Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott is fighting for his role as leader of Australia after Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull launched a public leadership challenge against the embattled Liberal Party leader. This is the second time this year Abbott’s leadership has come under fire following a call for a leadership spill that ultimately went nowhere back in February.
Context is everything in this latest instalment of a long-running series of political upheavals suffered by the Australian people. While the term ‘liberal’ is usually used to describe left-leaning political views, the Australian Liberal Party is the right-wing party out of Australia’s two largest political factions. The other, the Australian Labour Party, was elected to government in an overwhelming majority in 2007, under the leadership of Kevin Rudd. It’s crucial at this juncture to understand that, unlike places like the United States of America, Australians do not elect a party leader. Instead, the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition are elected by the rest of the senators in their respective parties. This has lead to multiple controversial coups during the nation’s history, but it has never reached the kind of fever pitch it has in the last five years.
In 2010, after suffering a dip in opinion polls and coming under fire from colleagues for his abrasive leadership style, Kevin Rudd was infamously ousted by Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Rudd, having been informed by Gillard that she intended to challenge him for the leadership of the Labour Party, was faced with two options: wait for Gillard to move a challenge against him in the next party meeting or call a leadership spill himself. He chose the latter option and called a leadership spill himself, effectively resigning his role as leader pending reelection in the spill. Rudd didn’t have the numbers though, and once that became apparent he decided not to put his name forward for reelection. Gillard ran unnopposed and became Australia’s first female prime minister.
Gillard chose to call an election very quickly to consolidate her prime ministership, and while she technichally led the Labour Party to victory against then Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and the Liberal Party, Labour lost many of it’s seats, resulting in a hung parliament, wherein no party had a majority. Gillard scraped into government by the skin of her teeth, making deals with minor parties and independents, but her government was forever on shaky ground. Crucially, while voters hadn’t been especially thrilled with Kevin Rudd in his final days, they resented Gillard for her usurpment of Rudd and the Liberal Party, along with large portions of the media, painted her as Brutus to Rudd’s Caeser. This sour aftertaste never went away and Gillard’s stretch as Prime Minister was constantly under strain by persistant campaigning by the Liberal Party (which chose to keep Tony Abbott as leader despite the failure in the 2010 election), and internal strife, led largely by Rudd’s supporters. In February 2012 Rudd publicly challenged Gillard for the leadership, but lost the ensuing leadership spill called by the Prime Minister. Gillard remained Prime Minister, but infighting persisted and in March 2013, Regional Minister Simon Crean publicly requested Kevin Rudd challenge again. Gillard immediately called a leadership spill to settle the issue but Rudd, knowing he lacked the numbers, chose not to challenge. Once again, Gillard remained prime minister but the damage was irreperable. In June 2013, after terrible poll numbers and with an election due by the end of the year, Rudd challenged Gillard again. The third challenge proved fatal for Gillard’s government and Rudd regained control of the Prime Ministership. Rudd immediately called an election and lost in a landslide, with Australians electing the Liberal Party to power. They were tired of the infighting and the constant unrest.
While Tony Abbott and the Liberal Party enjoyed a brief honeymoon period they quickly succumbed to poor polling after a series of controversial decisions on Abbot’s part and his perceived tendency to make unilatral decisions without consulting his party. He also proved prone to gaffes, a trait he had displayed previously but it suddenly became much more important when the Prime Minister was threatening to “shirt front” Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin at the G20 Summit and showing bizzare and continuing tendency to compare entirely unrelated things to Nazis. Abbott, who had never been especially popular as a leader in the first place, saw his polls flatline. In early 2015, rumours of a leadership challenge started up, and while Rudd and Gillard attempted to resolve such disputes as soon as they started, Abbott let the rumours fester for weeks before a motion for a leadership spill was moved during a Liberal Party meeting. It did not succeed and no one ever announced their intention to challenge, with Abbott asking for six months to turn things around. He misspoke in the following press conference, however, stating “good government starts today” prompting predictable questions from the Labour Party and it’s new leader Bill Shorten as to what he’d been doing for the last 18 months.
But here we are again, six months later, and Malcolm Turnbull, the very man Abbott replaced as Leader of the Liberal Party while they were still in Opposition, has announced his intention to make a play for the country’s top job. This comes as an upcoming by-election in the district of Canning this weekend (triggered by the death of Liberal senator Don Landall) sees the Liberal Party set to barely retain control of the traditionally safe seat, with a predicted 10 point swing to Labour. Tony Abbott has continually stated that the by-election is not about him but there’s really no denying that it is: public discontent with Abbott’s leadership has been continual and extreme, with the Liberal Party trailing the Labour Party in polls for almost 18 months.
When launching his challenge, Turnbull offered a scathing assessment of Abbott’s time in government, saying “This is not a decision that anyone could take lightly. I have consulted with many, many colleagues, many Australians, many of our supporters, in every walk of life. And this course of action has been urged on me by many people over a long period of time. It is clear enough that the government is not successful in providing the economic leadership that we need. It is not the fault of individual ministers. Ultimately, the Prime Minister has not been capable in providing the economic leadership our nation needs. He has not been capable of providing the economic confidence that business needs … We need a style of leadership that … explains the challenges and how to seize the oppurtunities. A style of leadership that respects the people’s intelligence, that explains these complex issues and sets out the course of action we believe we should take and makes a case for it. We need advocacy not slogans.”
In a televised statement about an hour and a half later, Abbott made it very clear that he would not go quietly: “Since coming to Government, our team has stopped the boats, improved the budget, cut taxes and increased jobs. We have laid the foundation for a better deal for families and for small business. You can trust me to deliver a stronger economy and a safer community. The prime ministership of this country is not a prize or plaything to be demanded. It should be something which is earned by a vote of the Australian people. There will be a party room ballot for both the leadership and deputy leadership positions later this evening. I will be a candidate and I expect to win. Obviously, I am dismayed by the destabilisation that’s been taking place now for many, many months and I do say to my fellow Liberals that the destabilisation just has to stop. Let me finish on this note – I firmly believe that our party is better than this, that our Government is better than this and, by God, that our country is so much better than this.”
The leadership spill will occur within hours of this article’s publication but no matter what the outcome, Australians can be forgiven for experiencing a distinct sense of deja vu. As we all sit and watch the latest political brawl unfold on live television, many of us are angry, many are sad, but all of us are bored. We’ve seen this episode before.