I recently wrote in favour of compulsory voting (£). As much as I dislike compelling anyone to vote, I’m more worried about Britain becoming a gerontocracy where older voters skew public policy. But in one thing at least we should definitely not emulate Australia: its absurd system of leadership spills (this is how they work). A party leadership election is simply too easy to call. A couple of unhappy backbenchers can trigger it and can trigger it within days.
At 10pm our time tonight (which is 9am, Monday in Canberra), Tony Abbott – who destroyed two leaders of the Labor Party and led his own party to a landslide victory only 17 months ago – may be ousted as his country’s Prime Minister. His party is in full-scale panic because of very poor opinion poll ratings, and a disastrous defeat in last weekend’s Queensland state elections.
I have little doubt that if Britain had a similar spill system used by both the main Australian parties not only would Ed Miliband have been ditched by now (perhaps a very good thing) but, much more controversially, David Cameron might well have gone too. There simply aren’t enough hurdles between the (often passing) despondency of a parliamentary party and believing that a change of messiah/leader is the solution. If Abbott is ousted, he’ll join Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd, and become his country’s third prime minister within a decade to be replaced. Australia is making Italy look grown up.
I fear the 102 Liberal Party MPs and senators may not stick with Abbott in their party room meeting. Opinion polls suggest the man that Abbott replaced as his party’s leader – Malcolm Turnbull, in 2009 – is now more popular across Australia. There is some excitement within the Liberal Party at the thought of a Turnbull-Bishop-Morrison team:
- Turnbull (famous in Britain for successfully prosecuting the Spycatcher case and for unsuccessfully leading Australia’s republican movement) as leader.
- Julia Bishop continuing as deputy Prime Minister and as an impressive foreign minister.
- And Scott Morrison as a new Treasurer after his successful stint as immigration minister.
But – as Tom Switzer (gently) and Andrew Bolt (very assertively) worry – the socially liberal, environmentally green but super-competent Turnbull might quickly divide his party – just as he had done before Abbott challenged him just over five years. Moreover, opinion polls change. John Howard was once known as “Mr 18 per cent”. He went on, of course, to become his country’s most successful prime minister –- winning four successive elections.
What has gone wrong for Abbott? Let’s be clear – it’s not because of his position on immigration, climate change or “God” – as Matthew Parris mischievously suggested (£) yesterday. The key manifesto promises to stop the boats of illegal immigrants into Australia and the scrapping of the carbon tax have both been delivered and largely to public approval.
Abbott’s key problem is that he has tried to do something that few other prime ministers in advanced nations have tried to do – he’s tried to fix the roof when the sun is still shining. As Campbell Newman in Queensland found, long-term reforms aren’t necessarily popular. Much of Australia is still in denial about the deterioration of its public finances, and you can understand why. It has enjoyed a golden period of economic blessing.
Powered by a raw materials export boom to China, it has enjoyed more than two decades of uninterrupted economic growth. Abbott and Joe Hockey, his Treasurer, have tried to fix the growing deficit with unpopular measures, such as a $7 fee to see a GP, and university funding reform. Voters haven’t liked these measures – partly because, in breach of Lesson 2 from New Zealand’s hyper-successful John Key, “no surprises” – voters weren’t given pre-election warning of these austerity measures
Worse, Abbott doesn’t control his country’s very powerful upper house, the Senate. It’s one thing to pursue unpopular measures and pass them. At least you’re then tough. But if you propose unpopular measures and can’t enact them, you risk looking ineffective.
Abbott has compounded his problems by limited communication skills, a lack of collegiality with colleagues and then unforced errors such as his recent “captain’s call” to give Prince Philip a knighthood – on Australia Day! The only thing worse in a country where about half of voters – across all parties – still think of themselves as republicans would have been to have given one to Prince Andrew!
I hope Liberal MPs will listen to the advice of John Howard and give Tony Abbott more time. It should be usual for a prime minister to be fired or hired by a country’s electorate at election times. Australia’s three year cycle of federal elections already hinders long-term, strategic policy. Repeatedly changing a Prime Minister mid-term isn’t ultimately a recipe for public trust in government or for stable goverance.