“There has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian,” announced new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on September 14th. Only hours before, he had overthrown his predecessor, Tony Abbott, in a party leadership coup. Exciting though the occasion may have been for the new Prime Minister, the whole scenario appeared to most Australians as somewhat routine. For the change in prime minister was the fourth Australia had witnessed in five years, and the third to result from an intra-party coup. First Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in June 2010, then his successor Julia Gillard in 2013, had previously fallen victim to an intra-party purge. For the outsider, Australian politics seems to be typified by a quality not dissimilar to the bloodlust of the 1920s Soviet Union and the instability of contemporary Greece. Why?
The Rudd era
The story begins in November 2007, when the Australian Labor Party returned to power under the leadership of Kevin Rudd and his deputy Julia Gillard, defeating the 11 year Liberal-National Coalition Government of John Howard. For a while, ‘Kevin 07’ was untouchable, delivering a long-awaited apology to the indigenous ‘Stolen Generations’ while overseeing a mining boom and Australia’s almost-unique avoidance of the global financial crisis. At his peak, he was the most popular prime minister on record. But on the evening of June 23rd 2010, with little forewarning, Rudd was unceremoniously dumped as party leader.
The following morning, Rudd wept in the Parliamentary courtyard as he listed what he considered to be his key achievements. The whole scenario seemed cruel and uneasy, and the media began to point the finger at Labor’s notorious ‘faceless men’ – the factional bosses and key union figures both within and out of Parliament who had overruled the nation’s choice of the 2007 election, a campaign that was, after all, markedly presidential in style. Many Australians at the time were unaware of the ease with which party leaders could be deposed through a majority party room vote. But for Rudd that vote never came: Labor MPs turned to his deputy Julia Gillard in such overwhelming numbers that he resigned without formally facing a challenge.
So what was the problem with Rudd? The answer lies in the clear disjunct between the party’s attitude – flocking to Gillard at the first sign of a leadership challenge – and the enduring popularity of Rudd among the electorate at large. Simply put, his party hated him and his usurpation of the cabinet process. In the months and years following his ousting, his erstwhile colleagues made no secret of the fact, describing him as “dysfunctional”, a “bastard”, contemptuous and even a “treacherous evil cunt”.
The descent of Gillard (2010-13)
In the days following her ousting of Rudd, Julia Gillard enjoyed high polling figures. But these soured almost immediately, and never truly recovered. Lacking a distinct policy programme of her own, the new prime minister was unable effectively to explain why Rudd had to be rolled, claiming only that “a good government had lost its way”. More significantly, she was unable to campaign on the strength of the Rudd Government’s successes, chief among which was the avoidance of recession. The 2010 election, hastily called before Gillard had established any real independent authority of her own, was dismal, with neither her nor Opposition Leader Tony Abbott able to articulate a coherent policy package.
From this point on, Gillard contributed in no small part to her own undoing. A Senate agreement with the far-left Greens Party spooked many of Labor’s working class voters, while the resulting agreement to introduce a fixed price on carbon emissions was seized upon by Abbott, whose relentless mantra of a ‘great big new tax on everything’ proved effective. But above all, her actions from June 2010 congealed into an image of a conniving backstabber, who had torn down an elected prime minister in a panicked clutch at personal glory. The longer she was unable to explain why the coup had occurred, the more entrenched this image became.
For much of 2012, Rudd, who had resigned as Foreign Minister in 2012 after an unsuccessful rechallenge at the prime ministership, actively undermined Gillard and her authority. As Gillard’s supporters publicly rounded on Rudd, the public was saturated by an image of a governing party enfeebled by a deep dysfunction. Despite his personal unpopularity, Abbott was proving enormously successful in his attacks, as the Coalition consistently battered the Government in the opinion polls. But Gillard’s ultimate downfall was precipitated during the 2013 midwinter ball, at which Rudd assembled, and received guarantees of support from, those very ‘faceless men’ who had destroyed him three years prior. While they sat upstairs with Rudd, plotting the latter’s return to the prime ministership, Gillard addressed the assembled politicians and journalists: “I haven’t seen such a festive scene since the ‘Red Wedding’ episode of Game of Thrones,” she quipped. Quite.
Just nine days later, Gillard announced that she was opening up the leadership of the Labor Party to a ballot, that she would stand, and that “anybody who enters the ballot tonight should do it on the following conditions: that if you win, you’re Labor leader; that if you lose, you retire from politics”. A few hours later, she faced the press for a widely-praised resignation speech. Kevin Rudd, somehow, had returned to the prime ministership of Australia. But there was no jubilation, as there had been in 2007. Rather, what first had ended in tragedy was now repeated as farce.
The rise and fall of tony Abbott (2013-15)
Predictably, Rudd was defeated at the 2013 election, heralding Tony Abbott’s ascension to the prime ministership, an outcome considered nigh-impossible upon his election to the Coalition leadership in late 2009. In Government, Abbott started strongly, successfully (though not uncontroversially) stopping all asylum seeker boats from reaching Australian shores, abolishing the carbon tax, and establishing an image of a quiet, competent government. But within months, his credibility had been undone by a poorly-received first budget, a series of broken promises (which he was unwilling to admit), and a barrage of criticism for the paucity of women on his frontbench.
In January 2015, all of these smouldering issues erupted dramatically in what must classify as the strangest political event of what was a remarkably strange political era. On Australia’s national holiday, Abbott bestowed a knighthood – an honour supposed to be reserved for ‘eminent Australians’ – upon Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. That a ninety one year old gaffe-prone British royal could spark a major political crisis is an indication of the farcical depths to which Australian politics had descended. A series of backbenchers openly declared they had lost faith in Abbott, exasperated by his “captain’s calls”, his unwillingness to consult, his inadequacies as a policy salesman, his inability to negotiate with crossbenchers and, above all, the overbearing presence of his Chief of Staff Peta Credlin, on whom Abbott seemed to have an infantile dependence.
A leadership spill was called. Without a formal challenge, this would mean a collective party room ballot to vote on whether the leadership should be called open. Yet no challenger was forthcoming: Abbott was fighting for his survival against an empty chair. And still, in a party room of 100, 39 voted in favour of a spill. A chastened Abbott promised the party room a change in style, and requested six months to turn around the government’s fortunes. But by early September, his time was up, and the Government was reeling from a series of damaging leaks, poor polling, and rumours of dysfunction in the Cabinet. Abbott’s poor political judgment, much like Gillard’s, had been exposed in a series of bad decisions, most notably in his unyielding defence of his beleaguered House Speaker Bronwyn Bishop, under fire for her extravagant lifestyle at the taxpayers’ expense. His attempts to outmanoeuvre party moderates on the matter of same-sex marriage, moreover, riled many in his cabinet.
Such was the situation, MPs turned to their former leader Malcolm Turnbull – a man many in his party had said would ‘never lead again’ after his disastrous first effort in 2009. Immediately after Question Time on 14 September, Turnbull approached Abbott and announced he would be challenging for the party leadership. A visibly disconcerted Abbott called the spill for 9pm that evening, telling the press: “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.” Turnbull won 54 votes to 44, fronting the media that evening and promising to transition Australia’s economy away from resource dependency and towards technological innovation. Abbott’s inability to prosecute a case for economic reform in the face of falling mining revenues, he had earlier remarked, would have long-term repercussions for the nation’s economic health. He immediately set about reforming both the prime minister’s office and the cabinet, ensuring an increased presence of women. Promising “no wrecking, no undermining, and sniping”, Abbott briefly retired from public life.
The new normal?
So it is that we have arrived at the present day, by way of a cycle of ill-judgement, backstabbing, revenge and incompetence. But is this, as some have feared, the new normal? Is the rotation of prime ministers symptomatic of a new political culture, dictated by a cult of celebrity and a fickle yet insatiable media cycle? And if so, could the instability of Canberra become something of a norm for democracies everywhere? Tony Abbott certainly indicated this in his final speech as Prime Minister. I, however, have my doubts.
For one, a cursory glance over Australian political history gives us good reason to assume that the past five years are something of an aberration from an-otherwise stable norm. Between 1966 and 1972, Australia saw six prime ministers, with only one change coming from an election (another from a death). Moreover, as Peter van Onselen and Wayne Errington write in a new book, the “‘sour, bitter character assassination’ that Abbott blamed for his defeat was hardly new”, but has been a constant in political battles for over forty years. The fact of the matter, they conclude, is that Australia’s most recent leaders have simply not been up to the task. By this view, the political tremors of recent years may be attributed more to the faults of individuals than to the institutional fundaments on which they operate. Rudd, Gillard and Abbott shared an incapacity to combine successful management of the cabinet system with the public advocacy skills incumbent upon the nation’s highest office. In comparable democracies, after all, the likes of Angela Merkel, Stephen Harper and David Cameron successfully managed to maintain authority of office for long periods of time.
When Newspoll speaks
Still, if we accept that there has emerged an enormous disjunct between the hopes invested in individual leaders and their capacity to meet them, then some responsibility must be borne by the transformation of the Westminster prime minister – a first among ministerial equals – into a Presidential figure. In Australia, the comparative ease with which a party can remove its leader sits uneasily against the direct relationship that its propaganda machines try to establish between Prime Minister and public. Rudd’s removal in 2010 illuminated this in a dramatic fashion. But much of the disjunct is generated by polling numbers. I have talked a lot about polls, and that is no coincidence. Polling numbers unquestionably structure the political narrative in Australia, much as elsewhere. But elsewhere prime ministers don’t tend to be ejected on the basis of poor polling, or at least not as often. Could this be a structural issue? Perhaps. Certainly, polls in Australia are common, though not as common as more populous countries like the UK or Canada. What is different is the unquestioned supremacy of one poll in particular – Newspoll, published fortnightly – to political coverage. It was to Newspoll that Turnbull referred when challenging Abbott, noting that the Coalition government had “lost thirty [of them] in a row”. So why, notwithstanding its reputation for accuracy, the centrality of Newspoll? Its influence perhaps derives from its fortnightly release: sufficiently regular to frame an ongoing political narrative of victory and defeat, but still irregular enough that any one poll may come to have a massive impact. This is why Turnbull was able to argue that the Abbott Government had ‘lost’ consecutive Newspolls. His choice of words suggested that each poll was a competition to be fought and won, but also that the longer-term trend was the true reflection of the Government’s failures.
