Former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott spoke to media this afternoon, shortly before tendering his resignation as Prime Minister to the Governor-General. In his final speech as leader of Australia, Abbott promised that he would not seek to undermine Malcolm Turnbull in the same way Kevin Rudd did Julia Gillard after his ousting saying “There will be no wrecking, no undermining and no sniping. I’ve never leaked or backgrounded against anyone and I certainly won’t start now. Our country deserves better than that. I want our government and our country to succeed. I always have and I always will. I’ve consistently said in opposition and in government that being prime minister is not an end in itself; it’s about the people you serve. The great privilege that I have had is to see the wonder of this country like few others. And I want to thank the Australian people for giving me the honour to serve.”
Abbott also took the opportunity to speak about the culture of coups that appears to have taken over the Australian government in recent years. “The nature of politics has changed in the past decade. We have more polls and more commentary than ever before. Mostly sour, bitter, character assassination. Poll-driven panic has produced a revolving-door prime ministership which can’t be good for our country. And a febrile media culture has developed that rewards treachery. And if there’s one piece of advice I can give to the media, it’s this: refuse to print self-serving claims that the person making them won’t put his or her name to. Refuse to connive at dishonour by acting as the assassin’s knife.”
Malcolm Turnbull faced a trial by fire in his first hours as prime minister. Almost immediately after being sworn in by the Governor-General, Turnbull was thrown into the gruelling parade of parliamentary Question Time. Question Time, a period in which parliamentary standing orders are suspended so senators can ask questions of the government, started civil enough. Malcolm Turnbull offered Abbott (who chose not to appear in Parliament today) a few words of praise that rang rather hollow considering less than 24 hours earlier he’d been saying Abbott was leading the country to economic ruin. Surprisingly, it was Leader of the Labour Opposition Bill Shorten who offered the most poignant and emotional summation of Abbott’s character. Speaking before an unusually subdued and respectful parliament, Shorten praised his frequent sparring partner’s conviction and offered a touching anecdote that reminds us that although politicians are often opposed to each other, they are not personal enemies.
“It is not for me to be partisan about Mr Abbott’s record,” Shorten said. “But he certainly led the Liberal Party formidably, for well in excess of five years. He is a fierce proponent of his views, a ruthless advocate for what he believes in. From his first victory in 2009 to become the leader of the Liberal Party, right through to last night, he is a fighter, a formidable fighter. I have exchanged harsh words with him in my time as Opposition Leader. I’ve disagreed with his politics and decisions on many occasions. But I also wish to record that he had this frustrating ability on occasion, just when you were really frustrated with a particular decision he might have made, to do something unexpected and generous and personal. From the time when my mother passed, he was very sensitive to that. I said this to him and I explained the conundrum of his frustrating behaviour, he just smiled at me and said ‘I’m sure I’ll frustrate you again’ and he did.”
Then the moment was broken and Shorten took the gloves off. For the next hour, Turnbull and his ministers struggled to fend off repeated attacks on Turnbull’s newfound leadership. His track record was thoroughly dissected, with comments on his involvement in 2014’s desperately unpopular budget dominating earlier questions before the spotlight turned to Treasurer Joe Hockey, who for now retains his job despite his public support of Abbott in the run up to the leadership spill. In his challenge yesterday, Turnbull made it clear he thought the government was handling Australia’s economic woes poorly, a statement which reflects directly on Hockey’s performance. The one-time rising star of the Liberal party looked tired and unhappy as he took the chair to answer the opposition’s pointed questions about Turnbull’s comments, and he did so poorly. The sloppy attempt to dodge the questions underlined the fact that Hockey is a man who has seen his position eroded over a year and half of taking the fall for the Abbott government’s unpopular financial policies, and was truly laid low by Abbott’s ousting almost as much as the former prime minister was. It’s a virtual certainty that Turnbull will replace Hockey in the much expected cabinet reshuffling and Hockey seemed acutely aware of it. In a small act of rebellion against his new boss, Hockey refused to refer to him as prime minister, instead referring to him as “the honourable member for Wentworth”. The significance of this defiance was lost on no one, earning jeers from the opposition, and a troubled look between Liberal deputy leader and Leader of the House Christopher Pyne.
Turnbull was also grilled on his refusal to revisit issues like same sex marriage and climate change, areas he publicly deviated from the government on in the past and was heckled by one Labour MP, who labelled him a “sell-out”. Turnbull can at least rest easy knowing he has obtained the support of the National Party which had made veiled threats to dissolve the Coalition after the change in leaders yesterday. This make-nice was inevitable however, as the Liberal Party alone does not have enough seats to retain government and no matter how much they may have preferred Tony Abbott the National Party still have no desire to call Bill Shorten “Prime Minister”.