Ben Eltham | Winter Starts Early For Abbott Coalition

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First published in New Matilda here

As juicy tidbits about internal strife in the Coalition emerged this week, Malcolm Turnbull kept his cool. Julia Gillard would be well advised to do the same, writes Ben Eltham

Success in politics is a funny thing. Something of a zero-sum game, a politician’s popularity can often cause suspicion or even hostility from her colleagues. Voters can be pretty fickle types too: many politicians have their moment of public affection but not many sustain it.

Few politicians know this as well as Tony Abbott, who is currently enjoying his most popular moment in two decades in politics. Despite this, Abbott remains a polarising leader. Conservative voters love him, but many in the electorate do not. On one recent measure, Abbott was less popular at the 2010 election than Paul Keating was on the occasion of his landslide defeat in 1996, as Mike Steketee observed recently after carefully reading the Australian Election Study.

Perhaps this is why Tony Abbott warned his colleagues in the Coalition party room that “success can be fleeting and ephemeral”. Telling the assembled conservative parliamentarians that, despite a strong run of polls, the Opposition should not get ahead of itself, Abbott tried to caution his troops against “self-inflicted wounds”.

But barely had the message gone out than a wound was self-inflicted.

The issue was a blunt email from Coalition Whip Warren Entsch, admonishing a number of MPs for missing votes on the floor of Parliament. Top of the list was none other than Malcolm Turnbull.

There is no doubt that Turnbull remains a source of considerable tension in the Liberal Party. The mercurial former leader does not appear to be overly enjoying the success of the man who replaced him, and has made no effort in recent weeks to hide his scorn for the Coalition’s so-called “direct action” climate change policy. It doesn’t help that voters have consistently preferred Turnbull to Abbott as prime minister, even as the Coalition maintains an election-winning lead over the Government in the opinion polls.

This inherently unstable situation was aggravated by a Lateline interview last week in which Turnbull allowed the ABC’s Tony Jones to paint him into a corner over his support for Greg Hunt and Tony Abbott’s climate change policy, openly admitting some of the policy’s less attractive features.

“It is what it is,” he told Jones, as groans issued from dozens of Coalition lounge rooms. “It is a policy where, yes, the Government does pick winners, there’s no doubt about that, where the Government does spend taxpayers’ money to pay for investments to offset the emissions by industry.”

Oh dear. Politicians aren’t supposed to speak quite so frankly about their own policies, even ones as obviously flawed as the Coalition’s policy on climate change. The Gillard Government was predictably delighted — and several opposition MPs were reportedly furious.

Now the email from Entsch has placed renewed focus on the Coalition’s internal difficulties. Both Abbott and Turnbull have been forced to publicly declare their support for each other, as reports emerge of a disagreement (or, as the media loves to put it, a “clash”) between Abbott and hardline South Australian Senator Nick Minchin over whether to support an increase in the federal fuel excise.

In the scheme of things, such divisions are normal in any political party, particularly one that has to accommodate egos as large as those of Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull.

But the internal divisions are about more than merely personality. The blow-up over climate policy is beginning to expose concerns within Coalition ranks about the extent to which the Opposition can continue its relentless negativity — particularly when it comes into conflict with established conservative principles. Minchin, for instance, was defending a Howard-era policy to increase the fuel excise, which Abbott has decided to block for pragmatic political reasons.

Some in the Coalition party room also appear to be getting edgy about the Opposition’s continued inability to put credible costings to any of its policies, an anxiety that would not have been allayed by Abbott’s numbers-free budget reply speech.

The Coalition remains deeply divided over the existence of global warming itself, with backbenchers like Dennis Jensen vocal in their scepticism and shadow minister Greg Hunt struggling to convey any sincerity as he attempts to explain the significant fiscal implications of “direct action”.

For the Government, the Liberal divisions offer a welcome ray of sunshine in a bleak political winter. Labor is of course doing everything it can to keep the attention on internal divisions within the Liberal party — and away from border protection and carbon taxes, issues which are hurting Labor. Most of Labor’s problems are entirely its own fault, but the ruthless discipline shown by Abbott and his team since has played no small part in Labor’s misfortunes. Most governments would struggle against a communicator as effective as Abbott — and this government struggles more than most.

It has been a tough time for Labor true-believers — however many of them are left. But if the Government can enjoy another few weeks of Coalition disharmony, better times may lie ahead. As the asylum seeker issue begins to fall off the front pages and the carbon tax inches slowly forward, the political atmosphere for the Government will improve. July sees the new Senate take its place, with the opportunity to cut deals directly with the Greens to pass legislation.

If the Government can hold its nerve — always a big if, with this lot — then maybe, just maybe, spring may bring a long-desired bounce in the polls.

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