos poll, taken Thursday to Saturday of 1003 voters, shows the Liberals leading Labor on a two-party basis 52-48%, when preferences are distributed as at the 2013 election. The late Don Randall had 61.8% of the two-party vote at the election.
The Fairfax-Ipsos result is in line with previous polling, including the latest News Corp Galaxy poll. When stated preferences – rather than those from 2013 election – are used, the Liberals are ahead 53-47% in the Ipsos poll.
Both Liberal and Labor expect the seat to be held by the government but the Liberals to suffer a substantial swing. If that happens, the question will be how Liberal MPs react.
Labor sources say anti-Abbott feeling is the main driver of the swing coming through in the polls. The ALP is strongly targeting Abbott in TV advertising.
At his news conference with West Australian Premier Colin Barnett in Canning on Sunday, Abbott had to fend off questions about destabilising leaks and leadership. He said he was concerned with “good government … not insider Canberra gossip”.
Asked whether he would step down as leader if the Liberals lost Canning, Abbott said the byelection would not be lost. But he would not be drawn on the question of the likely swing. He said the speculation was not distracting him or the Liberal candidate, former SAS officer Andrew Hastie.
Nationals leader and Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss said at the weekend that it was very important all the team move in behind Abbott.
The Ipsos poll has the Liberals in Canning on a primary vote of 45%, with Labor on 36%, the Greens on 9%, the Palmer United Party on 2%, and others at 7%.
The Liberal primary vote is highest among the oldest and youngest voters: 54% in the 55 and over group; 49% among those 18-24; 30% in the 25-39 age cohort and 43% among those aged 40-54. Labor is polling best among the 25-39-year-olds (42%), followed by those 40-54 (39%), 55 and over (35%), and 18-24 (23%).
Among Canning voters Abbott leads Opposition Leader Bill Shorten as preferred prime minister 42-36%. Some 39% approve Abbott’s performance and 54% disapprove, while 34% approve Shorten’s performance and 50% disapprove.
The government and ministers were unsettled on Friday by a Daily Telegraph story saying Abbott was planning to axe up to six ministers in a reshuffle. The story named eight frontbenchers at risk. Abbott said the report was wrong but did not go into detail. He has previously left the way open for a reshuffle.
Abbott has made three visits to Canning but would not say whether he would be there a fourth time before Saturday’s vote.
Bill Shorten, campaigning there on Saturday, said he would be back again before the byelection. He described the destabilisation in the government as “the latest outbreak of the Liberal Hunger Games”.
“Mr Abbott today will be praying that [Labor’s] Matt Keogh doesn’t get elected in Canning because that’s the only way I suspect he’ll stay leader of the Liberal Party. The real problem is that Mr Abbott’s own troops are already lining up against him and the election in Canning isn’t even over and they’re already starting to size up Mr Abbott’s job.”
Meanwhile, on Sunday, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton apologised to “anyone who has taken offence” at his quip to Abbott on Friday – made without realising there was an open microphone – which caused the government embarrassment.
When a meeting with community leaders about Syrian refugees was running somewhat late, Mr Dutton said it was running to “Cape York time”. Abbott replied that “we had a bit of that up in Port Moresby”, where he just attended the Pacific Islands Forum. Dutton then said “time doesn’t mean anything when you’re about to have water lapping at your door” – a reference to the concern by some Pacific Island countries about the effects of climate change on them.
The Nationals Federal Council on Sunday elected former minister Larry Anthony as the party’s federal president, despite his candidature causing sharp controversy in the party.
Some Nationals were deeply concerned because of his past lobbying activities – which included for the Shenhua mine in deputy Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce’s electorate – and his continued lobbying connections. Joyce has strongly opposed the mine which, however, has federal approval. NSW chairman Bede Burke, who had nominated Anthony, withdrew as nominator.
Anthony has moved to take himself off federal and state lobbying registers and given a written undertaking he will not do any lobbying. But he still has an ownership stake in the lobbying firm SAS Consulting Group. Apart from the Shenhua issue, critics among the Nationals think it is a bad look to have as party president someone connected with the lobbying industry. But a motion to put off choosing a new president to succeed retiring president Christine Ferguson was overwhelmingly defeated.
Anthony, who had the support of Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss, was elected unopposed. Another candidate for the presidency, vice president Dexter Davies, earlier had to withdraw because of a conflict of interest – he is employed by the West Australian government.
After he became prime minister Abbott moved to ban officials of political parties being allowed to be lobbyists.