Malcolm Turnbull is firming as a potential replacement for Tony Abbott among disaffected government MPs.
With respected Senator Arthur Sinodinos last night joining the ranks of parliamentary party members to express his discontent with Abbott, some kind of challenge to the leadership when Liberal MPs gather in Canberra next Tuesday is looking increasingly likely.
Sinodinos told Sky News last night the speculation over the leadership was “not just media hype”.
“My support for him has been based on his performance, his courage, his capacity to make the right calls for the country in opposition and in government,” Sinodinos said. “But that support ongoing is not unconditional.”
There remain a couple of problems – contradictions, even – in the disaffected MPs’ case for a change.
From the outside looking in, voters, on the face of it, are simply embarrassed by the perceived gaffes, sledgehammer approach and general old-timeyness of Abbott’s leadership.
Economically, the dissenters are wondering how the leadership has made such a hash of building an argument and a plan for fixing the country’s finances.
In the case of the former, arguably more prescient concerns when the time comes for Australians to front up at the ballot box, Abbott’s uneasy colleagues have a case.
In the latter, not so much. In fact, changing leaders right now could arguably make consumers and business even more wary about the future than before.
While the growing problems for the national economy are largely external and quite simply down to falls in prices large Australian mining companies get for the stuff they sell overseas, there’s continuing domestic weakness too.
Confidence and growth
Economists attribute this in no small part to the sledgehammer blow to confidence from the federal budget in May last year. Billions of dollars in budget measures remain tied up in the volatile Senate. Confidence as measured in the business and consumer surveys has remained weak in the nine months since.
The rolling of the government on its Future of Financial Advice reforms and the shambles around its attempts to change the structure of GP payments have cemented the appearance that the government simply can’t get things done – and despite the promises of “no surprises”, it’s got plenty of them. The “animal spirits” typically expected to materialise from record-low interest rates simply haven’t arisen in this environment.
Uncertainty is economic poison. Regulatory haze, and the inability of business leaders to take the government at its word, postpones investment decisions and holds back employment growth.
The first MP to go public and say he wanted Abbott gone, Western Australia’s Dennis Jensen, made the point this week that on the economy, the government was only talking about debt and deficit and didn’t seem to have a coherent, positive plan for creating the conditions for economic growth.
Not many would disagree.
But the solution proposed from Jensen and the disaffected MPs appears to introduce more uncertainty, in the form of party destabilisation and a potential change of leadership, for which there is no firm candidate and hence even more absence of clarity than what’s offered by the current mob.
On the domestic economic impact, there’s no guarantee that changing the PM at this point, when there are huge downward revisions coming for the economic outlook, would bolster confidence.
In fact, Abbott and treasurer Joe Hockey finally seem to be appraised of the fact that they are not economic alchemists and that Australia might need to live with deficits for many years to come. (The AFR reports this morning that Hockey is preparing to abandon his goal of a surplus in 2018.)
Any incoming team would have to deliver this deeply unpleasant message to the electorate as one of their first acts. It’s hardly the start a new leader needs to reverse the coalition’s standing in the polls.
No clear plan for change
The Sinodinos intervention certainly makes the danger to Abbott much more clear and present. But as the senator alluded to on TV last night, with no clear challenger, there’s no clear plan. If this is actually going to work, someone needs to start setting out what a new leadership team might look like, what it would do, and how it would handle the Senate.
So far, there’s no sign of that.
As for Turnbull, the front-running leadership replacement option, is hated in some corners of the coalition, among the traditional conservatives and the Nationals. And his privileged, wealthy background won’t exactly endear him to Western Sydney’s aspirational voters – the “Howard’s battlers” so vital to electoral success. He comes with built-in stability problems anyway.
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