If you're just normally interested in politics, Tony Abbott's decision to sack Liberal Party whip Phillip Ruddock, 71, probably doesn't seem like a big thing. That would be a mistake. Yes, he's old (elected during Whitlam's time), had a good innings (former attorney-general) and a highly controversial one (ask Amnesty International why they asked him not to wear their badge while he was minister for immigration). The point is, though, if Abbott can't work with him he's lost the conservative core of the party.
The PM pretends he sacked Ruddock so he will have better links with backbenchers. He could do this much more efficiently by simply crafting plausible policy, however it's becoming apparent that Abbott just isn't up to the hard yards of policy formulation. That's why he's travelling around the country this week, attempting to shore up his position in the polls. Sadly, he doesn't get it. He wouldn't have a polling problem if government was working and no amount of meeting and greeting voters is likely to change that.
It won't be long before there's another scalp; another departure. From the moment Ruddock's removal was announced, late on Friday afternoon as part of a desperate attempt to bury the revelation, it became quite apparent Abbott's time is up. His prime ministership is in its death throes. The only question is when. The issue that decides the timing of his demise will be the budget.
Treasurer Joe Hockey's going through the motions but it's obvious he's effectively given up. His was never a firm hand confidently guiding the tiller. Now, however, even that fragile and uncertain grip has gone. Seemingly miffed because people don't recognise his brilliance, Hockey's engulfed in a massive sulk and approving any idiot scheme put in front of him. You might think the less he has to do the final document, the better, but the problem is that Mathias Cormann can't single handedly construct the budget, keep policy focused, run the government and argue Abbott's case. Something's got to give.
Changing the PM doesn't represent any sort of crisis for democracy. It's simply recognising that good government requires proper process.
When Kevin Rudd deposed Kim Beasley, Labor chose an effective media communicator over someone who genuinely understood how to formulate and implement policy. Rudd offered the certainty of victory but didn't comprehend that policy was much more than a soundbite. The party turned to Julia Gillard, however it quickly became apparent she wasn't on top of things either.
Gaining power requires concentration. The focus is on one person; one message. Ruling, however, requires properly utilising the apparatus of government: creating policies and choosing instruments to impose these. The role of the leader is to facilitate good policy outcomes and then draw public enthusiasm behind these projects. Abbott isn't capable of achieving either task.
This is a problem for those who want change. This is not simply a matter of changing the captain; it's about changing course as well because the ship is heading for the rocks at the moment. The key question facing Liberals when the party next meets in March is whether a new leadership team can craft a budget in the time available. Urgent action is required to both raise income and curb spending. The biggest problem for business confidence at the moment is that no one trusts the direction of the government. This crisis becomes apparent if you project the forward estimates out beyond the budget. Expenditure is growing faster than revenue. It's unsustainable.
It's still not too late to turn the country around, however Abbott prefers to focus on terrorism. This is both a dangerous problem and terrible threat, nevertheless but it's still a distraction and it would be nice to think we have leaders capable of doing more than one thing at a time. The real surprise is, however, that it's in the national security space that Abbott's egregious blundering has becoming most apparent. Let us count the ways.
Iraq. The diggers are carrying diplomatic passports because Baghdad's government won't sign a "Status of Forces" agreement. Our troops are cooped up inside bases watching from the sidelines as Iranian Quds revolutionary guards prosecute the fight against ISIL (and whoever else gets in their way). Oh, and the Iraqis don't even want our aircraft based in their country. Abbott's like the boyfriend who can't understand a polite brush-off.
Submarines. Stuff South Australia. Any probity about this project – one of the centrepieces of our future defence – departed long ago. The problem in this regard is not necessarily the Japanese submarine. It will work fine (although others would be far better for our strategic requirements). The trouble is Abbott wants to blind us into a tight alliance against China and he's selling out our manufacturing and intellectual industries while he does so.
Industry. Following on from the above it's becoming apparent that Abbott has no concept of us producing anything. He's made no attempt to nurture hi-tech technology areas where we can compete with big overseas players. Defence research has been slashed. The focus is the present. There's no concept of carving out areas where we can successfully develop our own expertise. Shipbuilding is the current disaster. Now the government's arbitrarily changing specs for our new armoured vehicle project, but there's more to come.
Pay and conditions. Effectively cutting remuneration for those in uniform is not just political suicide, it's economically idiotic. It targets morale. It should also be a great way to win votes in marginal electorates – for Labor.
This list goes on and on: unfortunately this column doesn't. Working out what to put in and leave out has been a problem. Then, eventually I realised what needed to go. Let's hope the Liberals do as well.
Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.