It’s a strange, symbiotic thing, the relationship and dynamics between a Prime Minister and an Opposition leader.
I’ve read that Sir Robert Menzies was very solicitous towards Arthur “Cocky” Calwell, because he recognised that the Labor leader was an electoral plus for the Liberals.
Not so the impatient Gough Whitlam, who was keen to demolish Bill Snedden and ended up with the far tougher, Malcolm Fraser.
So Bill Shorten will be hoping that Abbott survives, or at least lives to fight another day.
But this depends on whether Federal Liberal MPs listen to Abbott, or whether they listen to muttering out in the electorate.
As others have written, the original spill of Kevin Rudd was generated from within – through dissatisfaction within the Labor Cabinet and caucus. The Liberal leadership rift has come through external pressure from voter dissatisfaction, as demonstrated by the Queensland and Victorian state elections.
At one level, it’s curious, even weird, that the knighting of the Duke of Edinburgh was the catalyst for the voter unease over Abbott spreading to within the Liberal Party and the Federal party room.
But the knighthood was a moment out of the Hans Christian Anderson’s story “The Emperor’s New Clothes” – where no one dares to say that the Emperor is naked until a child cries out, “But he isn’t wearing anything at all!”
It’s hard to recover from such a naked insight into the gulf between what a leader believes and what most voters believe. Ridicule is powerful and the knighthood had an air of the ridiculous about it.
That old stager Machiavelli discussed at length whether a Prince should be loved or feared and came down on the side of the latter, as long as the Prince was not hated.
Modern democratic political leaders can’t expect to be loved by the majority, but they need to be respected, even grudgingly.
Yet it’s wrong to see that Abbott is the only problem facing the Coalition. I was moved to write this post after reading a piece by a PR expert, Anthony Tregoning, who argues that the government’s problem is communication, not policy. See here: http://www.pria.com.au/newsadvocacy/january-2015/the-governments-problem-is-communication-not-policy
Now, it’s true that the Coalition’s communication has been poor.But the Coalition’s policies and budget settings are a big part of their problems.
In my opinion, Australian voters have shown they want any government to retain certain big-picture policies – like retaining Medicare, affordable education and support for those really in need.
So, saying that you are listening without changing policies just doesn’t work.
As often occurs in Australian politics, this point was made best by a cartoonist, in this case the fab Cathy Wilcox.
Finally, I’m pondering whether Abbott was a good Opposition leader. He lost in 2010 to Julia Gillard despite Kevin Rudd lurking in the wings, pulling faces and casting shadows.
One union leader told me this week that Abbott was a one-sided debater – arguing in the negative and never in the affirmative.
Turnbull can argue in the affirmative, but we’ll have to see whether the Liberal MPs say yes to him and no to Tony Abbott.