Photo credits: Office of the Official Secretary to the Governor-General
Photo credits: Office of the Official Secretary to the Governor-General

The king is dead; long live the king?

There’s only so much you can do to keep up with the political machinations of other countries.  If, like me, you live a long way from home, it is just about manageable to follow your own politics, those of the place you currently live, and what Donald Trump has been up to in the last 24 hours.

So you could be forgiven for scratching your head at the series of images of a raw-onion-eating man that spread across the internet two weeks ago (on Buzzfeed or the New Yorker).  As of the evening of Monday September 14, AEST, Australia had a new Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, replacing the outgoing Tony Abbott, who was elected in September 2013.

But hang on – was there another election?

Nope – you didn’t miss anything there.

Australia inherited its bicameral Westminster-style parliamentary system from Britain, with the key difference being that in Australia both houses are elected.  Members of the House of Representatives (MPs) represent electoral divisions for terms of up to three years, whereas Senators from each of Australia’s states and territories are elected by proportional representation for six or three year terms respectively.

Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott are both members of the Liberal Party, the largest party in the centre-right Liberal-National Coalition, which by virtue of its majority in the House of Representatives currently forms the Government.  Government MPs and Senators choose their leader, who by convention becomes the Prime Minister.

In essence then, what happened that Monday was simple. Malcolm Turnbull believed he had secured the support of a majority of his parliamentary colleagues and publicly announced that he would challenge Tony Abbott’s leadership at 4pm.  Mr Abbott, Turnbull said, had “not been capable of providing the economic leadership our nation needs”, and that he would instead provide a new “style of leadership that respects the people’s intelligence”.

Tony Abbott called on a Liberal party-room ballot later that evening at 9.15pm. Malcolm Turnbull secured 54 votes against Abbott’s 44, following which Abbott resigned his post.  Turnbull was sworn in as Prime Minister by the Governor-General the following morning.

The denouement was swiftly and clinically executed, and the pressure had been building on Tony Abbott’s leadership for months.  In February a ‘spill motion’ to vacate the Liberal Party leadership had been called on by two MPs; Malcolm Turnbull did not stand.  The motion was defeated 61 votes to 39, but Abbott was living on borrowed time thereafter.

Although never popular with the public, Tony Abbott was a very effective Opposition leader from 2009 until his election in 2013 (a position which he assumed from Malcolm Turnbull in a ballot won by a single vote).  He relentlessly exploited the weakness of a precarious centre-left Labor Government convulsed with its own leadership struggles between Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.  He campaigned effectively on a platform which promised to stop boats of asylum seekers arriving on Australian shores, to roll back the carbon and mineral resource rent taxes introduced by the Labor Government, and to return the Federal budget to surplus.  Despite his unpopularity, the electorate firmly rejected the Labor Government and the Coalition won the 2013 election in a landslide.

As Prime Minister, Abbott quickly acted on his pre-election pledges to remove the carbon and mining taxes and hardened the Government’s stance towards asylum seekers, instituting a raft of policies to reduce the incentive to migrate to Australia by boat, which were largely and controversially obscured from public scrutiny.

With strengthening economic headwinds facing the country due to China’s slowdown, and unable to shift gears from Opposition mode to set a positive agenda, the Abbott Government fell behind in the key two-party preferred Newspoll in December 2013.  It briefly recovered in April 2014, then fell behind again the next month and never regained the lead (in the first poll since the leadership change on 21 September, the Coalition polled ahead of Labor 51-49).

Figure 1: Two-party preferred (Source: Newspoll)
Figure 1: Two-party preferred (Source: Newspoll)

The consistent poor polling, fueled by Abbott’s frequent unpopular missteps (such as knighting Prince Phillip, the Queen’s husband) and media speculation caused pressure to mount on his leadership.  Public divisions appeared within the Cabinet, and the Liberal party-room feared that under Prime Minister Abbott they were heading for a first-term defeat.

All the while, Malcolm Turnbull continued to poll as the public’s preferred Prime Minister, maintaining a high level of popularity amongst the business community and social liberals.  However, he wasn’t yet ready to challenge, as his public popularity was not reflected amongst his parliamentary colleagues.  The conservative factions of the Liberal Party led by Tony Abbott had removed Turnbull from the Opposition leadership in 2009, on the basis of his authoritative leadership style, support for Labor’s Emissions Trading Scheme and other left-leaning positions, and a debacle known as “ute-gate”.

