By Mungo MacCallum
First the ground rumbled ominously, and then it cracked open to swallow Queensland premier Campbell Newman and a mass of his LNP followers.
At the time of writing it has not been confirmed that the ALP will form the new government in its own right, but it is all but certain that the conservatives won’t. Annastacia Palaszczuk may fall over the line with a slim majority of one seat, or at best three; more probably she will need to rely on a crossbencher or two.
It is expected that there will be three of them. Labor apparatchiks are confident of at least in principle support from the independent Peter Wellington, and while the two members of Katter’s Australia Party have no love for Labor, they are even less likely to embrace the asset sales agenda of the LNP.
So it appears that the earth has moved in Queensland. The big question is whether the aftershock may yet topple Tony Abbott in far off Canberra.
Conventional wisdom is that the massive swing in the north is a disaster for him, perhaps even a terminal one. The LNP – the organisation, the membership and importantly the financial backers – will be utterly demoralised, not the best preparation to defend a swag of federal seats next year.
And the comparisons are irresistible: a one-term government which ambushed the electorate with radical, unpopular and frequently confusing decisions driven by an arrogant and out-of touch leader who was unable even to explain his agenda, let alone convince the voters of its merits.
In the wake of a drubbing in Victoria and on the brink of another election in New South Wales, Abbott is facing a shit storm, and he cannot avoid his home state as he shunned the campaign in Queensland – not, apparently, that it did him much good; his absence was as much a talking point as his presence would have been.
But in a funny, almost treacherous, sort of way, he may feel that even in Queensland the glass is still half full. He never much liked Campbell Newman anyway, and his immolation at the hands of the punters just may have assuaged their bloodlust.
It may, of course, have only encouraged it to turn more savagely on the even more loathed federal leader next year, but you have to look on the bright side. And there is a long held (but unproven) theory that voters don’t like it if both the state and federal government belong to the same party. Well, that’s been fixed.
And as comparisons go, how about this one. There will be a new Labor government with a new leader, untried and unready, and with any luck forming a minority administration. And what’s more she will be a woman. Now there’s an analogy worth making.
But if Abbott is to enjoy it, he will first need to survive, and last weekend the dogs were barking and starting to salivate. The backbenchers are nervous and restive, not just worried about the survival of the government but convinced of a well-justified apprehension that their own seats are in danger, And ministers, for all their denials, are preparing their manoeuvres around the possibility of a bloodless (they hope) coup.
There has even been talk of a backbench stalking horse, the Queenslander Mal Brough, being drafted to precipitate a spill to bring the issue to a head, in the same way that Kevin Andrews opened the way to unmake the leadership of Malcolm Turnbull and install Abbott in 2009.
At best, the party room and the organisation have run out of patience; Abbott is now on his last warning. It is no longer sufficient for him to promise to be more consultative, to listen more, to avoid further misguided captain’s picks; they have heard all that before. Yet another flip flop, this time on his beloved Parental Leave Scheme, will not suffice: they have been inveighing about it since his captain’s pick five years ago, and for him to recant now seems more like desperation than serious policy.
They want, if not a grovelling mea culpa, clear signs of genuine repentance within a final deadline of six months, maximum. This means real changes, certainly in the prime ministerial office, whether demanded by Rupert Murdoch and his media minions or not, and probably within the ministry as well. And the first reaction was, it must be said, not promising.
Even before the bomb dropped in Queensland, coinciding with yet another catastrophic opinion poll, Abbott appeared to persist in his denials: he had a very good team, he declared defiantly, and one of the reasons was that it had a very good captain.
Leaving the vainglorious self-praise aside, the statement is demonstrably not true. Some of his ministers have, in a limited sphere, been successful: the potential usurpers Julie Bishop, Malcolm Turnbull and perhaps Scott Morrison, and Andrew Robb and Matthias Cormann have some runs on the board. The indefatigable Christopher Pyne is at least trying.
But others – Joe Hockey, George Brandis and Peter Dutton are probably the most notorious – have been often embarrassing failures. Most of the rest are, at best, anonymous. The cabinet needs an urgent clean out, but there are no immediate signs that Abbott is prepared to wield the mop.
And then, as his colleagues continue to seethe and bubble, he went to an evening of official smooching with his fellow Poms before fronting what was regarded as a crucial test at the National Press Club in yet another attempt to push the reset button.
His supporters were hoping for a blockbuster, a smasheroo, but inevitably they were disappointed; it was, at best, a competent, if self-interested, campaign speech and was dutifully acknowledged as such by the applause of the well-drilled cheer squad.
But in its core was a cop-out; after boasting about all the hard decisions he had taken, Abbott then promised no new cuts to family budgets, no new taxes for business and continued spending on infrastructure, child care and small business – and that’s just for starters. So presumably the debt and deficit disaster rolls on unabated.
Whether this unashamed populism will convince the voters, and more immediately the party room, it remains to be seen. But it should buy Abbott some time, as long as no overt challenger emerges. If one does, it could be a very different 2015.