PRIME Minister Tony Abbott has bought himself the crucial months needed to rebuild his battered leadership by admitting failure in his first budget because it was ‘‘too bold and ambitious’’, and by promising to adopt more family-friendly policies.
He promised to ‘‘socialise’’ decision-making while also assuring colleagues that he can beat Bill Shorten. This will include tax cuts for small business and improvements to the way his government operates internally. There will also be greater backbench consultation, a reduced role for his chief of staff and a commitment to proceed with only those aspects of Medicare reform for which the government has secured the broad backing of doctors.
He emerged from a special party-room meeting on Monday having defeated the proposed spill of the leadership by 61 votes to 39. But the result was built on a locked-in bloc of support from his ministry which had given him a solid head start of about 40 votes.
The result was immediately questioned by some MPs who noted that almost 60 per cent of the backbench had wanted his position declared vacant.
The Opposition attempted to capitalise on the disarray in the government, asking how Mr Abbott could expect to command the confidence of the House of Representatives, if he had lost his own party. It parroted Mr Abbott’s own words used in a similar question to Julia Gillard when she was under attack from Kevin Rudd.
‘‘Given that nearly half of his parliamentary colleagues, including two-thirds of his Liberal backbenchers, have today expressed a lack of confidence in the Prime Minister, how can the Prime Minister claim to have a mandate for this country?’’ the Labor leader asked at the start of question time.
It was almost identical to the question Mr Abbott asked of Ms Gillard three years ago after she won a Labor leadership ballot against Mr Rudd.
Implicitly admitting failure in his first 17 months in office, Mr Abbott declared ‘‘good government starts today’’.
However, he faces a steep task in the next few months working to craft a budget in difficult fiscal and political circumstances with the deficit growing and the government’s popularity in decline.
Mr Abbott also moved to mend internal divisions, telling colleagues the spill attempt was a ‘‘near death experience’’.
One of the spill backers, Arthur Sinodinos, said the dynamic of the spill might have been different had there been a challenger prepared to step forward.
Recriminations began almost immediately with claims of ministers using the secret ballot to vote in favour of the spill.
However, most colleagues closed ranks behind the Prime Minister, saying he had secured the time to recover even as they acknowledged he will be replaced, probably by former leader Malcolm Turnbull, if his performance and the opinion polls fail to respond.
At a post-ballot news conference, Mr Abbott acknowledged the political challenges facing his leadership, including the election result in Queensland, which he called ‘‘nightmarish’’.
‘‘Obviously there was a difficult, difficult result in Queensland and who wouldn’t be nervous after watching the result?’’ he said.
Asked if he would be making changes in personnel, including either to his ministry or his personal staff, Mr Abbott dodged the question, saying, ‘‘All of us are determined to lift our game and the fundamental point I make is that the solution to all of these things is good government, and good government starts today’’.
In a sign that the high-conflict approach of the government is set to change, Mr Abbott said he did not want to have fights on too many fronts at once or for no reason.
‘‘I’ve listened, I’ve learned and I’ve changed and the government will change with me.’’
Several MPs who had voted for the spill said they now wanted Mr Abbott to be given ‘‘clear air’’ and six months to attempt to turn the government’s fortunes around. Many of those MPs warned, however, that backbench patience could quickly evaporate.
By MARK KENNY
IT’S the golden rule in the game of power: when you’ve got numbers, you use them.
In politics especially, nothing is permanent, least of all a promise of support.
This simple human principle explains Tony Abbott’s belated but tactically wise decision on Sunday to bring forward the special party room meeting to Monday morning.
Self-evidently, the numbers were there for Abbott when it counted and he scraped through with the help of a locked-in bloc of some 41votes from his hand-picked ministry, and enough of the rest, 61-39. One was informal, if you believe that.
No matter how it is sliced though, this was a pretty miserable outcome for Abbott and for the government. A free vote would have killed him on the spot. As it was, 40 of the 100 Liberals there (plus Abbott himself) backed a spill even without an alternative candidate in the race.
It’s pretty unpalatable. Either 60per cent of his backbenchers voted to tip out their own prime minister, or it was less than that combined with a few desertions from the frontbench. That’s hardly a consoling thought if you’re Abbott. Cabinet colleagues no less.
The first murmurs of recrimination have already started amid talk that at least one minister was seen writing ‘‘yes’’ on the spill ballot. Eyebrows were raised about the ambitious Scott Morrison arriving at the meeting alongside Arthur Sinodinos, subsequently regarded as a key architect of the spill.
Colleagues say Sinodinos’ beef is primarily with Abbott’s formidable chief of staff, Peta Credlin, rather than the PM himself. If so, it speaks to the depth of antipathy for her role that a former chief of staff like Sinodinos is prepared to bring down a PM to remove a successor. This is beyond pathological. Staff are only there to make things better – to serve in the interests of improving the government’s political and administrative efficiency. When they become a magnet for attacks, function has turned to dysfunction.
But thinly or not, Abbott won, and lived to fight another day.