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Abbott off life support – are we seeing a miracle?

Tony Abbott
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Never mind that the tubes and catheters are still attached, the second improved opinion poll in two weeks has seen Tony Abbott’s leadership taken out of the emergency ward.

One of his strongest supporters, Trade Minister Andrew Robb, is so confident no amputation is imminent that he’s left the country.

He says the momentum for change has stalled; in fact, there’s movement back towards the Prime Minister.

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The six-point turnaround in the Fairfax-Ipsos poll still has the government trailing, but at 51-49 it’s virtually line ball, which on recent form for the government is a healthy result. The commentariat and politicians on all sides are scratching their heads.

How has he turned around the Coalition’s fortunes?

His office has no doubt. Tony Abbott has been governing and despite the naysayers, his pitch on national security and a controversial swipe at Muslim leaders is resonating with the punters.

By this explanation, the unrelenting attack on the integrity of the President of the Human Rights Commission, Gillian Triggs, is also paying dividends.

“He’s got the base back,” is another explanation.

That, of course, suggests the base is very base indeed. It’s such an unattractive theory that Ipsos pollster Jess Elgood is quoted in the Fairfax papers saying that voters have already moved on from Mr Abbott and have factored in a Turnbull prime ministership. But the published data does not show if voters were asked if this was their thinking in nominating the Coalition.

What makes that explanation attractive is the overwhelming preference for Mr Turnbull on leadership attributes. The Prime Minister trails him badly on trust, competence, openness to ideas, strength of leadership and grasp of economic policy. Tellingly, voters believe he has lost the confidence of his party.

The PM may yet be fighting off Malcolm Turnbull for his job. Photo: AAP

But he is still the leader and therefore still the Prime Minister. He will stay there unless someone is prepared to blast him out. On current indications, the appetite for that is definitely waning, especially in the countdown to the New South Wales election.

At the weekend, Malcolm Turnbull insisted the focus should be on returning the Baird Coalition government.

Mr Turnbull’s party critics compare this reluctance to Peter Costello’s unwillingness to challenge a politically ailing John Howard in 2007.

One veteran MP says: “The longer Turnbull prevaricates the more support is drifting to Foreign Minister Julie Bishop or social services minister Scott Morrison.”

Not one to die wondering, Tony Abbott is fighting for his life.

This week khaki will be the colour of choice as more troops are despatched to Iraq.

And despite 53 times committing himself and his government to the Medicare co-payment, it is about to be ditched. No longer is it “right and proper” and something he is “absolutely committed to”.

It is a backdown welcomed by Labor with the terse gibe: “The only time Tony Abbott is worried about the health of the nation is when the health of his leadership is looking sick.”

More surgery on unpopular and unfair budget measures is expected in the weeks ahead.

But where that leaves this year’s budget, the government’s credibility and Mr Abbott’s leadership is the big question.

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics. He is Contributing Editor for Network Ten, appears on Radio National Breakfast and writes a weekly column on national affairs for The New Daily. He tweets at @PaulBongiorno

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