The most important fact overlooked in the nationwide chatter about Liberal leadership is that right now the Abbott government’s second budget is being prepared.
Meetings are being convened. Important decisions are being locked in.
All of this is happening under the shadow of devastating leadership instability.
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This should be top of mind for Liberal MPs as they consider the next steps after this morning’s inconclusive vote on a spill motion.
Thirty nine votes in favour of a spill is a miserable result for the Prime Minister. Julia Gillard only had 31 votes against her in February 2012, having given several days’ notice of the vote – unlike Tony Abbott – and facing a declared contender – unlike Abbott.
The 61 MPs who voted with the PM presumably include all cabinet members, who were bound to vote with him, and most of his ministers and parliamentary secretaries, who would have felt obligated. Without those votes the spill motion would have succeeded.
Malcolm Turnbull, the man who would be king, now faces an excruciating choice. He wants to be Prime Minister – has done for decades. Right now there is momentum going his way. It must be devilishly tempting to ride it to power.
If he waits too long there is also a chance that another contender, perhaps more palatable to the right of his party, emerges. Now that Abbott is obviously weak, Julie Bishop or Scott Morrison might be persuaded to run.
But Turnbull knows too that forcing matters may cost him votes, reminding his colleagues of the impulsive Malcolm of old.
It’s not a clear-cut choice. Anything could happen. It’s worth remembering that Turnbull himself survived a spill motion on 26 November, 2009, only to lose a second spill to Abbott five days later.
But Turnbull and others should be worrying about the budget.
Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey obliterated their credibility with the government’s first budget. Allowing them to deliver their second will deprive Turnbull of much of the flexibility he needs to fix his party’s dreadful situation.
While Turnbull bides his time, the budget will be dictated by paranoia and suspicion, by concern about leaks, by timid political calculations rather than a willingness to speak bluntly with the public about what is necessary.
And when it is delivered by Hockey, it will have no authority, coming from a leadership team widely considered dead.
That’s not good for the Liberal Party, it’s not good for the economy, and it’s not good for the country.
In addition, the longer Turnbull waits, the more pressure there will be on him to call an early election. With 20 months still to run in this term, a change now would give him time to show the country what sort of a leader he will actually be.
After the vote, Tony Abbott told the nation “this matter is behind us”. They were empty words. It’s not over, and it won’t be until he’s gone. If this government is determined to insist it cares about governing, then the only thing that counts now is action.
Sean Kelly was an adviser to Kevin Rudd from 2009 then to Julia Gillard from 2010. He is on twitter @mrseankelly