The catalyst for Turnbull’s leadership challenge was the by-election in the Western Australian House of Representatives seat of Canning (held on Saturday 19 September 2015).  The seat was vacated by the death of the sitting Liberal Party member, Don Randall, who was one of the two MPs to call on the spill motion against Tony Abbott in February.  Early projections suggested that the seat – held by the Liberal Party with a margin of 11.8% – might go to Labor in a massive swing.  It was speculated that the loss of Canning, on top of the Cabinet division, poor polling and Abbott’s unpopularity, would spell the end of his Prime Ministership.

Turnbull timed the launch of his challenge a week before the by-election.  Ultimately the swing was not as great as originally anticipated, which may suggest that Abbott was polling better than expected (he suggested this was the case in his first interview since the spill), or that Turnbull’s leadership shifted the outcome.  There were also leaked rumblings from inside the Coalition two weeks before the by-election that Labor was “running dead” in Canning – that is, deliberately under-resourcing their campaign to preserve Abbott’s position and strengthen their chances at the next Federal Election.  Whichever of these explanations is closest to the truth, the 6% swing has allowed all sides to claim a victory.

So what should we expect now?  Does Malcolm Turnbull’s assumption of the Prime Ministership signal an end to the instability that has beset Australian politics since 2008?  At the moment, it is far from clear that it has.

In terms of public support, the Coalition has reaped an immediate benefit from elevating Turnbull to the leadership.  Two recent polls from Morgan and Newspoll rocketed the Coalition into the lead in two-party preferred terms – 55-45 and 51-49 respectively. Turnbull has also shot ahead of the Opposition leader Bill Shorten as preferred Prime Minister.

Shorten is widely expected to struggle against Turnbull.  As the former National Secretary of the Australian Workers Union, there is a risk his image may be tarnished by an ongoing inquiry into corruption in the union movement.  Nonetheless, he is a canny and effective politician and shouldn’t be underestimated.  As a junior minister in the Rudd-Gillard government, he pushed through a ground-breaking and widely supported National Disability Insurance Scheme.  He was also behind both “coups” to remove Prime Ministers Rudd and Gillard.

Prime Minister Turnbull’s challenge has revealed the deep divisions between the liberal and conservative wings of the Coalition.  The party vote was largely split along these lines, but some conservatives managed to overcome their dislike of Turnbull to deliver him the numbers in the party-room because of Tony Abbott’s dire polling and unpopularity.  It is speculated that conservative Liberal Party powerbroker Scott Morrison was crucial in shifting his support to Turnbull.  He was rewarded in the Cabinet reshuffle with the influential role of Treasurer.  The need to placate conservatives in the Coalition will mean that Turnbull is constrained for some time in what he can do, especially on key issues including climate change policy, gay marriage, and asylum seekers, which may cause some of his supporters to become disillusioned.

Unlike during the saga of the 2007-13 Labor Government, where the leadership changed hands from Rudd to Gillard and back again, Tony Abbott is unlikely to cause instability.  His unpopularity with the electorate means he cannot present the ongoing threat that Rudd posed to Gillard.  However, this does not mean that the conservative wing of the Coalition won’t be looking for their chance.  Scott Morrison is ambitious and has shown his ability to command numbers in the party-room.  Should Turnbull slip up, or should he disappoint enough voters expecting him to make policy changes on issues like climate change and same-sex marriage, Morrison may see his chance.

For the time being, the new Prime Minister has the wind in his sails.  The deft timing and execution of his leadership challenge has secured the unambiguous backing of the Coalition party-room.  He is articulating a positive vision for Australia’s economy, and his Cabinet reshuffle has been well received.

But tough times are ahead – the economic headwinds are stiffening and he will need to balance public expectations and those of his party’s conservative base.  Ambitious rivals are waiting in the wings.  It would take a brave pundit to predict that the revolving door of the Australian Prime Minister’s Office has stopped spinning.

About Tim McMinn

Tim McMinn

Tim is an Australian living and working London who keeps a close eye on politics in his home country. Prior to moving to the UK Tim worked as a civil and structural engineer in Perth, Western Australia. In 2014 he obtained a Master of Public Policy from the University of Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government. Tim now advises government clients on the management of rapid urbanisation and infrastructure development strategy. The opinions expressed in this blog are his own.

Tim McMinn @
 

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