Only the NT News would dare describe this week’s dramatic political story with the headline: “Rich dude becomes PM”. Such is the Darwin-based tabloid’s sense of independence, the leadership spill story was pushed ‘below the fold’ by a court story. Given the over-the-top live coverage assigned to the breaking story, the NT News evidently decided to play the story for laughs.
There was much room for satire and cruel amusement as social media lit up with one hastily-made meme after another (a meme being a picture with irreverent words). While the narcissistic nature of Australian power politics is no joking matter, it was predictable that some of the media coverage would focus on a list of Tony Abbott’s gaffes. The most recent was when Abbott and Immigration Minister Peter Dutton were caught on an overhead mike making thoughtless jokes about Pacific nations and climate change. Alas poor Tone, he was always putting his foot in it: he was caught luridly winking at a radio interviewer while talking to a sex worker; few veterans are likely to forgive him saying “shit happens” about the death of a soldier; not to mention his misuse of the word “suppository’ and the farcical dubbing of the Queen’s hapless husband, Sir Prince Phillip, Duke of Edinburgh, when inexplicably re-introducing knighthoods.
Even Rupert Murdoch thought that was naff.
Five PMs in five years
While Malcolm Turnbull, Australia’s fifth prime minister in five years (KR is counted twice), is enjoying his brief honeymoon, perhaps we need to be reminded of the duplicitous nature of power politics.
There have been 17 inter-party leadership spills since 1981, many of them brought about by the incumbent’s poor opinion polling. Let’s not forget naked ambition and treachery.
Australia stands in an unusual position with our incumbent Prime Minister ousted by party room spills on four occasions since 2010. This has caught the attention of international media, as one might expect.
As Andrew Coyne wrote in The National Post, the leader of the party in Canada’s Parliament is chosen by an entirely different group of people (a broad cross-section of Party members).
“(It is) a body that is brought together for the sole purpose of voting, and having voted, disappears. Under the Westminster model, the leader is accountable to caucus; under our system (ie the Canadian system- Ed.) the leader is effectively accountable to no one.”
Coyne asked his Canadian readers if they really wanted the kind of ‘manic leader-shopping’ Australians had just gone through? From his desk somewhere near Toronto, he sent this warning to Malcolm Turnbull:
“A big part of Australian Labor’s defeat at the last election was attributed to voter weariness with the party’s leadership shenanigans.”
Amelia Lester in the New Yorker saw Abbott as someone who “exhibited a feckless machismo, which often verged on eccentricity”.
Lester mercilessly ran through all of these macho eccentricities and more, including his bizarre little lunch, chomping on a raw onion when visiting a Tasmanian farm.
Soon after the result of the dramatic leadership challenge was announced, #putoutyouronions was trending on Twitter. Few Australian Prime Ministers have attracted such universal scorn.
But Abbott wasn’t just the butt of other people’s jokes.
Whether you agree or not, he didn’t muck about when implementing core pre-election promises. Abbott was opposed to the Labor Party’s implementation of a price on carbon, repealing it on his first day in office, telling the world that climate change was “faddish”.
It was his stand on boat people, however, which upset the international community and deeply divided communities at home. Earlier this month The New York Times castigated Abbott for overseeing “a ruthlessly effective effort to stop boats packed with migrants, many of them refugees, from reaching Australia’s shores”.
“His policies have been inhumane, of dubious legality and strikingly at odds with the country’s tradition of welcoming people fleeing persecution and war,” The NY Times editorial said.
Two lost fish swimming in a fish bowl
In all then, Monday’s leadership challenge, the second for Abbott in seven months, should have come as no surprise.
The past 15 years have been notorious for unrest at the top, as opinion polling, the 24-hour news cycle and the relentless clamour of uncensored social media turned Australian political life into a giant fish bowl.
Don’t fart – someone will see the bubbles.
The list of Tony Abbott’s gaffes, coupled with inexplicable “captain’s calls” and tardiness in resolving the Bronwyn Bishop saga amounted to a lot of bubbles.
Political analysts with long memories are making comparisons between Abbott and Billy McMahon, another veteran politician who did not deal well with life at the helm.
McMahon became PM in March 1971 after a leadership spill between him and incumbent John Gorton resulted in a tie. Gorton saw the tie as a vote of no confidence so resigned, leaving McMahon to lead the Libs into a general election in 1972. It was McMahon’s bad luck to be taking on a consummate young politician by the name of Gough Whitlam who had helped Labor to a clear lead in the polls.
Meanwhile, McMahon’s approval ratings had dwindled to 28% and his press profile was abysmal. British psephologist (election expert) David Butler said he could not recall a Prime Minister in any country being “so comprehensively panned”. This was despite McMahon’s record of (a) setting up the first Department of Aboriginal Affairs and (b) extracting Australia from the Vietnam War.
It was said at the time that McMahon simply “did not look or sound like a Prime Minister”. Forty-odd years later and it seems Tony Abbott got the flick for much the same reasons.
A Wikipedia summary of leadership spills shows how the trend accelerated in the 21st century, with consecutive challenges in 2003 to oust Simon Crean as Labor leader. It worked and Mark Latham became leader until the next election. Then Kevin Rudd in December 2006 challenged and beat Kim Beazley as Labor leader.
In the intervening years there were changes at the top of the Liberal Party too, first with Brendan Nelson, toppled by Malcolm Turnbull in 2008 (ah, you’d forgotten that, eh?). A year Later Turnbull was challenged as Opposition Leader by this Abbott chap, who at that time won 42-41.
Then we fell into the three-ring circus of the Rudd/Gillard era, but all had been relatively silent until February 9 this year when a motion to bring about a leadership spill in the Liberal Party was defeated 61–39. Seven months later, Malcolm Turnbull challenged Tony Abbott and won the vote 54-44.
A close vote ensures Turnbull will have a difficult time turning the ship of state around, even assuming he is unlikely to stray far from party policy. After all, he’s been there all the time Abbott was ostensibly calling the shots.
We wait, Facebook memes at the ready, for his first gaffe, or more hopefully, his first statesman-like act:
• A free vote on gay marriage;
• The re-introduction of solar and wind farm subsidies;
• The protection of remote Aboriginal communities;
• Higher intakes from refugee camps;
• Increased foreign aid to war-torn countries;
• The scrapping of Knighthoods;
• Re-instatement of the onion as a common garden vegetable.