Terry Barnes advised Tony Abbott when he was a Cabinet minister in John Howard’s government. He is also a fellow of the Institute of Economic Affairs.
ConservativeHome readers may think British politics one hell of a mess, as the Tories tear themselves apart over Brexit, and their Labour opponents savage each other over anti-semitism and Jeremy Corbyn. But their troubles are nothing compared to the ruthlessness and bloodletting that has consumed Australia’s governing Liberal Party this week.
On Tuesday, Malcolm Turnbull, Australia’s Prime Minister, and a social progressive on David Cameron lines, declared his own position vacant to head off a challenge by the government’s hardline conservative Home Affairs Minister, Peter Dutton.
Like Theresa May last year, Turnbull threw away a strong majority in an election the year before, and his leadership authority, amidst a listless and anaemic general election campaign, failed to counter a free-spending and Corbynesque Labor opposition that cared nothing about advocating responsible policy or even being honest. Now Australia’s governing conservative coalition hangs by a single seat.
Unlike their Conservative cousins in Britain, the Liberals have a one-stop leadership election process. If a leader loses the confidence of a simple majority of MPs – currently 43 of 85 – then he or she can be challenged and dispatched. Unlike a Tory leadership election, it has the advantage of being quick, but it is brutal and very, very nasty. With the governing coalition hanging by that single seat majority, and dissatisfaction with Turnbull simmering over two years, only a spark was needed to set leadership tensions aflame.
That fire was finally lit on Monday. The trigger was a deeply divisive internal party fight over energy policy – an issue for the Australian Liberals as toxic as Brexit is for the Conservatives, with the party’s Left demanding reduced emissions and renewable sources ahead of lower power bills and the Right, led by Tony Abbott, the former Prime Minister, demanding exactly the opposite.
But Turnbull badly botched the selling of an energy plan designed to satisfy Australia’s state governments and give business certainty, making panicky changes twice last weekend to placate rebel MPs. His previously strong support among Liberal MPs collapsed, with many of them angrily questioning what he stands for. That Turnbull refused to take his energy legislation to Parliament, fearing that his own MPs would join the Opposition and defeat him, added insult to self-inflicted injury.
Furthermore, the government has been soundly beaten by the Labor opposition in almost 40 successive national polls, and marginal seat panic has set in, with a general election due in less than a year. Add to this already dangerous combination a diabolical relationship and mutual loathing between Turnbull and Abbott – the former Prime Minister has never forgiven Turnbull for ousting him in 2015, just as he himself ousted Turnbull in 2010 – and you have a toxic brew indeed.
Amidst the heated atmosphere of this week, Abbott dropped any pretence he is being driven by policy differences. “It’s no secret I’m no big fan of the incumbent,” Abbott told a Sydney radio station on Wednesday afternoon. If he can’t be restored as Prime Minister, Abbott is grimly determined to topple Turnbull through Dutton. Revenge is a dish best served cold, it seems.
The lightning leadership ballot on Tuesday was won – just – by Turnbull and the defeated Dutton honourably resigned his post. But, free of collective responsibility, Dutton hit the airwaves and the phones, convinced that he could win over the minimum seven MPs needed to topple Turnbull in a second vote. Ten ministers had also voted against Turnbull and offered resignations but, while most of these initially were refused, by mid-Thursday all those and more had quit, including half the Liberal members of Cabinet.
Around Wednesday lunchtime in London – but on a cold late winter’s night in Canberra – Dutton’s camp rashly launched their second push before his momentum faltered, as a petition was circulated which sought backing from a majority of MPs, demanding that the Prime Minister call a meeting to decide the leadership once and for all. Amidst the rumours and counter-rumours reported and tweeted by a hyperventilating media, it appeared the momentum was with Dutton, but as the night wore on the true picture was still very fluid.
Then, earlier today, Dutton declared that he ‘has the numbers’ to overthrow Turnbull, but none the less couldn’t produce the needed 43 signatures on his petition. Amidst the consequent stalemate, Turnbull adjourned the House of Representatives for the week, before emerging from his office to declare that, while he would treat a successful ‘spill’ motion as a vote of no confidence, there would be no leadership meeting without the proof of the fully-signed petition.
He ostensibly insisted on this in order that his opponents be held accountable for their actions. But the real reason was to buy time for an alternative candidate to Dutton to emerge. There are now two: Turnbull’s long-time deputy leader and the Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, and the Treasurer, Scott Morrison. Abbott may yet declare his candidacy.
Oh, and Turnbull has referred his nemesis, Dutton, to the Australian Solicitor-General for a legal opinion on whether childcare centres owned by a trust run by Dutton’s wife constitutes a direct or indirect pecuniary interest that disqualified Dutton from sitting as an MP under section 44 of the Australian Constitution – the same section that has ensnared and disqualified a dozen MPs in the life of this Parliament.
If all of this wasn’t true, one couldn’t make it up and be believed.
By Friday afternoon, UK time, Australia may – just may – have yet another new prime minister, with more political bodies strewn on the floor than in the last scene of Hamlet. Dutton, Bishop or Morrison would become the sixth prime minister (including Kevin Rudd twice) in a decade.
It could be said that we in Australia take our democracy too far. Australian voters, however, hate this revolving door: they prefer to vote their leaders out themselves. Yet another prime ministerial knifing won’t solve the government’s electoral woes, but that consideration no longer seems to bother many Liberal MPs. To use an Australianism, it’s a bloody shemozzle.
Many in Britain think British leadership politics chaotic and hopeless, and that Theresa May is as weak as water against Brussels on the one side, and determined Leavers on the other. But at least she is not holed up in Number Ten, holding back the equivalent of moving vans with a shotgun. That is what Turnbull effectively is doing with his clever rule-making. He may have outplayed his challengers with his tactics, effectively controlling proceedings thanks to their overconfidence and ineptitude. But with half his ministry on the backbenches, he increasingly looks isolated and in denial, and through the whole sorry show Australian democracy is becoming a global joke.
Down Under we can only dream of what to us is an amazingly stable British political scene. Laugh if you must, but Australians envy you. Oh, and Boris: this is not how to do it.