Terry Barnes advised Tony Abbott in the Howard government, and contributes regularly to the Australian edition of The Spectator.
On Monday, Australia was handed its fifth change of Prime Minister in five years. Malcolm Turnbull defeated Tony Abbott in a snap leadership challenge in a 54-44 vote by Liberal MPs. Abbott then resigned, and Turnbull was sworn in as Australia’s 29th prime minister.
In the Liberal Party, a simple majority of MPs is enough to change the leader if the leadership is declared or voted vacant. Two years ago, the Australian Labor Party followed the Labour model of leadership contests in Britain, taking the power from MPs’ hands after Julia Gillard’s 2010 coup and Kevin Rudd’s 2013 counter-coup – and all the destabilising, backstabbing and leaking that destroyed the Labor government from within.
Now Labor’s infection has spread to the Liberals. Turnbull’s challenge was as quick as it was brutal. From start to finish, it was over in less than six hours.
A leadership challenge was certainly on the cards, but not anticipated then. The planning was careful, support quietly garnered, and when Turnbull’s team were sure they had a majority of MPs, they moved. They did so despite a crucial by-election being held within days: there were fears that Abbott might win convincingly and reinforce his leadership, and they calculated that Parliament would not be sitting for the following three weeks – which would also benefit Abbott. In Australian politics, proximity is key.
That Abbott was in trouble is undeniable. Australian politics has been febrile for months. Since January, when he came under sustained and withering fire for (of all things) approving an Australian knighthood for the Duke of Edinburgh, his leadership has been the subject of intense speculation. In February, he faced by a motion to declare the leadership vacant that failed for want of a challenger. Sobered by his “near-death experience”, he worked hard to rejuvenate his flagging leadership, make it more consultative, and crafted a Budget in May that was economically sound and politically popular. While still trailing in opinion polls, the Abbott Coalition was within striking distance of Labor.
But in July and August Abbott and his government were waylaid by a very Australian expenses scandal when the Speaker, Bronwyn Bishop, was found to have used public funds to charter a helicopter to take her to a party fundraising event when a short road journey would have sufficed. For a month, the scandal deprived the Government of oxygen and its support again crashed, with Abbott clung tenaciously to Bishop far longer than was wise. When eventually she had to resign, Bishop retreated huffily to the backbench, and her thanks for Abbott’s loyalty was, reportedly, to vote against him in Monday’s leadership ballot.
This, and a long string of minor but embarrassing gaffes – not big in themselves but cumulatively damaging – gave the Government an air of permanent crisis.
Consistently poor polling, the Prime Minister’s unpopularity and the simple fact that Turnbull was always there ultimately brought Abbott’s leadership to Monday’s challenge. Turnbull confronted the Prime Minister and asked him to stand aside or call a ballot. Abbott’s deputy, Julie Bishop, told him he had lost the support of a majority of Cabinet, including her. There was nothing left but for Abbott to call the ballot, and its closeness was a reflection that, in spite of everything, many Liberal MPs remain wary of catching the Labor leadership disease.
Now Turnbull, a wealthy lawyer and banker best known in the UK for prosecuting the Spycatcher case against the Thatcher Government during the 1980s and his leadership of Australian republicans, is Australia’s prime minister. He has pledged to use his superior advocacy and business skills to make a strong economic case for the Coalition’s re-election in 2016. He will restructure the Government to reward supporters and strong performers. Having failed in his first term as Liberal leader in 2008-09, where he went far ahead of his party on climate change and generally was a one-man band, Turnbull also has committed to being more consultative and Cabinet-focused than Abbott (who was seen as having too powerful a private office) and, by extension, his old domineering self.
Abbott will be treated more kindly by history than by his contemporaries or the opinion polls. His achievements in getting the Liberal-National Party Coalition re-elected in six years, when the Rudd years looked endless, were little short of astonishing. He achieved his key manifesto aims: stopping the evil people-smuggling boat trade, defeating Labor’s emissions trading scheme (which may sound odd to UK Conservatives, but is toxic in Australia) and starting the difficult job of repairing a Budget destroyed by the Keynesian profligacy of the Rudd-Gillard years. His misfortune was a political culture blowing even the smallest mistake out of all proportion, and a social media barrage of such visceral hatred that his opponents were able to define him on their terms. And, as the Bishop affair showed, he is loyal to a fault but too often not given loyalty in return.
It may well be that Turnbull is the answer to the Liberals’ political problems. He needs to be given a “fair go” now he is prime minister. But to avoid full-blown Labor disease, his supporters and opponents in the Liberal Party need to reach out to each other to bury rancour and recriminations. Positively, Liberals are watching the Jeremy Corbyn experiment in Britain with horror: they are determined not to put their own interests before their party’s, and at least strive to make things work.
Australia’s revolving door leadership, and a political culture more about catching politicians out rather than making and debating sound policy has to stop. Voters deplore it. The days of coups in the night should become things of the past, and more orderly whole-of-party leadership contests along UK lines would certainly do that. While Australians have a very robust democracy, perhaps it will take the once-brash republican Turnbull to appreciate that the Mother Country sometimes does things better than we do, and make leadership coups such as Monday’s a thing of the past.