What the hell is going on in Aussie politics?
The political upheavals in Australia last week have left many casual observers on this side of the Tasman bemused. How unstable is a system that produces five different Prime Ministers in five years?
Cam Wallace, a long-time watcher of the Aussie political scene, explains what led to the demise of Liberal Party leader and former Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull and the rise of new PM Scott Morrison.
Like politics everywhere, Australia is poll-driven. An increasing number of Liberal Party MPs had become very nervous about the party’s polling.
It had lost 38 news polls in a row to the Australian Labour Party and the result of the Super Saturday by-elections, in particular, the many marginal seats in Queensland were brought into clear focus. Labour had emerged victorious in crucial by-election contests in Tasmania and Queensland
It’s important to note that Peter Dutton, who initially tried to overthrow Turnbull, is a Queensland MP with a skinny electorate margin (2 percent). If the swing was averaged out across Queensland the next election would be lost to the ALP.
The forces of former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who has never accepted his demotion in favour of Turnbull used the above, and the messy negotiations around the National Energy Guarantee (NEG), to launch a coordinated pre-emptive strike against the PM.
Turnbull attempted to catch his rivals off guard by declaring a snap spill in the party room meeting last Tuesday, thus giving his opponents no time to mobilise and count numbers. Peter Dutton, a member of the Liberal’s conservative wing and flamethrower from the right put his hand up as a candidate and gained a surprisingly high 35 votes. This emboldened the attackers and from that point on Turnbull was a dead man walking.
The balance of the week was dominated by an attempt by a core group of influential right-wing radio and television commentators (Ray Hadley, Alan Jones, Andrew Bolt, Paul Murray and Sky News) feeding an attack (and misinformation) in the media about the Dutton surge towards a majority in the party room. At this point Turnbull’s praetorian guard contained the powerful duo of Scott Morrison (NSW and Treasurer) and Mathias Cormann (West Australian and Minister of Finance).
This didn’t last long as Cormann peeled off to support Dutton (his close friend) some eight hours later. In an attempt to delay another party room meeting (spill) Turnbull, instead of fighting to the death decided to use a variety of delaying tactics.
Leaks from the Prime Minister’s Office suggested that Dutton might not be a valid MP because of business interests. He also demanded that a petition of 43 MPs be signed and sighted before another party room meeting was to be called, this was a clever move as it delivered the most important ingredient required, time.
When the petition was delivered the Turnbull forces had regrouped and established a counter-attack strategy which was essentially delivering Morrison as a compromise candidate who would deliver a much better electoral opportunity to win an election. The final vote (once Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was removed after losing the first ballot) was still super close 45-40 and underscores the chaos that exists within the party.
Why did it happen?
The Liberal party have always been deeply suspicious of Turnbull. Many of the hard-core members believe his politics are more suited to the Labour Party and he originally flirted with that opportunity. The real impetus which drove his removal though was connected to his original rise to PM. The transactional costs of bringing down an elected PM have been enormous in the last decade. When Turnbull politically assassinated Abbott it was on the basis of his lack of communication skills and lack of popularity in the electorate.
Abbott has been a dedicated compulsive insurgent against Turnbull from day one. The decision not to give him a cabinet seat gave him the freedom and time he needed to plan and attack Turnbull with the sole purpose of removing him from the Lodge. There is no doubt Abbott waged a war of revenge against Turnbull which has been driven by impatient rage.
What about Julie Bishop?
Bishop got only 11 votes in round one of the first ballot and no votes from her home state of Western Australia. She was a victim of tactics in the first round. The Dutton forces were trying to shift votes from Morrison to Bishop so that it was a “one-on-one” battle between Dutton and Bishop. Julie Bishop has a very high public profile but not great support within the party. The moderate faction had to move votes early to Morrison so that he wasn’t taken out in round one.
Who is Scott Morrison?
Known by everybody, everywhere, as ScoMo, he is the MP for Cronulla and the number one supporter of the local NRL team the Cronulla Sharks. He was originally the cabinet minister who stopped the boat people arriving in Australia and then took over as Treasurer when Abbott was rolled. He has links to tourism as his previous role was CEO of Tourism Australia when the famous Lara Bingle “where the bloody hell are you” campaign was in market. He is an evangelical Christian. Bad blood exists between him and Abbott due to the position he took when Abbott was rolled. He widely promoted the fact that he loyally voted for Abbott in the spill but privately it is believed that he directed his NSW faction to support Turnbull.
So, what happens next?
It’s yet to be determined whether ScoMo will develop sharp political instincts (like a Key or Howard).
The insurgents will calm down for a time, they have achieved half of what they wanted, they have dragged an elected PM out of the building.
The next election will either be as far away as possible (May next year) or within the next eight weeks. The Liberals will want the former as they are in no position, financial or otherwise, to run a coherent campaign now.
Ultimately, it’s very hard to predict anything other than a comprehensive election defeat for the Liberal Coalition, the size of which will be determined by the performance and cohesion of its MPs over the next few months.
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