The Liberal Party will decide its leader tonight, and thus Australia’s prime minister after Malcolm Turnbull announced he would challenge Tony Abbott for the top job.
Abbott announced two hours after Turnbull broke the news that a ballot for the leadership and deputy leadership will be held on Tuesday evening. Foreign minister and deputy leader Julie Bishop has also called for a leadership spill and will be expected to vacate her position.
It’s the second leadership challenge against Abbott this year. Continued concern over his style and poor polling have seen the backbench concerns that flared in February now move into the ministerial ranks. The level of support for Turnbull remains uncertain, however Abbott, announced he will be a candidate and “expects to win”.
Turnbull resigned as communications minister and said the nation needs a different type of leadership to deal with changing economic circumstances.
His pitch to colleagues he previously led as opposition leader back in 2009 was that he wants to restore Australia’s flagging business confidence.
It’s a risky argument to prosecute. The continued leadership fight damages confidence and threatens to leave the Liberals looking as shambolic as Labor before voters turfed them out over continued instability. The old barrister in Turnbull no doubt relishes the rhetorical effort, but he’s demolished Abbott’s two years in power to get there.
“We need a style of leadership that explains those challenges and opportunities. Explains the challenges and how to seize the opportunities. A style of leadership that respects the people’s intelligence,” Turnbull said.
“We need advocacy, not slogans. We need to respect the intelligence of the Australian electorate,” Turnbull said.
His appeal to the party comes just five days before the crucial Canning by-election in Western Australian following the death of Liberal MP Don Randall in July. Speculation on Tony Abbott’s future was growing because despite a likely Conservative victory, polling suggested a 10% swing against the government.
Turnbull was a former Liberal leader when in opposition, but was replaced by Abbott in a 2009 leadership spill. Foreign minister and deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop has also requested Tony Abbott call a new leadership ballot.
Turnbull said he was acting by popular request as the prime minister continues to languish in the polls, eight months after the previous challenge.
“This course of action had been urged on me by many people over a period of time,” he said.
“It is clear enough that the Government is not successful in providing the economic leadership that we need. It is not the fault of individual ministers.”
Abbott ‘not capable’
Turnbull singled out his leader in a devastating critique of Abbott’s leadership, effectively undermining the past two years of Liberal government, which promised relief from the chaos of Labor’s two terms.
“Ultimately, the Prime Minister has not been capable of providing the economic leadership our nation needs. He has not been capable of providing the economic confidence that business needs“.
Turnbull said change was needed “for the country’s sake, for the government’s sake, for the party’s sake.”
“Now if we continue with Mr Abbott as Prime Minister, it is clear enough what will happen. He will cease to be Prime Minister and he’ll be succeeded by Mr Shorten,” he said.
“The one thing that is clear about our current situation is the trajectory. We have lost 30 Newspolls in a row. It is clear that the people have made up their mind about Mr Abbott’s leadership.”
The challenge comes just a week after the second anniversary of the Abbott government. If Abbott loses, he will have served less time as leader than the two Labor leaders he so successfully hounded from office, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, while in opposition before going on to win the 2013 election.
In making his pitch, Turnbull took direct aim at his prime minister’s management style. After the “near death experience” of the February vote, when Coalition MPs 61-39 against a vote on the leadership, Abbott pledged to change to the way his Government operates and be more collegial in his decision making.
No more captain’s calls
Turnbull made it clear there had been little change.
“We need to restore traditional Cabinet government. There must be an end to policy on the run and captain’s calls. We need to be truly consultative with colleagues, members of Parliament, senators and the wider public.
“We need an open government, an open government that recognises that there is an enormous sum of wisdom both within our colleagues in this building and, of course, further afield. But above all we have to remember that we have a great example of good Cabinet government.”
Coalition insider and former PM John Howard’s chief of staff Grahame Morris sounded the death knell for Tony Abbott’s leadership, telling Sky News that “there’d be a lot of people going to him tonight with the numbers… saying you can’t get up tomorrow.”
“Malcolm’s address a moment ago… will resonate with the colleagues,” Morris said.
He added that Coalition MPs “cannot live with where they are now politically”.
The leadership vote is likely to occur on Tuesday morning, just four days before voters in the Western Australian seat of Canning head to the ballot box in a by-election that has been seen has a crucial test of Abbott’s leadership. Polling is currently predicting a 10% swing against the government.
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