The sixth Australian prime ministerial spill in five years is over, producing the third change of leadership following the coups of Julia Gillard in 2010 and Kevin Rudd in 2013. Outgoing prime minister Tony Abbott fought desperately tonight on the notion that the Liberals were different from Labor and that only the people should change the leader. He proved wrong on both counts. In the end it was 98 men and women who decided 54-44 that Malcolm Turnbull should lead the party, and therefore the country.
The vote brings full circle an even tighter ballot that brought Abbott to the leadership six years ago in 2009, when he prevailed over then leader Turnbull by one vote. But ambitious politicians play a long game and just as Rudd crucially didn’t quit politics and waited three years to gain revenge over Julia Gillard, Turnbull also cemented his position as a popular alternative in waiting, and sat tight until a combination of circumstances made Abbott’s continued rule untenable.
Turnbull put it down to 30 successive bad Newspolls, but in truth Tony Abbott was never a popular prime minister. There is unlikely to be the same public sense of grievance and denial of justice that greeted Labor’s panicky move in 2010. At that point in the electoral cycle, Labor still led. Rudd no longer had the stratospheric positive polls he had a year earlier but surely had the measure of Tony Abbott in an election that would have been called a few months later.
Instead Labor imploded and with the help of Rudd feeding the media, Julia Gillard’s government was undermined from day one. That they hung on to power for another three years was testament to her formidable powers of negotiation but also to the failures of Tony Abbott. The undermining never stopped however and although Rudd succeeded in winning back power, it proved a Pyrrhic victory and Labor was deservedly punished by the electorate in 2013 for putting itself first.
The only problem was that it brought Tony Abbott to power where all his failings were writ large. Abbott was the perennial battler who had no nuance to squeeze the most from power. Ruling as he did from the right of his party, he was out of step with the centre, despite the crude and continuous barracking of Murdoch’s News Ltd empire.
His and Joe Hockey’s first budget announced the end of the age of entitlement but its vindictive nature made it seem that only their enemies were having their incomes docked. They were not helped by fractious Senate cross-bench but their failure to sell their message of economic correction was a totally self-inflicted wound.
Liberal poll numbers never recovered as they never do, and Tony Abbott lost his leadership there and then. The last 12 months have been the prolonged agony of a slowly drowning man refusing to accept his fate and hiding behind a façade of flags and security announcements. An early positive reputation as a strong leader was replaced by a sloganeering, fear-mongering robot.
A Turnbull leadership will change all that and all the smirking tweets today from Labor MPs enjoying the discomfort of their rivals may come back to haunt them. Bill Shorten’s one appearance today was appalling and ill-timed, failing in the old adage of never interrupting your enemy while they are making errors. Shorten was a shoo-in to become next prime minister as long as Tony Abbott was the incumbent. Now Labor have to find a way of giving him substance. Turnbull has many faults, not least his towering ego and impatience, but zingers alone won’t beat him. His victory today may turn the spotlight on Labor’s own recurring leadership woes. Australia’s leadership merry-go-round goes on and on.