Terry Barnes was a senior adviser to Tony Abbott in John Howard’s government.
Overnight, Tony Abbott, the Australian Prime Minister, narrowly survived a party room vote on a motion to ‘spill’ (unseat) the leadership of Australia’s Liberal Party. It was a challenge without, as yet, a challenger.
Feverish speculation swirled around the intentions of the most likely alternative to first-term PM Abbott: Malcolm Turnbull, the former leader and now Communications Minister . Turnbull would be best known in Britain as the barrister who successfully defended MI5 officer Peter Wright in the Spycatcher case against the British government in the 1980s. A socially progressive, self-made millionaire with a green tinge (he lost the leadership in 2009 by pushing for an emissions trading scheme against the opposition of his own party), Turnbull presumably would be more congenial company for David Cameron than the more conservative Abbott.
The relative close spill vote clearly has given Abbott an almighty scare. The final margin, 61-39, indicates a significant number of Liberal backbench MPs have lost confidence in him. But given Julie Bishop, the deputy leader, and other members of the Cabinet lined up behind the PM, and many ministers lobbied heavily for him, the result was expected.
Indeed, Abbott didn’t deserve to go down today. His values and philosophy, including his attachment to the monarchy, are more consistent with Liberal constituency members than Turnbull’s. Since the Liberal National Party’s disastrous Queensland election result, where the state government lost with a 13 per cent swing and the state premier lost his seat, the Prime Minister has kept his nerve under the most intense personal pressure and provocation.
In office, he has grappled with a bucket of stinking debt and deficit fish inherited from the series of Kevin Rudd-Julia Gillard Labor governments. In a hung Senate, Australia’s Upper House, he faces a Labor Opposition that refuses to acknowledge its own massive failures in government and is even more obstructionist than Abbott ever was when in their place, frustrating the Government’s policy agenda at almost every turn without a popular mandate to do so.
And his day-to-day job is not made easy by Abbott-hating and vitriol seemingly being a national pastime for swathes of mainstream and social media. British politicians are treated with the utmost deference by comparison.
The Abbott government struggled and lost much electoral support in 2014, thanks mostly to an undercooked and under-explained budget last May that Labor and vested interests successfully framed as cruel and unfair. But this cannot in itself be attributed solely to Abbott as PM. Cabinet government is a team game, and rivals Turnbull and Bishop sat around the Cabinet table and effectively condoned the benighted budget that Joe Hockey, the Treasurer, brought down last May. They cannot escape some responsibility for the consequences.
Abbott can breathe easier after today’s vote. But he and his core supporters would be mistaken if they presume that unrest among parliamentary and grass-roots Liberals has been quelled. The margin itself is not enough to kill off the speculation, but is sufficient to buy him breathing space to recover. After the mistakes and mist-steps of the 18 months since he defeated Labor in 2013, even his closest Cabinet supporters would agree that the spill vote is a means not to change the leader but to get the leader, Abbott, to change. He must heed its message.
Over the past week, as leadership speculation went nuclear, Abbott has stressed that he has listened to the backbench and to voters who swung savagely in recent state elections in Queensland and Victoria. He has promised to be more open and consultative in conducting himself and his government. Above all, he has promised to suppress his tendency to unilateral policy decisions, most notably an over-generous Paid Parental Leave for professional women and the out-of-the-blue Order of Australia knighthood for Prince Philip – something that went down very badly in egalitarian Australia, or rather with those self-appointed arbiters of its values, political journalists and commentators.
What will change most after today is the PM’s relationship with his ministry. Until this spill motion, Abbott’s ministers were appointed, and dismissed, at his pleasure, drawing on his authority as the man who led them from the political wilderness. But because they rallied around him so publicly this last week – whether because they support him personally, for Cabinet solidarity, or both – the patronage relationship has been reversed. Abbott now retains his prime ministership at the pleasure of all his ministers, and not just Turnbull and Bishop.
Abbott therefore has to demonstrate from now that truly he is first amongst equals. He needs to reconstruct his Government, and his connections with his colleagues and the public, to be more accessible and consultative. Some ministerial and staff shoulders need to be tapped, and major policy and political decisions must be tested and finessed before they’re signed off and announced. And, above all, difficult policies can’t spring from nowhere, and must be explained exhaustively to a wary electorate before, during and after their announcement.
Today his parliamentary colleagues placed the PM on unmistakable notice to improve his own performance and his Government’s, so that by year’s end they have a reasonable chance of re-election in 2016. If in the future he stumbles badly or sets off on another unilateral policy adventure, Abbott cannot expect his ministerial colleagues to rally round again. That’s the PM’s new reality.
Tony Abbott is a man of great dignity and decency. He will strive to keep his word that he and his inner circle will change. Abbott’s deep sense of history reminds him that the consent of the governed is part of Australia’s democratic tradition, and that this principle applies to the MPs who elect him to the leadership as much as the voters who elect him and his party to government.
Near-death experiences often transform those experiencing them. They often become better people who live life to the fullest, better appreciate their fellow human beings, and strive to avoid repeating the circumstances that brought them to death’s door. Abbott must make the most of his political near-death. If he does not, he will not expect his colleagues to resuscitate him.