Farewell Joe, hello ScoMo? Abbott’s loyalty to be tested again

Prime Minister Tony Abbott … one of his finest qualities as a friend is loyalty. Photo: Dominic Lorrimer Tipped for the Treasuer’s job: Scott Morrison. Photo: Andrew Meares

On the brink: Treasurer Joe Hockey. Photo: Louie Douvis

Tony Abbott being urged to dump Joe Hockey

As anyone who knows Tony Abbott will tell you, one of his finest qualities as a friend is loyalty.

But in politics – unlike in life – loyalty is rarely rewarded.

In 2009, Mr Abbott demonstrated he understood the need for disloyalty when he joined other shadow ministers and tore down Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership to keep the Liberal Party from tearing itself apart.

Since then he seems to have forgotten the lesson.

Abbott’s loyalty to former speaker Bronwyn Bishop needlessly dragged that damaging scandal out for weeks; for years he was loyal to his signature paid parental leave scheme, despite the damage it did to him in the party room; and leading up to February’s spill motion, he stared down calls for Joe Hockey and his chief of staff, Peta Credlin, to be moved on as a sign he had listened, learned and would change.

Now, once again, his colleagues are discussing whether the Treasurer – who Abbott has previously pledged will retain his job, come what may – will be moved on.

The trigger is the Canning byelection on September 19.

Some government strategists are briefing that any victory – remember, the margin is 11.8 per cent – will be good enough for the PM.

Others nominate a swing against the government of up to 6 per cent as acceptable.

But a big enough swing against the government, even if the seat is retained, could still be deadly for Abbott.

As the byelection looms, cabinet members are discussing a contingency plan which would see Hockey dumped and one of the government’s best communicators, Scott Morrison, promoted to explain the government’s economic message and restore its political fortunes.

A reshuffled frontbench would re-engage voters and get the government through to Christmas, when it could re-group.

Then, late in January, a double dissolution poll would be called for March – Parliament would not sit, a potentially tricky third budget would be avoided and Abbott would be freed up to campaign across the country.

The Prime Minister is convinced that, even if he begins an election campaign behind Bill Shorten in the polls, he will have the Opposition Leader’s measure on the trail – and he is probably right.

The fact that these confidential discussions – and they are only discussions at this stage – have leaked out is a measure of how badly the Abbott government is travelling.

And, if things go really badly, the Canning byelection will present another test of the prime minister’s loyalty.

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