A fragile unity haunts Tony Abbott

Posted on February 4, 2011


  • Laurie Oakes From:Herald Sun February 05, 2011 12:00AM
  • ON the surface, all is hunky-dory in the Liberal Party. Tony Abbott calls the shots. Unity is the watchword.

    But muttered criticism of the Opposition Leader is starting to be heard. “He could be our Kim Beazley,” is a comment that sums up emerging concern in the ranks.

    And there are undercurrents that some Liberal MPs believe could bring trouble for Abbott a few months down the track.

    Abbott’s colleagues will be watching the first Newspoll of the year with considerable interest.

    “If Tony is not in front after the dreadful summer Julia Gillard has had, questions will start to be asked,” one Liberal pollie said yesterday.

    With Federal Parliament about to resume for the new year next Tuesday, there are signs Gillard might be getting her act together.

    This coincides with commentary suggesting she has wrong-footed Abbott on the issue of the flood levy.

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    Again, in the words of a senior Liberal backbencher: “Gillard is going to get this levy through Parliament, despite Tony trying to block it – and that will make her look stronger than she was.”

    Abbott shot himself in the foot during the week when he failed to condemn and disown the appeal attached to an email that he signed for donations to Liberal funds to help defeat the flood levy.

    Fundraising on the back of the flood disaster, as a devastating cyclone brought fresh hardship and despair to Queensland, was tacky in the extreme.

    It may not have been Abbott who authorised the “donate to help our campaign” message, but his clumsy response left him vulnerable to attack. It was noted by those starting to express doubts about his leadership.

    Gillard still has a very long way to go to prove that she is a real leader, especially when judged by her own standards set out in speeches on leadership before she assumed the role herself.

    “Government can and should be animated by a vision,” she said in a

    2005 address honouring the memory of Left-wing Labor hero Jim Cairns. “A vision of the long term. We need to be able to dream.”

    Dreams and vision have been in short supply under Gillard’s plodding prime ministership.

    But Gillard’s shortcomings have received considerable attention. There has been little discussion of problems bubbling away in the Liberal Party.

    A speech by Andrew Robb to a Young Liberal convention last Sunday started tongues wagging, though.

    Titled “Restoring Australia’s Resilience – Playing to our Strengths”, it was much broader than would normally be expected of a speech by a shadow finance minister.

    Robb dealt with Liberal philosophy. He covered education, health, mining, agriculture, federal-state relations and the general issue of policy formulation. And he expressed strong views about industrial relations – an area in which Abbott has been embarrassingly weak.

    A Liberal phoned to tell me: “This was not a speech intended for the Young Libs. Andrew was directing it at his parliamentary colleagues.”

    He added: “Andrew wants to move up. And I think there’s a fair bit of support around the place for that to happen.”

    After the election last year, Robb flagged his intention to run against incumbent Julie Bishop for the Liberal deputy leadership.

    Abbott put the kibosh on the move, making it clear that – with a hung Parliament and Gillard holding office by a thread – he wanted no instability on the Coalition side.

    But last weekend’s speech is seen as evidence that Robb has not abandoned his ambition. There is talk that he could launch a new push for Bishop’s job later in the year.

    That would make life difficult for Abbott. He could not allow his deputy to be decapitated without suffering damage himself.

    Also, it is well known that if Robb became deputy leader he would expect to take over from Joe Hockey as shadow treasurer.

    Hockey – still regarded as the most viable alternative leader – could not allow that to happen without a fight.

    He might even feel that he had no choice but to challenge Abbott.

    All speculation, of course. But Abbott’s position is not as unassailable as might appear.

    THERE is a school of thought in the party that Abbott will never have a better chance to win government than he had in the August election, given the campaign disasters that befell Gillard. “If he couldn’t do it then, can he ever do it?” asks a colleague.

    This is where the Beazley comparison comes in. “Kim got close, but Labor in the end decided he wouldn’t get them over the top.”

    There is a small group of Liberal MPs already who would like to see Abbott rolled, and others who would not take much persuading if the leader’s ratings do not improve quickly.

    Abbott has offended some former supporters by failing to promote them. Others worry that he protects front-bench hacks and ignores talent.

    Ambitious up-and-comers are not impressed when Abbott tells them that “John Howard sat on me and it did me good”.

    Abbott’s argument – that change is out because independent MPs Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott are on the verge of abandoning Gillard and throwing their support behind the Coalition – rings increasingly hollow.

    In this context, there is talk of “the need for an option if Tony doesn’t get it together”.

    Abbott’s troubles are not nearly as public as Gillard’s – but they are there.

    Media Sourced : http://www.heraldsun.com.au