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Explainer: So, what the hell happened in Canberra yesterday?

Tony Abbott is still the Prime Minister but his job is far from secure. Many are asking today, how can he possibly continue to lead the Government in the long term?

Victory has never tasted so uncomfortably sour…

Tony Abbott has successfully defeated a motion from his colleagues to spill the federal Liberal Party’s leadership positions. But far from looking celebratory, the Abbott who emerged from his party room this morning appeared chastened and visibly shaken.

And no wonder. The reality that two in five of your fellow party members would vote against you – in the face of no declared challenger – is a sobering one. Today’s result revealed that in the contest of Tony Abbott versus nobody, nobody managed to garner a whopping 39 votes out of a possible 101.

It’s hardly the overwhelming show of support Abbott and his supporters would have been hoping for. Which begs the question: Can the Prime Minister turn his politician fortunes around or is he, as veteran columnist Michelle Grattan predicted earlier today, a ‘dead man walking’?

What happened in the party room today?

This morning the Prime Minister awoke to a Newspoll showing that the Australian public prefer Labor to the Coalition by 57-42 two party preferred. Labor’s Bill Shorten is their preferred candidate for Prime Minister over Tony Abbott by 48-30.

Read more: EXCLUSIVE POLL: 86% of Australian women want Tony Abbott to step down as PM

It wasn’t exactly a positive start to the day for a man facing a ballot to keep his job.

As most commentators predicted, a spill motion was moved in the Liberal Party room this morning and was defeated 61-39. This may look like a clear cut victory but it is far from it. The ABC’s Annabel Crab points out that this margin mirrors that of the first Hawke/Keating spill in 1990; Keating eventually went on to become Prime Minister in 1991.

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“It wasn’t exactly a positive start to the day for a man facing a ballot to keep his job.” Image via Getty.
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While the Prime Minister’s leadership has remained intact, the fact that almost 40 members of his party room do not have faith in his leadership suggests a difficult path ahead.

If we assume that the cabinet voted against the spill motion (as Abbott predicted they would, telling the ABC on Sunday night “I would expect that if a minister was incapable of supporting the government, the minister in question would have spoken to me, and none of them have,”) then 58% of the backbench voted for it.

Tonight’s TV news bulletins and tomorrow’s newspapers will lead with headlines speculating about how much time Abbott has left; not heralding his victory.

How did we get here?

During the early months, Abbott and his front bench were afforded the usual good will that voters give a new Prime Minister. Coalition MPs remained tremendously loyal to Abbott. After all, when he was first elected to the leadership in 2009 Kevin Rudd was still riding high in the polls and yet Tony Abbott successfully managed to take down two Labor Prime Ministers, one of them twice.

However a succession of poor decisions (the budget cuts to the ABC, the indexation of the aged pension, the GP co-payment, the winding back of a key election promise on paid parental leave and the deregulation of university fees…) and a vastly unpopular budget saw the Government’s popularity – and that of its leader – falter.

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“A succession of poor decisions saw the Government’s popularity falter. Image via Getty.
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These were topped off by the ‘Captain’s Call’ of knighting Prince Phillip, and left Liberal MPs and Senators questioning whether their leader was in touch with how ordinary voters think. Pressure from the Victorian election result, where federal issues played a role, was mounting and the disastrous Queensland election meant a whole lot of marginal seat MPs became very nervous.

Read more: Mia Freedman: “I gave Tony Abbott the benefit of the doubt on women. I was wrong.”

All of this external pressure is additional to internal problems for the Prime Minister. Abbott has been accused of centralising too much power in his own office and particular with his divisive Chief of Staff, Peta Credlin. Similarly to criticisms levelled against Kevin Rudd, there have been reports that Abbott fails to consult with and respect the views of his backbenchers.

When did Tony Abbott start to become so unpopular?

Even on the very next day after the Coalition’s decisive 2013 election victory, Tony Abbott was not a popular Prime Minister. A typically attack-dog style politician while in Opposition, Abbott was incredibly effective in prosecuting the case against Labor but struggled to ever sell himself as a leader.

He became at once both his party’s greatest strength and their greatest weakness. His plain-speaking policy positioning and his take-no-prisoners approach to capitalising on Labor’s internal disagreements was legendary.

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“He became at once both his party’s greatest strength and their greatest weakness.” Image via Getty.
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However many in his own party room remained cautious about his ability to make the transition to government, his unpopularity amongst women and regular tendency to put not just his foot but his upper thigh in his mouth.

Unfortunately for the Coalition and Abbott, the past six months have mostly proven those doubters’ correct.

What happens now?

The Prime Minister had already signalled a number of key policy changes ahead of today’s ballot. At the National Press Club last week he indicated he would introduce tougher restriction on foreign investment and flagged cuts to the small business tax rate. Abbott has dumped his paid parental leave scheme and there is discussion that he will reconsider the Government’s controversial GP co-payment.

The Prime Minister faces three key challenges in the coming months. Firstly, the degree to which federal policy issues impact the NSW election and whether Premier Mike Baird’s success is seen to be impeded by Abbott’s unpopularity.

Second, whether the Prime Minister will be able to deliver a Budget in May that makes it through the Senate and is more acceptable to the electorate.

Thirdly and finally,  to make good on his commitments to be more consultative of his colleagues, in order to keep his unsettled backbench in check. There can be no more ‘Captain’s Calls’. 

Will Tony Abbott be our Prime Minister at the next election?

To quote the soundtrack of Australian classic Strictly Ballroom: Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.

Read more: 2 words every parent wants Tony Abbott to say today.

The most likely contender for the Liberal leadership in the near future is Malcolm Turnbull. Turnbull is immensely popular in the electorate, most particularly with left-wing voters who do not traditionally support Coalition Governments. While he has not openly declared an intention to seek the leadership, Turnbull has garnered significant support within the party in recent days and could make a more decided move in the near future.

“The most likely contender for the Liberal leadership in the near future is Malcolm Turnbull, pictured with Tony Abbott.”

It is important to remember however that Turnbull is decidedly unpopular with the Liberal Party’s ‘base’ who disagree with his stance on carbon pricing and other issues. While Turnbull is a darling of the left wing, he would face extensive difficulty uniting a parliamentary party who largely disagree with him on key policy issues. His status as a pin up boy for progressives would likely fade rapidly if Turnbull was unable to move the Coalition towards a more active stance on combatting climate change.

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