Mark Detre is a political and communications consultant currently based in Melbourne.
Recently, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation aired a gripping three-part series called The Killing Season. The programme covered the dramatic leadership ructions which beset the Labor party while it was in office, during which Julia Gillard successfully deposed Kevin Rudd to become Prime Minister, only to suffer exactly the same in reverse three years later. The name refers to a period in June during which Parliament sits for its final weeks, and when leaders are deemed to be at their most vulnerable to leadership challenges.
It seems that the fatal season has been extended because, on Monday night here, Tony Abbott was ejected as leader of the Liberal Party and Prime Minister in similarly dramatic fashion. He had been challenged by Malcolm Turnbull, previously the Communications Minister and a past party leader in opposition. Turnbull’s overthrow of Abbott marks the fifth Prime Minister Australia has had in five years.
How did such instability develop, and how long will it continue? Australia has developed a lively tradition for promptly sacking unpopular or gaffe-prone leaders on both sides of the political divide and, in Abbott, it seems that the country had both.
Abbott had endured a rocky two years in the run-up to his sacking. His first budget was particularly unpopular, hitting low-income families and introducing new taxes. More recently, he initially supported Bronwyn Bishop, previously Speaker of the House of Representatives, until it became clear that she would have to resign in a scandal over her expenses claims.
Personally, too, he often found himself as a figure of controversy and derision. In January, he made himself unpopular by awarding a knighthood to Prince Phillip. Backbenchers became so restless in February that they organised a vote on his leadership, which he a survived by 61 votes to 39. Under his leadership, a Royal Commission into trade union corruption is taking place, and recent speculation about the political affiliations of its main Chair forced Abbott to defend his choice. Indeed, his ‘Captain’s picks’ (decisions made without consulting colleagues) have been a sore point for months within his party. Discontent has been compounded by the gathering of economic storm clouds as a result of weakening demand from China for minerals.
The latest ‘spill motion’ – the formal leadership challenge process – came at a delicate time for the Government. A by-election in the Western Australian seat of Canning looms on Saturday, which the Liberals are widely predicted to lose. Many commentators and journalists had predicted a challenge to Abbott following that loss, Mr Turnbull decided to act sooner to try and limit the electoral damage that Canning would deliver. More broadly, a General Election is due next year and, with grim economic news continuing to emerge from China, Turnbull may have decided that a fast change of direction was needed.
This change of direction will be worth scrutinising. Turnbull is a centrist in a decidedly right-of-centre party. His views on climate change and same-sex marriage, in particular, do not overlap with many in the party (he is concerned about the former and a supporter of the latter). Indeed, he himself was ejected as leader of the party over his support for the then-Labor Government’s Emissions Trading Scheme by one Tony Abbott. He has reportedly had to reassure senior backbenchers and Liberal Ministers that he will not change the official party position on either issue ahead of the election.
However, there are those in the party who are loathe to see him return. Turnbull is a high-profile figure in Australian politics and business. A Rhodes Scholar, he forged a successful business career in law and journalism before entering Parliament. He is charismatic, outspoken, impatient, and has been accused of being arrogant – so much so, that he vowed to change his ways. But his old foes were out in force on Monday, decrying his leadership challenge as motivated by pure personal ambition rather than any higher leadership calling. Indeed, at the front of Turnbull’s mind during the coming days will be the narrow margin of his victory: of the caucus of 101 MPs and Senators, he won 54 seats to Mr Abbott’s 44 (with one ‘informal vote’, or a blank or incorrectly filled out ballot).
What will happen next? Undoubtedly, Turnbull will move to stamp his authority on the party and reassure the electorate. It would be a surprise if he did not immediately appear in Canning to try and avert disaster, although how effective he will be is anyone’s guess. A ministerial reshuffle is also sure to follow, with the Treasurer, Joe Hockey, certain to be replaced by someone more personally loyal to the new Prime Minister. Though muzzled on two causes close to his heart, Turnbull will set up some set-piece appearances and announcements during the coming weeks to show Australians that the direction of Government has changed. It may even be that he calls an early General Election to give himself a popular mandate.
Mr Turnbull’s gamble has paid off – for now. He has a new loyal deputy in Julie Bishop, previously Foreign Minister to Mr Abbott. His position looks safe until the election. However, he put the economy at the centrepiece of his challenge but, with growth tightly tied to trade with China, it is difficult to see how he will turn things around in any significant fashion before next year. And he will be aware that, in 2013, voters reacted to instability in the Labor government by deserting it. History may have the same fate in store for Mr Turnbull and, in a country where defenestration appears to have become a habit rather than an exception, the Killing Season may continue.