Prime Minister Tony Abbott will fight for his political life on Tuesday after a backbench revolt boiled over to become an all-out contest for the top job in Australian politics.
A vote on a leadership spill has been scheduled after Liberal backbencher Luke Simpkins circulated an email to his entire party on Friday, calling on his colleagues to “bring this to a head”. The motion was seconded by fellow WA Liberal Don Randall.
If Tuesday’s spill motion succeeds, a second vote would be held to determine the next leader of the LNP government.
In a brief statement to the media, Prime Minister Abbott came out fighting, saying he and Deputy Leader Julie Bishop would “stand together” in urging the party room to defeat the motion. While MPs had the right to call for a spill, “they are asking the party room to vote out the people that the electorate voted in”.
“I want to make this very simple point: we are not the Labor Party,” Mr Abbott said. “We are not the Labor Party and we are not going to repeat the chaos and the instability of the Labor years.
“So, I have spoken to Deputy Leader Julie Bishop and we will stand together in urging the party room to defeat this particular motion, and in so doing, in defeating this motion, to vote in favour of the stability and the team that the people voted for at the election.”
A statement from Ms Bishop said: “I agreed with the Prime Minister that due to cabinet solidarity and my position as deputy there should be support for current leadership in spill motion.” Later, most observers thought the announcement left the Foreign Minister with a degree of wriggle room – while she could oppose the spill motion on Tuesday, she could yet be a leadership candidate if positions are declared vacant.
Friday’s extraordinary events appeared to lay the groundwork for what is seen as an inevitable push for the leadership by former Liberal leader, Malcolm Turnbull.
Those backing Tuesday’s vote want the ballot of 102 MPs to be secret and will oppose any moves to do otherwise. If it becomes a show of hands the government’s 42 Ministers and parliamentary secretaries might be less inclined to break Cabinet solidarity, delivering a significant block to the PM.
Finance Minister Mathias Cormann told the ABC he wanted conventions to be respected.
“The precedent is that it’s a secret ballot and I’d expect that it will be a secret ballot on this occasion,” he told the ABC’s 7.30 program.
But he was clear what his position would be.
“I will be voting no against the spill,” he said.
Employment Minister Eric Abetz also backed a secret ballot.
“The party room has a secret ballot system in place, as I understand it,” he said.
“I don’t want to get into those mechanics, because I hope at the end of the day it doesn’t even get to a motion being put.”
Other ministers told the ABC they wanted a secret ballot because they did not want to be “bound” by principle of Cabinet solidarity to support Mr Abbott’s leadership.
A secret ballot would allow Cabinet ministers to cast a vote against the Prime Minister without breaching the principle.
Forcing MPs and senators to raise their hand in favour of a spill would be expected to work in Mr Abbott’s favour, as dissenters would be revealed and potentially face retribution if the spill was unsuccessful.
A NSW Liberal Party insider, commenting on the condition of anonymity, told The New Daily that any tilt at leadership by Mr Turnbull would be supported by a small majority of the party room, delivering about 54 of the 102 total votes.
Veteran journalist and The New Daily columnist Paul Bongiorno said on Twitter that another insider Liberal source had estimated that Mr Turnbull has 50 votes, although he admitted it “could be bluff”.
Mr Turnbull’s position was strengthened last night when a ReachTel-7News poll indicated the government would reverse its electoral fortunes if he became leader.
While polls currently have the Coalition trailling Labor 45-55 per cent in two-party preferred terms under Mr Abbott, that would become a 54-46 lead under Mr Turnbull and 51-49 if Ms Bishop became prime minister, according to the poll of 3000 voters, conducted on Thursday night.
The leadership question has been festering since Australia Day, when Mr Abbott made the hugely unpopular decision to award a knighthood to Prince Philip, the Queen’s husband.
Two former Howard Ministers, Arthur Sinodinos and Mal Brough, both languishing on the backbench, have said in recent days that their support for Mr Abbott is conditional.
Another WA backbencher, Dennis Jensen, has previously called on the Prime Minister to resign.
The Nationals have threatened to disband their coalition with the Liberals if a new leader is appointed, although some insiders scoffed at the suggestion the party would give up the trappings of office because of a change of PM.
“If all of a sudden a different person is walking down the aisle towards us, don’t necessarily think the wedding is still on,” said Nationals upper house leader Barnaby Joyce.
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The NSW effect
Senior figures in the NSW Liberal Party are reportedly concerned that the Federal Government’s unpopularity could have deep repercussions for the Baird government’s re-election chances at the March state poll.
The so-called ‘preference whisperer’ Glenn Druery, a NSW-based political strategist, told The New Daily that NSW Liberals are reeling from the “carnage” in the polls.
“I can certainly say from the corridor talk that they are nervous,” Mr Druery said.
If the Coalition claims only eight rather than nine upper house seats in the state election, as some predict, then the Baird government is likely to struggle to push through much of its agenda, especially its planned sale of electricity network assets — the ‘poles and wires’.
Shooters and Fishers Party member of the NSW legislative council Robert Borsak confirmed that one less seat in the upper house for the Baird government would be disastrous.
“I would think that their hold on that ninth seat is looking pretty tenuous,” Mr Borsak said.
Mr Druery predicted that Mr Turnbull would deal better with a hostile federal Senate.
“He is a businessman. He has negotiated for a living, and from my brief encounters with him he may have better success than the current leadership,” Mr Druery said.
Former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett has warned that the Liberal Party faces a disaster in NSW if Mr Abbott remains Prime Minister.
Nationals threaten Coalition split
The spill motion comes after Nationals leader Warren Truss warned a leadership change in the Liberal Party could require the Coalition to be renegotiated.
Speaking at a Nationals meeting this week, Mr Truss said the Coalition agreement was between he and Tony Abbott and any change of leader would require a “different agreement”.
“I think (Tony Abbott) is doing a good job, and I would like his leadership to continue,” Mr Truss told the ABC.
Despite throwing his support behind the current prime minister, Mr Truss conceded the Liberal Party needed to address it’s leadership problems.
“I think it is important that we are a strong and stable government and therefore that the leadership issues are settled and settled quickly.’’
Mr Truss serves as deputy prime minister, with the Liberal and National parties forming the Coalition government.