Final sitting weeks of the parliamentary year are historically “killing fields” for federal party leaders stalked by ambitious rivals feeding on the doubts or concerns of their colleagues.
As the annus horribilis of 2020 draws to an end there are rumblings over the performance of two of our party chiefs, with grave implications for the third.
The stability of the government and the Labor Opposition is in play.
Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack and Nationals leader sailed through his last party room meeting on Monday.
There was no leadership spill, but there was the return of a prodigal son with a not-so-hidden agenda.
Queenslander Llew O’Brien has returned to the fold, he says at the encouragement of the party’s deputy leader Agriculture Minister David Littleproud.
O’Brien quit the party room in February and, with the support of Labor and disgruntled Nationals in a secret parliamentary ballot, won the lucrative post of Deputy Speaker, thwarting the government’s official candidate.
A former Queensland policeman, O’Brien is an ally and drinking mate of former Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce – the two left a Canberra pub last week after a rowdy altercation with a group of “Irish backpackers”.
Mr O’Brien insists his return is “not to destabilise”, but he is another number that would support the return of Mr Joyce and former resources minister Matt Canavan to the ministry – a restoration both men covet.
The plan is to depose the lacklustre Mr McCormack and replace him with David Littleproud, who would then reinstate the pair to the cabinet.
But this was thwarted when four of the current ministry warned they would quit the Nationals and sit on the crossbench in the Parliament rather than seeing Mr Joyce returned.
This would plunge the Morrison government into minority and give the Labor Opposition and the other crossbench members the opportunity to create great mischief, if not the fall of the government itself.
Government insiders believe the Joyce plot will be revisited in the new year, even as early as the first sitting week in February.
Whatever happens, the deeply factionalised National Party room of 21 MPs and senators is a powder keg that could blow up the Morrison government with its two-seat majority.
A return of the coal warriors to the Coalition cabinet would make the Prime Minister’s task of producing a climate and energy policy that is anywhere near fit for the purpose of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 virtually impossible.
On the Labor side of the chamber it is not so much an ambitious rival stalking Anthony Albanese as growing doubts that the long-time Sydney MP has what it takes to lead the party out of what would be nine years in the political wilderness.
Not surprisingly this view is not shared by the leader, nor his allies in the New South Wales Right of the party nor most of the Left.
However there is a firming view in the Victorian and Queensland Right that the party will need to turn to former deputy leader Tanya Plibersek to take the helm, with shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers as her deputy.
The ideal transition would be a bloodless hand over in the mould of the NSW coalition, which managed to change leader twice without missing a beat.
But few expect Mr Albanese to agree he’s failing.
Indeed in a telling interview with Scott Emerson on 4BC Brisbane last Friday, the Labor leader spelled out why he believes he is succeeding.
— Scott Emerson (@scottemerson) December 4, 2020
He told the former state Liberal National Party MP that according to the published opinion polls Labor’s primary vote has gone up three points since the last election and “that’s in the context of right around the world, opposition … is a difficult time. People want government to succeed”.
Mr Albanese also took heart from the fact that while he is trailing Mr Morrison badly in the approval stakes and preferred prime minister, he unlike every opposition leader around the country is in positive territory – more people approve of him than disapprove.
The test will come if vaccines alleviate the COVID-19 crisis and politics returns to something more akin to normal before the Prime Minister fires the election starting gun.
Unfortunately for Mr Albanese, too many of his colleagues are not convinced that will make any difference for them under his leadership.
Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics