Leadership tumult returns to Australia

Prime Minister Tony Abbott faces an internal challenge that could oust him as party division escalates.

Tony Abbott
Prime Minister Tony Abbott has been dogged by poor popularity ratings in recent polls [Reuters]

Adelaide, Australia – It has been a tough week for Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

In the first week back to work for the cabinet, widespread dissent among the conservative leader’s backbench has erupted in a direct challenge to his leadership.

For days speculation has been growing with rumour and counter-rumour circulating that a growing division among Abbott’s party threatened his position.

That is all expected to come to a head next Tuesday when the ruling Liberal Party is scheduled to meet, after Western Australian MP Luke Simpkins moved for a leadership challenge. The motion was seconded by Don Randall, another Western Australian MP.

The little-known Simpkins is a former major in the Australian Army and has previously marked himself out for his fiercely anti-Islamic views, while Randall has himself been at the centre of two expense scandals.

In response, Abbott held a press conference where he told reporters he and his party deputy, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, would oppose any leadership vote in an effort to avoid repeating the leadership speculation that dominated the previous Labor government.

“The first point to make is that they are perfectly entitled to call for this, but the next point to make is that they are asking the partyroom to vote out the people that the electorate voted in in September 2013,” the prime minister said.

It's a funny politics at the moment. The parties have become hollowed out. They're full of professional politicians.

by John Wanna , Australian National University

Quick exit?

The press conference barely lasted a minute and Abbott did not remain to answer questions.

Still, the announcement that Abbott and Bishop would join together to oppose the motion was surprising, as Bishop had been suspected of seeking to challenge Abbott earlier this week, forcing her to publicly declare her support for the embattled leader.

There is still a chance a leadership vote may not take place. The vote schedule for next week serves only as a vote about having a vote on the leadership, and needs the support of 52 backbenches to succeed.

Even the timing of the vote may be subject to change, as the Liberal Party has no written rules or procedure and relies on convention as determined by the party leader, meaning the time, place and method of a vote is up to Abbott’s discretion.

So while a vote is expected for Tuesday, when the Liberal Party meets for the first time in the New Year, it may yet be brought forward to Monday, when federal parliament resumes next week.

If a vote is not held on Monday, it may make for an uncomfortable time for Abbott in parliament, as he and other ministers would face heavy questioning by the opposition while Abbott’s future is in question.

Déjà vu

For Australians the events taking place represent a sense of déjà vu, as they echo what occurred under the previous Labor government in 2010.

There, Julia Gillard became Australia’s first female prime minister when she challenged Kevin Rudd for the leadership of the federal Labor party when his poll ratings began to slide.

While she was successful with the help of power brokers within the Labor party, Gillard nearly lost a federal election called a month later that was meant to shore up her support with the electorate.

The result was a hung parliament, the first since 1940, forcing Gillard to scramble to form a minority government and exposing Gillard to constant speculation about the security of her position.

Abbott, then leader of the opposition, responded by mounting an aggressive campaign to paint the Labor party as “irresponsible”, and Gillard a “political assassin” and a “liar” in the media, while the deposed Rudd fuelled internal discord among the party.

As time went on, Gillard’s own popularity plunged and she faced three leadership challenges that should have cemented her position, but only worked to undermine her further, before she finally fell to the fourth in 2013, returning Rudd to the role of prime minister.

Rudd then went on to lead the Labor party to defeat against Abbott at the 2013 election.

Shots fired

To date, Tony Abbott has been a deeply unpopular prime minister, with his party currently sitting on a 45 percent approval rating, on a two-party preferred basis, according to the latest Seven News-Reachtel poll.

Over the last 10 months Abbott’s approval ratings have been sliding, having broken several pre-election promises while championing deeply unpopular policies, including the “austerity” budget that has struggled to find support in the Senate and among the Australian public.

But the latest bad news came over weekend, when Queensland Premier Campbell Newman, whose policy platform was also based on austerity and the sale of public assets, was crushed after a single term in office in an upset victory for the Labor party led by Annastacia Palaszczuk.

Counting is still under way, with 85.7 percent of the vote counted as of Friday and the Labor party needing 45 seats to form government in the northeastern Australian state. Labor currently holds 43 seats to the Liberal’s 39.

The massive swing against the Liberal Party in Queensland has been widely read as a measure of public sentiment for the federal Liberal Party.

The result has spooked Liberal backbenchers who fear for their own political futures, fuelling dissent among the party.

Some dissidents, such as Mal Brough, have been outspoken in the Australian press, zeroing in on Abbott’s recent policy failings, such as the decision to award one of Australia’s first Honorary Knighthoods to British Royal Prince Philip without consulting his cabinet.

To top it off, on Monday, the prime minister appeared in his first ever speech to the National Press Club in Canberra, where he was expected to defend his leadership, but instead the speech was largely panned for being out of touch with the electorate and riddled with clichés.


This latest turn of events, and the new trend for parties to turn on each other when polls start to fall, is the sign of a deeper problem among Australia’s political elite, according to political scientists Peter Chen and John Wanna.

Chen, of the University of Sydney, told Al Jazeera that political parties in Australia have become an “abstract idea” compared to what they were in the 1950s.

“There’s been this huge partisan de-alignment where parties can no longer count on voters, and they can’t count on voters not to switch their votes between political parties,” said Chen.

Chen said this has partly been responsible for the trouble in recent decades, as it means politicians are less driven by their traditional ideological base and are more willing to resort to populism.

Professor Wanna with the Australian National University agreed, saying that parties have devolved to “marketing arms” where leaders are disposable the moment they become unpopular.

“It’s a funny politics at the moment,” Wanna told Al Jazeera. “The parties have become hollowed out. They’re full of professional politicians.”

Wanna described this willingness to dump leaders at the first sign of trouble among both major parties as “vicious” and dangerous for Australia’s long-term future, as long as it continues, long-term issues such as climate change cannot truly be addressed.

“They’re not really connected with the electorate so they’re playing politics as if they’re playing chess and it turns a lot of people off,” said Wanna. “Government is now compassless. It just spins round and round.”

With baited breath

Abbott’s government was elected to power in September 2013, and should the leadership challenge ultimately prove successful, he will have been evicted from the office of prime minister after only a year and 144 days in the job.

If Abbott survives, and his polls continue to dive, chances are high that he will continue to be dogged by leadership speculation, which may then lead to another challenge and hobble his administration.

As for who may challenge, Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull is the favourite. A moderate within his party, he is seen as a favourable compromise prime minister among progressives in the electorate.

But should Turnbull be delivered to the top job, it would also represent a disaster for the Labor opposition that views a Liberal party led by gaffe-prone Abbott as the surest way to victory in the upcoming New South Wales state election, and any future federal election.

Source: Al Jazeera