Briefing | opinion

The Liberal Party has become everything voters hated about Labor under Rudd and Gillard

Stefan Postles/ Getty ImagesTony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull on Feb 9, 2015, the day Abbott survived a spill motion 61 votes to 39 to continue as PM. Seven months later he was gone, replaced by Turnbull in 54-44 party room vote.
  • Today’s Liberal leadership challenge has the government looking like a bad rerun of the previous Labor government.
  • The party’s actions are a betrayal of Tony Abbott’s 2013 promise to be the opposite of Labor – and Abbott has been a key driver of the problem.
  • Either way, Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership is now terminal, which will paralyse the government up to the next election.

Tony Abbott won an election in 2013 because the Labor Party couldn’t govern itself.

Abbott has now done Labor a favour in its bid for power because of his relentless efforts to ensure the Liberal Party can’t govern itself.

The government has become everything voters hated when Labor was last in charge under Rudd-Gillard-Rudd and why Abbott was elected.

John Howard’s 2004-2007 reign looks likely to remain the last time a PM has seen out his term in office for now.

The narrowness of Turnbull’s win in a leadership spill today (48-35) – just seven more Liberals need to change their mind to change the PM – is the beginning of his end. (Incidentally, Abbott defeated Turnbull by 42 votes to 41 in 2009, then Turnbull regained the leadership 54-44 in 2015).

Turnbull is mortally wounded. A leadership change is when, not if, for the Liberals. Today’s spill was just the PM buying more time. No doubt aware that momentum was shifting towards Dutton, Turnbull declared the leadership vacant today before his rival could assemble the required numbers.

They’ll come. The party no longer really cares about how it looks in the eyes of the voters. It’s absorbed in its own power struggle. And Abbott believes he needs to blow up the Liberal party in order to save it.

But the clock is now ticking towards the ballot box – the appetite for Labor remains reduced among voters so expect the primary vote for both major parties to remain low amid the continued rise of alternatives – and having already lost 38 Newspolls in a row under Turnbull, it’s hard to see how the Coalition can turn its fortunes around.

And it certainly can’t do it with a hardline conservative such as Dutton. The Australian electorate likes its middle ground, something Howard channeled well until WorkChoices. The rebel conservative bloc in the Liberals, centred around Abbott and Dutton, and its rapid push for change, is a key reason why the party ended up in so much trouble in 2015 after its aggressive budget cuts.

What are the leadership alternatives?

Treasurer Scott Morrison will need to decide whether his ambition is sufficient to spur action, or he wants to be Peter Costello redux. Foreign minister Julie Bishop, elected deputy unopposed yet again today, appears content with her lot.

Abbott? Only he believes it.

Meanwhile, energy policy, a key concern among voters, remains a mess amid Canberra’s playground squabbles.

A decade of vacillation and revocation continues and the electorate is weary and longing for resolution.

But the government has now lost one of its most effective ministers in Dutton, who resigned to join Abbott on the backbench and now no longer needs to hold his tongue in Cabinet solidarity, adding to the former PM’s chorus of criticism of Turnbull.

This instability will drag on, giving the government few policy wins and amplifying the electorate’s dislike.

Because the forces around Dutton will keep coming – within 48 hours is already being suggested – and even if changes do occur, the disruption on the government’s front bench would inevitably be massive. New ministers won’t have time to get across their portfolios, let alone get any runs on the board. After six years and two terms, the government will have little to take to the electorate beyond promises.

And six years ago the Coalition under Abbott were voted in on the promise that they were stable, adult and would end the scandal and infighting. Instead it’s been six years of “Labor instability? Hold my beer.”

Many considered Abbott unelectable when he became Opposition leader, but he became a highly effective demolition expert in the four years before he became PM in 2013. He just doesn’t know when to stop.

Meanwhile, voters keep looking at their power bills, bushfires and thermometers and wondering what they need to do to deserve a politician who wants to lead rather than just the leadership.

Bill Shorten’s Stephen Bradbury moment awaits, most likely some time next year.

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