The Liberals would be wise to at least consider replacing Tony Abbott.
It would not be surprising were Liberal members of Federal Parliament feeling nervous, even skittish. Only days ago, they were considered all but certain to win the coming election. Tony Abbott now looks an even bet to emulate his former boss John Hewson (Abbott was Hewson's media adviser), who in 1993 lost what was widely considered an unloseable ballot against Paul Keating.
The game-changer, of course, has been the painful and pragmatic decision by the ALP caucus to return Kevin Rudd to the prime ministership. In so doing, they followed advice Keating was given long ago by former NSW premier Jack Lang: in politics you should always back the horse named self-interest.
In their own self-interest, the Liberals would be wise to at least consider replacing Tony Abbott with Malcolm Turnbull. It has long been clear the two leaders Australian voters would like to choose between are Rudd and Turnbull.
Malcolm Turnbull and Kevin Rudd.
The greatest impediment to Rudd's return was that so many of his colleagues dislike him. But they knew that their best chance of holding power was to make the change. Similarly, the greatest impediment to Turnbull's return is that many of his colleagues do not like him. He has, it is said, given too many of them free character assessments.
But the pivotal assessment is which leader would maximise the Coalition's prospects of winning office. Many Liberals must be thinking their chances of winning a seat or holding on to one would be better were Turnbull reinstalled in the position he only lost by one vote to Abbott, primarily because Turnbull supported a market-based system to put a price on carbon emissions. However since then, while there remain pockets of scepticism about the degree to which human activity is contributing to climate change, more and more voters favour action that is based on putting a market-based price on carbon emissions.
By many accounts, Abbott is a decent, hard-working and intelligent man, but poll after poll suggests he does not resonate with voters. Like Gillard, Abbott is preferred by his colleagues, but not the voters. Like Rudd, Turnbull is preferred by voters, but not colleagues. Not yet.
Most politicians are motivated by making life better and fairer, and all politicians know that such change can only come when they are in power. Many politics aficionados might say it is fanciful to argue the Liberal Party should consider replacing Abbott with Turnbull, but should the polls continue to suggest the ALP could retain government, the idea of change could readily gain momentum. The Liberals have seen, and should be troubled by, the fillip the change to Rudd has given the ALP.
The only thing more painful to them than having to cut down an electorally unpopular but internally well-regarded leader would be spending the next three years in opposition.
As a former leading businessman, Turnbull has appeal in the corporate sector. As a former leading internet entrepreneur, he has appeal to younger people. As a moderate, he appeals to the many voters who are uncomfortable with what they feel are unduly harsh policies on asylum seekers, to those who suspect Abbott would screw down on workers' entitlements by toughening up industrial relations policy and to those who favour action on climate change.
Once the election campaign proper begins, it is hoped there will be increasing focus throughout the community on policy rather than politics, and on ideas rather than ideology. Abbott has excelled in opposing, but has not inspired voters with policy ideas.
Rudd has surging momentum as a result of the very change in leadership and also because he has moved to address policy concerns. One might disagree with what he is doing on the carbon tax, schools funding, party reform and the like, but he gives the impression of being active and in charge, and voters are responding.
So, if Abbott is to win this election, he will need to convince voters he has the policies that will improve their lives. A large part of that will be determined by the substance and detail of the policies. But much, too, will depend on sales skills, and it appears Turnbull cuts through better than Abbott. Outside of the corridors of Canberra, people like Turnbull. There is a lingering, almost intangible, hesitation about Abbott, if the polls are to be given credence.
Elections are won at the margin; they are decided by swinging voters in tight seats. I suspect there are many who will not vote Liberal with Abbott at the helm but who would readily support the party were Turnbull leader.
This prospect might well become increasingly enticing should the Coalition continue to see polls telling it that it may be poised to lose an unloseable election primarily because its leader lacks appeal.
There is an X-factor in political leadership. Turnbull has it. Rudd has it. Julia Gillard lost it. And Abbott probably does not have it.
Michael Short is editor of The Zone. @shortmsgs