Six months ago, the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, begged his Liberal colleagues for another chance to restore his, and his party's fortunes. He promised he would change. He promised more consultation, and a lot less reliance on his own judgment, fewer "captain's picks," a shift of focus and less occasion for voters to hate him.
A good many backbenchers had completely lost faith in his leadership and his judgment. They had come to conclude, (reluctantly, because they had wanted him to win) that he could not change his character, his temperament or his style. He had shown a repeated tin ear for public opinion and what the electorate would wear. They might admire him, or give him some credit for being a tireless scrapper. No one trusted his instincts any more. Nor did they trust those who did his staff work.
But they gave him a reprieve. The second chance he had asked for.
He was, after all, only half way through his first term. He had delivered early government to his side. There was no obvious successor. They had seen how Labor's leadership tumults in the past term had helped create an air of crisis, instability and recrimination around that government. Anyway, surely if Abbott really meant to change his ways he could be helped by ministers. A bloody assassination might not clear the air, but simply make the loss of office next year inevitable.
Six months are up, and Australia still needs a different prime minister.
Only an eternal optimist would think he could be Tony Abbott, transformed yet again. The new Tony is no more authentic than the old Tony, and there are combinations still to be tried. But it is by now clear that the Abbott of the past six months is no more acceptable to voters than Abbott mark one. Indeed yet another makeover would fail. Voters seem to have made up their mind about Abbott.
It is not so clear that they have also made up their mind about a Coalition government. But only a miracle, or Bill Shorten or both, could now save it under its current leadership. The most likely scenario is that voters will tip the Coalition out, in much the same way and for much the same reason they ejected its dysfunctional predecessor. They haven't forgiven Labor, but then again, they never liked or had their hopes up about Abbott, and now they know why. The other side is probably no worse.
If there were a reasonably smooth transition, a new leader, and a new team, might be able to create an impression of a completely new government, not a continuation of an Abbott government that evokes only bad memories. A new and suddenly sure and competent approach worth persisting with, at least until Labor showed it had learned something from defeat.
Over the past few months Abbott has repeatedly demonstrated that he has no particular attachment to any particular policies or principles. Except perhaps on quirky things like gay marriage or knighthoods, he is quite comfortable with, and able to rationalise satisfactorily to himself, U-turns. It's not at all clear what he thinks he is in power for, because he will go with no legacies, no monuments, no policy or program likely always to be attached to his name. His record of achievement is inferior to Billy McMahon's.
But this is not his problem. He has to go because he won't stop being Abbott. He cannot or will not change his style. The public, if not the front or back bench, is increasingly angry with him about it.
He is not of naturally consultative mode, and even when pushed to listen does not seem to hear. He is still making captain's calls, and with the same inevitably cack hand. The legacy is the near death experience andthat he no longer trusts many of his colleagues. A good many are openly exasperated with him. Some are leaking running commentaries; others are simply in despair. Survival mode also means that simple common sense, or regard for public opinion is increasingly running second to keeping faith with strong conservatives in the caucus, including Bronwyn Bishop. Even when it is suicidal to do so.
Not all of the bruises are ideological – as about the rule of law – or matters of personal and moral belief – as about gay marriage. Some are mere matters of business, and professional, and manner of smooth government. Increasingly, indeed, the problem for some of the cabinet is that there is intense politics but hardly any routine business of government.
This week someone compared it with the last half of the Gillard government, with most of the focus seeming to be the packaging and repackaging of announcements, and the management of the inevitable crises, days later, when the want of substance and thinking out has become clear to everyone. The government is not in charge of events. It doesn't seem to be going anywhere. There's no one on the bridge. There's no one announcing the destination, or plotting the route. Still less is anyone telling the crew, or the passengers, what is going on.
It's not the fault of the cabinet, nor even the private offices. Nor of the bureaucracy or other institutions, muddling along as best they can without much in the way of direction.
As Bruce Pretty put it, immortally, in the dying days of the Billy McMahon government in 1972:
When the flame of truth hits the ship of state
And the tides of time are turning
They tend to bucket the captain
When the ship is what is burning.
So why is there no political assassination?
Will no one rid the Liberals of their troublesome priestling?
Does not Malcolm Turnbull openly believe he can do a far better job, and does not the public, according to the opinion polls, also think it?
Is that a baton in Scott Morrison's pocket, or is he just pleased to see us?
Doesn't Julie Bishop consider that her conspicuous loyalty to each of her late leaders make her the heiress apparent?
