Speculation about Tony Abbott's future is different this time

Photo: Tony Abbott/ Facebook.

Canberra is at it again.

With parliament resuming today, government MPs have been putting the word out there’ll be a move against Tony Abbott’s leadership by the end of the year.

The week is a countdown to the Canning by-election, which the Coalition is expected to win, but with polls pointing to a vicious swing against the government, backbenchers are getting worried that the fall in voter support could be an indication of what’s waiting for them at a full election.

But the current agitation against Abbott is muddied by indications that senior ministers – beyond the challenger-apparent Malcolm Turnbull – are involved in the destabilisation, following the bizarre leaking of a list of ministers supposedly facing demotion or dumping in a Cabinet reshuffle being planned by Abbott. The PM and his office insisted they weren’t behind that leak.

Laura Tingle writes at the AFR today:

But the last week has seen a dramatic shift in sentiment from MPs debating whether the Prime Minister should go, depending on Canning, to a certainty that he would have to go, no matter what the result.

What is most deadly for the Prime Minister in this shift in sentiment is where it is coming from and how the leadership discussion has morphed since his near-death experience in February.

February was about a backbench implosion. Abbott’s frontbench held firm.

Now, a series of own goals has blown up the front bench. The spectre of Abbott having to reassure his own praetorian ministerial guard that he was not the source of a story about how some of them were about to be sacked says it all.

The other new element is the speculation that Abbott could call a double dissolution snap election to head off a leadership challenge.

Problems remain for a potential spill: the lack of clarity on who exactly would be the alternative leader, and the absence of any plan for how to make it happen. Supporters of Malcolm Turnbull are widely seen as the main agitators but since the move against Abbott at the start of the year, there has been increasing focus on the party’s rising star, Scott Morrison, and his potential as an Abbott replacement. So the outlook remains very fluid.

Supporters of Abbott apparently “would rather lose” than take Abbott out, believing a repeat of the Labor party’s antics in repeatedly changing leaders in response to poor polling numbers would doom them with voters anyway.

The instability certainly isn’t going to endear these guys to the business community, which has long been complaining about the political environment not being conducive to being able to make long-term investment decisions. While there was some good data on business conditions in the NAB business survey last week, confidence tanked again, and that is a crucial ingredient for addressing the very poor capital expenditure outlook, which UBS and others have declared is recessionary.

There’s a full meeting of the ministry in Canberra tonight at which Abbott has an opportunity to stare down the agitators. That meeting could prove vital in determining the events of the week.

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