Spill averted, but for how long?

Tony Abbott is holding on, but only by his powerful fingers. 61-39 is hardly a hearty affirmation of a prime minister’s leadership less than halfway through his first term. As an endorsement, it’s about as enthusiastic as Kevin Rudd looked in that notorious 2010 photo shoot with Julia Gillard.

It’s important to note that this morning’s vote should be adjusted for cabinet solidarity – even Malcolm Turnbull promised that he would vote to oppose the spill. Consequently, the real margin of dissent is likely closer. The PM still has a sword in close proximity to his neck, and it’s not about to tap each shoulder and award him a knighthood.

In the short statement he made after the spill motion was defeated, Abbott said: “We want to end the disunity and the uncertainty which destroyed two Labor governments.” But as of today, “we” only means 61 per cent. The other 39 per cent were perfectly willing to tip him off his road bike without so much as a declared challenger.

There’s a pattern to how these situations tend to play out from here. Unless the polling improves, the rot of dissent will fester and grow as insidiously as One Direction’s fanbase, until close to election day, the undecideds figure things couldn’t get any worse, and pull the trigger.

In the meantime, the leadership remains a constant distraction, making improvement for the incumbent that much harder. Senior ministers will talk about getting on with the business of governing, as they have been doing already, but everyone else will be talking about the leadership.

Despite the extraordinarily thorough job many senior Labor ministers did of attacking Kevin Rudd in the intervening years, the party room went back to him in the end because they figured shaking things up was a better option than an almost certain loss. One thing today’s vote tells us is that Liberal MPs are unlikely to be more gun-shy than their opponents were.

The truly strange thing, of course, is that we are here at all. In September 2013, the one scenario for Abbott that any pundit would surely have ruled out is this one. He might have lost his first election as Prime Minister. He might have fallen victim to some freak cycling accident, or imprudently attempted to smuggle his notorious budgies at Portsea.

But this Prime Minister, of all people, was not supposed to face a backbencher revolt like the ones from which his standing benefited so spectacularly.

And yet, just 17 months after defeating Kevin Rudd, Abbott’s numbers are challenging Blake Garvey’s position as the least popular man in Australia, and the PM has only been breaking election promises, not bachelorette engagements.

The situation is laden with multiple ironies. Abbott has had trouble with ornery crossbenchers and post-election backflips, much like Julia Gillard. Some colleagues have lost faith because of the excessive centralisation of his office, much like Kevin Rudd. And perhaps most ironically of all, the precipitant of this attempted spill was a burst of the royalist fervour that sparked one of Abbott’s greatest triumphs in the 1999 republic referendum.

Now, not only does the PM need to woo the voters, whose dissatisfaction was made abundantly clear in last night’s Newspoll, and the crossbenchers, whose diverse whims control the passage of any legislation and at least one of whom has vowed to block every single bill until he gives the military a pay rise – but he needs to win over the dissenters in his party room. The first two challenges were Herculean enough, but the most pressing task for the captain now is to win back his team.

That’s not to say he won’t be able to do it, of course. Abbott is one of the few politicians in our history who’s a fighter literally as well as metaphorically. The shock of today might be enough to prompt a far more comprehensive reversal, as opposed to the minimal tweaks we’ve seen so far. Surely if the PM doesn’t become more consultative and collegiate now, he never will. As a former college boy, you’d imagine he knows how.

If there’s one consistent theme at the heart of Abbott’s difficulties, it’s that despite his years of basking in the glow of John Howard’s victories, he’s yet to learn how his mentor did it. As prime minister, Howard was as reassuring as donning a Wallabies tracksuit for one’s morning stroll, whereas Abbott has left many voters feeling exposed to the elements.

Howard kept his eyes fixed firmly on those voters in places like Western Sydney who weren’t traditional Liberal voters, but had grown sufficiently fond of him to keep re-electing him. The former PM made the voters in the centre feel financially secure, and that they had a prosperous future, whereas last year’s budget left voters fearful about health care for their families, education for their kids, and pensions for their retirement. Bill Shorten, having remorselessly stuck to the Abbott opposition playbook, has been reminding them of this daily ever since.

It’s all very well to worry voters about “debt and deficit disasters” in opposition, but in government, you’re supposed to make people feel, as John Howard famously put it, “comfortable and relaxed” about the future.

There is no point delivering for the people who always vote for you if in so doing, you lose the people who don’t. That may well mean shelving issues that please the base but worry the centre, like reforming the Racial Discrimination Act. (If Abbott can’t rely on the endorsement of the IPA and Andrew Bolt regardless, then there really is no hope for him.) But instead, when the Government seems to be losing one fight, it simply picks another, even to the extent of talking about raising the GST last month.

Abbott has acknowledged the need to “scrape off a few barnacles” and in recent weeks, even dumped his treasured paid parental leave policy, but he has not managed to refocus his platform to appeal to centrist voters’ bedrock concerns. The Abbott Government has stopped the boats, and removed the carbon and mining taxes, as promised. But now the electorate has gravitated back to what swinging voters always care most about – their family’s future.

His mentor Howard achieved this by doling out generous, non-means tested payments courtesy of the mining boom. The Abbott Government’s only freebie thus far has been vouchers for marriage counselling – and they’ve just been dumped.

Abbott’s task is made harder, of course, by the fact that Malcolm Turnbull is instinctively more of a centrist than Abbott. Nevertheless, today the PM bought a bit of time to try to turn things around. Given the vote this morning, surely no colleague could blame Abbott for reshuffling his Cabinet more extensively, and refocusing the Government’s priorities on the voters who put him into the Lodge.

In recent weeks, he has proven willing to perform mea culpas and jettison unpopular policies. It may well be time to try that on a much grander scale. If the voters who trusted Abbott in 2013 feel that he once again understands what they want, they may yet save him.

In the meantime, those Liberals who have come to resent the PM’s captain’s picks will be pondering whether to pick a new captain.

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