Conservatives Turn Their Critical Eye On Abbott

You almost never get a natural experiment in politics like this. Yet now we’re in the third prime ministerial leadership crisis in five years.

So let’s use this unique and rich dataset (n=3) to draw some preliminary conclusions about Australian political culture.

Crisis 1 occurred in June 2010. Kevin Rudd was rolled by Julia Gillard.

Crisis 2 occurred in June 2013. Julia Gillard was rolled by Kevin Rudd.

We could add some nuances here. Perhaps Gillard’s entire prime ministership was one big leadership crisis. Rudd and his backers had brought the matter to a head twice before the final blow, in February 2012 and March 2013.

Whether Crisis 3 turns into Spill 3 is hypothetical of course. But we mustn’t let details like that hold us back.

In fact, we can’t. It is the nature of these crises that everything is, and will be, interpreted through a leadership lens. Malcolm Turnbull made a speech about Asia? Leadership pitch. Julie Bishop tweets during Abbott’s press club address? Leadership pitch. Scott Morrison put out a media release? Leadership pitch.

Once the cat is out of the bag it is hard to stuff back in. Every press conference is now about leadership. Even if Abbott pulled off a miracle – even if he is prime minister for 10 more years – leadership questions will fester through everything he and his ministers do.

A leak to Kieran Gilbert at Sky now suggests Bishop refused to guarantee she wouldn’t challenge Abbott at a meeting between the two on Sunday. We all know how this plays out. Things are moving very quickly along a well-worn path.

It’s tempting to blame the media for creating the crisis in the first place. This makes sense. They’re the ones asking all those distracting questions about who supports the PM.

But, as we know from last time and the time before that, all those anonymous quotes that litter our newspapers come from somewhere. All those public denials are undermined by private briefings to favoured journalists.

Recall that the Labor Senator Doug Cameron was so publicly angry about anonymous leadership stories in the Daily Telegraph in November 2011 that he threatened a press crackdown, accusing News Limited of being “a threat to democracy in this country”. Of course, it later turned out thatCameron was a big Rudd backer.

Peter van Onselen – who has had his fair share of briefings from discontented Liberal MPs -claimed on Twitter that some of the politicians roped into supporting Abbott at a weekend press conference didn’t actually support him in private.

Yes, Parliament House is really just a nest of professional liars.

And once a party’s stone-faced loyalty has been broken – as it has been, with seemingly every backbencher opening their hearts to every journo that calls them – it’s impossible to get back.

There’s something else that’s blindingly evident when we compare the Labor crises to this one.

Much of the conservative leaning commentariat admired Tony Abbott in opposition. He talked about the right things. He offered (many of) the right policies.

But a year and a half in, their critical floodgates have opened.

Now every significant conservative commentator has offered brutal assessments of how things are going. And they’re not just repeating Abbott’s “blame Labor” explanation. See, for instance, Andrew Bolt, Janet Albrechtsen, Piers Akerman, Grace Collier, Chris Kenny, and Miranda Devine.

This is healthy. When the dust settles – wherever it settles – hopefully conservatives will be able to identify the deeper sources of the Government’s malaise.

We saw nothing like this during the Gillard years.

Rather, the story from Labor’s media supporters was that Gillard was actually a great prime minister (great policies, great parliamentary negotiation skills) but let down by a mendacious News Limited, the Abbott wrecking ball, the evil Kevin Rudd, and the fact that she was female.

Oh, and those ubiquitous “communications problems”.

Now it seems Labor’s self-awareness has plateaued: the bulk of the blame has been laid on Rudd for “stalking” Gillard.

The conservative commentariat didn’t create this latest leadership crisis. But they’re reflecting a deeper dissatisfaction with the Government within the broader conservative movement – a dissatisfaction that began with Abbott’s slow start in 2013, crystallised with the deficit levy in the 2014 budget, became exposed after the Section 18C promise was abandoned, and spiralled out of control over the Christmas break.

The Prince Philip thing was just the catalyst, not the cause.

And if we’ve learned anything from the last few leadership crises, once there’s agreement on the cause, the consequences are hard to avoid.