Sydney: Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott may have weathered the latest storm in his tenure — after placating detractors in his own party who are unsure whether the Liberal Party can win the 2016 federal elections under his leadership — but his troubles are far from over.
The reprieve came after recent polls results reflected Liberal Party gains against the opposition Labor Party and through a firm show of support for the premier from Malcolm Turnbull, the communications minister.
Turnbull was tipped to replace Abbott and was non-committal during recent talks of a second spill, fuelling speculation about an imminent challenge in leadership.
That all changed, however, when Turnbull in a TV interview dismissed any forthcoming challenge to the prime minister saying Abbott had his and the party’s full support.
Turnbull’s unambiguous support was important for the prime minister as a Fairfax Media IPSOS poll, which was released on Monday and showed Liberal Party gains, was not in favour of Abbott, showing 39 per cent of voters prefer Turnbull as Liberal leader compared to 19 per cent for Abbott.
Abbott faced backbenchers’ wrath last month and survived the leadership spill by 61 votes to 39, the experience he called as “near-death”. Interestingly, Turnbull was deposed by Abbott as leader in 2009 after defeating him by one vote in the party room.
Analysts now believe that a challenge may not be coming until New South Wales elections on March 28 or the budget in May, but all bets are not yet off.
One senior Fairfax journalist described Abbott as a “dead man walking” even after the recent polls favouring Liberals, and another said the “clock is still ticking.”
Jack Waterford, a senior Canberra analyst and the editor-at-large of the Canberra Times told Gulf News that Abbott may not be the prime minister by July or August this year.
“I think his [Abbott’s] fate is virtually inevitable, but I do not know when the blow will actually fall. It may not be until July or August,” he told Gulf News. “It will probably be preceded by a fresh outbreak of own goals, and a good deal of [information] leaking, not by the direct emergence of a challenger or challengers,” he said.
Waterford believes the potential leaders do not want to be accused of pushing Abbott off the wall.
“The potential challengers want the caucus to lose faith and hope in Abbott and to declare the leadership vacant,” he said.
If in future the leadership is declared vacant Turnbull may not be the automatic choice although he is painted in the media as the most probable replacement and commentators are already analysing what policies he will pursue if he were to become the prime minister.
Julie Bishop, the foreign minister and deputy leader of the Opposition, is also getting attention as a serious contender and many in the Liberal Party believe that she will successfully lead the party in next federal elections. She trails in the opinion polls behind Turnbull as a preferred prime ministerial candidate, but is five points ahead of Abbott.
She has a good performance record as a foreign minister and also has an appeal to the conservative section of the ruling coalition. Political observers believe that in case of lingering leadership standoff, she will gain against Turnbull.
A report in a Fairfax newspaper says Bishop’s chances of becoming Liberal leader will improve the longer the issue worsens.
“With the matter on hold indefinitely due to a rebound in the polls for the Coalition and an uptick in Tony Abbott’s fortunes, senior Liberals believe lead contender Malcolm Turnbull stands to lose over time due to an increasingly vitriolic campaign being waged against him by the Liberal Party’s arch-conservative base,” says a Financial Review report this Tuesday.
According to the report, Bishop has already decided that she will not run on Turnbull’s ticket and “if the leadership was spilt, she would run for the top job rather than be part of any ticket.”
Scott Morrison, another Abbott minister, may also have leadership ambitions and is described as a star performer in ministerial positions, but he is running fourth in the polls after Turnbull, Bishop and Abbott.
“He is now established as the pre-eminent next-generation Liberal leader.
Turnbull is 60, Bishop is 58 and Abbott is 57. Morrison is only 46. Whatever happens, he should play a central role in the government’s survival strategy,” writes Paul Sheen, a Fairfax columnist.
Meanwhile, Abbott is confident and does not believe that his leadership is in terminal decline nor, as a journalist put it, is he “clutching at straws in attempt to protect remaining support base.”
He is working hard to win the support of his party and the people. He is now flipping unpopular decisions, especially in health care and education, proposing tough actions against home-grown terrorism, and has an inclusive approach with his cabinet colleagues and backbench party MPs.
He says he is not working on any time frame and did not ask MPs for another six months to turn around his political fortunes as party leaders were being “tested every day”.
“I am hoping that every day I will substantially pass the test. That’s how you build up strengthened credibility by every day passing those tests,” he said in an interview with ABC.