But the poll obsession of Australian political culture cannot disguise the fact that the bizarre sequence of recent political events clearly possessed its own dynamic. Rudd’s toppling in June 2010 tainted the legitimacy of Gillard’s prime ministership from the very outset, while his subsequent vindictiveness only served to undermine her and the party further. His ultimate return could not erase the previous three years. Tony Abbott’s downfall, in turn, had its roots in his approach as an Opposition Leader: being too opportunistic in the safe assurance that Labor’s public meltdown would see it voted from office. Perhaps it is not far-fetched to argue that Abbott’s over-confidence as prime minister, manifested in his unwillingness to consult, stemmed from an assumption that his party would never ‘do a Labor’ and roll a sitting prime minister.
The truly dangerous implication of this is that the event can alter the structure irreparably. The remarkable instability of the prime ministership over the past five years has generated its own destructive narrative in the political culture of Australia. We see this in the rituals now attendant upon each spill: the noisy groups of supporters flanking their leader of choice as they descend down the hallway to the party room vote; the rumours and counter-rumours; the mundane official announcement of the winner outside the party-room door; and the anger or confusion when the ‘script’ is not followed. But regularity of event has not meant regularity of outcome. Rather, a future challenger can look to history and find good reasons both for and against a spill. The multitude of outcomes from the leadership challenges of the past five years has ensured that there is no clear precedent. Either success or failure for Turnbull’s prime ministership would therefore rest upon a sharp paradox: should it turn out a success, the stability of his leadership will prove the wisdom of the leadership challenge, in turn giving sustenance to any would-be political assassins. Should it fail, however, a leadership challenge, with all its rituals and familiarity, will inevitably emerge as the medicine for the government’s ails, plunging Australian politics back into a vicious cycle.
Adding up the numbers
Naturally, this is all somewhat superficial, concerned with personalities and ambitions. But under the surface of politics lie deeper currents. Here the importance of economic uncertainty comes to the fore. To avoid the global financial crisis, Rudd’s Labor government undertook a comprehensive series of measures designed to stimulate the economy. That problems would emerge from such an enormous and hastily-implemented programme is unsurprising. But few at the time foresaw the political headaches it would generate. Abbott and most of the Conservative establishment held to the view that it was not the public stimulus that had led Australia to avoid recession, but record levels of Chinese mining investment. By this view, the stimulus was simply a colossal waste of money, plunging the country’s federal budget back into deficit after years of surplus. The realities, of course, are more complex, but the attack had resonance, as Abbott was able to portray himself as the guardian angel of Australia’s influential mining sector. Rudd’s attempt in 2010 to implement a ‘Resource Super Profit Tax’ conferred legitimacy upon Abbott’s claim that the Labor government was on an economically destructive course. In this context, one can also see how Gillard’s carbon tax of the following year was so politically damaging. But Abbott’s loyalties to the mining sector proved an encumbrance in office, when the resource boom had well and truly come to an end. Blaming the previous government for the budgetary problems that resulted was only going to be effective for so long. So when Abbott ultimately was forced to delay indefinitely his blood pledge of a budget surplus, the true complexities of Australia’s economic difficulties were exposed. However reckless the Labor government had been, the parlous state of Australia’s economy clearly had deeper roots. Against this backdrop, Turnbull’s credentials as parliament’s best economic brain, coupled with his history as a devotee of and investor in new technologies and innovation, made him an especially attractive choice.
Better than this?
But despite all this, the chief catalyst of the recent leadership turmoil was June 23rd 2010 itself. Then, a popular prime minister, whose polling numbers by no means pointed towards electoral defeat, was torn down in what, to a confused public, looked like “a crippling case of the jitters“. If the political prospects of Rudd – only one year prior the most popular prime minister in Australian history – were dire, then what chance had any successor? The reason Australia has undergone such a turbulent political phase is internal. It consists in part of the media culture, the party structures, the low quality of politicians themselves, and the obsession with polling numbers. But none of these is unique to Australia. Rather, events have piled upon events, establishing new precedents and narratives in the minds of the political class and public alike. For five years, politics in Australia has assumed a grotesque, Centre Pompidou-like form, with all its murky insides fully exposed to public view. This will not easily be fixed. As a result, Malcolm Turnbull will need to rely on solid polling figures, his predecessor’s quiescence, party solidarity and a slice of good fortune to navigate Australian politics out of this morass. At a time of economic insecurity, political stability is perhaps required more than ever. But to judge from recent history, this may be unlikely.