Does George Brandis have it in him to play Brutus, the noblest Roman of them all?
Can Christopher Pyne wield a shiv in the showers?
It seems to be taken for granted that it is now for the ministry, not for the back bench, to act. The backbench view was made clear in February, when about 60 per cent of backbenchers voted to terminate Abbott's leadership. Abbott survived (61-39) because he bound the ministry to support him. It is unlikely that he can do so now. I doubt that even half of the Liberal cabinet and outer ministry any longer have confidence in their chief, or belief that he could lead them to re-election.
Abbott is almost certainly toast if someone demands a spill. But if it must be a frontbencher, that presupposes a challenger. It is doubtful whether any of those who desire the leadership is prepared to strike the blow. Now at least.
First there's the prospect of Abbott fighting like hell to survive, in the process dragging what's left of the government down with him. No one thinks Abbott will depart gracefully, placing the interests of the party ahead of his own pride or reputation. He will make Kevin Rudd seem a gentleman.
The conservative faction currently protecting Abbott has big haters, leakers and saboteurs – perhaps the more so if any of them (deservedly) lose ministerial posts as a result of a changeover. If the replacement is a moderate who moves to the centre on climate change or gay marriage, there may well be a continuing and worsening cancer of persistent disloyalty, especially if he is Turnbull.
Then there is the question of timing. It might be in the interests of the economy, or the electorate, for Abbott to be sacked, as cleanly and quickly as possible.
But a leader promising a complete break might think that a coup closer to election time would be better. Especially if the appearance of a chaotic and hopeless government continued, and a changeover came not from a spill but, in effect, a delegation drafting someone, unanimously and without acrimony, into the leadership.
That's what happened for John Howard in 1995, after a dose of Alex Downer as Leader of the Opposition.
There is always the possibility of a disinterested assassin, acting from a sense of duty.
In 2009, Kevin Andrews was the stalking horse sent out by the right wing as part of a planned process of toppling Turnbull over Turnbull's views on climate change. Andrews was easily dispatched, but his challenge opened the way, soon after, for Tony Abbott.
In 1975, Andrew Peacock, a moderate, saw that Malcolm Fraser (then a hardline conservative) was gathering support against Billy Snedden. Peacock guessed, wrongly as it turned out , that Fraser still lacked the numbers. He thought he should strike before he got them. Peacock did not call for a spill, or challenge Snedden, but talked aloud about the tension in the party and the need to resolve it. This made a ballot inevitable, particularly given that Snedden thought that "the Liberal Party would walk through hot coals into the valley of death for me". He was wrong.
The big loser from the 2009 Turnbull assassination was Joe Hockey. He was then assumed to be the logical next leader. One to one, he had more support than Abbott. He did not do so well in a three-horse race. Turnbull stood again for the leadership, against Hockey and Abbott, dividing the moderate vote. Hockey's came third and his preferences went 15 to 7 to Turnbull. The seven extra votes for Abbott made him leader 42-41. (Had Hockey beaten Turnbull, it is likely that Turnbull's preferences would have made him Leader of the Opposition (a post, I suspect, he would still hold).
Since then Hockey's star has faded. No one, probably not even himself any longer, considers him as a possible future leader. Even as Treasurer his reputation has been in steady decline, and there is gossip that he wants out, no doubt with an attractive public appointment. Hockey, like Abbott and Bronwyn Bishop (and Tony Burke) wears the culture of entitlement as a bib.
It is generally assumed that Hockey would lose the Treasury if there were any changeover. In that sense one might assume that he would see his fate, and his political survival, as tied to Abbott's, and fight hard for Abbott.
But though Hockey and Abbott have had a working relationship for six years, they are not close, politically. And Hockey is a realist and party loyalist who might well think that the survival of the party as government is a cause greater than the survival of an individual leader. After all, he saw the damage done to the Liberal brand by the tension between John Howard and Peter Costello.
Hockey's best chance of political immortality might be in taking Abbott out as a last duty and favour to the party which has served him so well. Taking him out in the rugby sense. Abbott has never spoken respectfully of the tap on the shoulder, and, anyway, like Howard, believes he understands the public's temper better than anyone.
It was not just Howard, of course. Bob Hawke could never be convinced that it was time to go. He retained a group of loyalists who preferred him to Paul Keating almost to the end. But even they despaired, with Gareth Evans leading a delegation to tell Hawke that "It's time to move on. The dogs are pissing on your swag."
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