Then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Ministry leaving his swearing-in ceremony, 18 September 2013.
In the late hours of September 14th, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott was unceremoniously booted from the top job by his own caucus members and replaced by his longtime rival and centrist standard-bearer, Malcolm Turnbull. This isn’t Abbott’s first leadership challenge, or “spill” as it’s referred to in Australian political parlance, but it’s the first of these challenges that he’s lost and signals a significant about-face for the country’s governing Liberal Party.
Mr. Abbott has always been a somewhat confusing character in Australian politics. He’s gaffe-prone, xenophobic, and harbors views on women that would fit much better in the mid-1950’s than the mid-2010’s. It’s doubtful he could have won the 2013 general election with the landslide mandate he achieved if not for collective anger at the incumbent Labor government’s infighting and instability. Over the course of its six-year mandate before Abbott took office, the Labor party switched back and forth between two leaders three different times — a tactic to avoid electoral defeat that ultimately backfired and led to a spike in anti-Labor sentiment.
After the public’s anger towards Labor leaders died down, Australians started to realize just how polarizing a character they had elected Prime Minister. Particularly detrimental to Abbott’s popularity was a highly controversial budget he introduced at the start of his term. The most widely protested fiscal changes included the introduction of user fees for healthcare — a drastic change to Australia’s universal system. The fees proved so unpopular they were repealed just a year later. Another point of frustration for the public was a proposed cutback in funding for two of the country’s much-beloved public broadcasters — something Abbott had promised was entirely off the table during his campaign for office less than a year prior. Perhaps his worst move was suggesting a hike in tuition fees, which still hasn’t been approved by Parliament a full eighteen months later.
Abbott consistently assured the media that his party was “not the Labor Party,” emphasizing that he and his political allies wouldn’t continually switch between different leaders in the style of their Labor predecessors. Given Turnbull’s rise to office, that argument is now hardly defensible. Now, the new leader faces a dilemma eerily similar to the situation Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard faced in 2010, when an internal, mid-term caucus ballot swept her into office.
Gillard emerged from a leadership battle between a divided caucus with most of her backbenchers (MPs without a significant government position) against her and most of her frontbenchers (MPs who hold cabinet-level positions) backing her. Turnbull will likely face a similar situation. Gillard had to move quickly to undo the countless policy blunders her predecessors made in hopes of repairing her party’s image. Turnbull will have to do the same. Gillard faced an election, just a few months after taking the reins, as a fresh face that many Australians didn’t know very well. So will Turnbull.
Bearing in mind the similarities of their circumstances, Turnbull must be careful to avoid Julia Gillard’s blunders. By allowing Kevin Rudd, her predecessor as Prime Minister, to continue to hold a minister’s portfolio under her premiership, Gillard threw open the doors to continued caucus infighting between her supporters and Rudd’s backers. Turnbull can’t allow a similar division to dominate his time in office. He must immediately confirm that Abbott will not sit on his front bench. He should probably ask Abbott to retire from politics altogether.
In 2010, Julia Gillard called a general election just a few weeks after her installation in office in an attempt to quickly win a mandate of her own as Labor leader. This proved a mistake. Had she waited several months for the public to become more familiar with her leadership, she would likely have won a clearer victory in the subsequent vote. Instead, she faced a 72-72 seat tie with the opposition, prompting her to forge a shaky alliance with the Green Party in order to bolster her support. Turnbull would be wise to allow the public to become familiar with his leadership style and wait several months, rather than just a few weeks, to hold elections.
Like Julia Gillard’s win several years ago, Turnbull’s victory provided a much-needed change in leadership. Both Turnbull and Gillard are much more centrist than the leaders they replaced — Gillard, a Labor party candidate, immediately backed off on the more controversial aspects of Mr. Rudd’s mining tax and instituted a decidedly right-wing immigration policy in the vein of her opposition. Turnbull is one of the few Liberal frontbenchers who favors same-sex marriage and openly acknowledges the reality of global warming.
It is Mr. Turnbull, however, who faces a much steeper mountain to climb. Gillard took over from Mr. Rudd in 2010 after a dip in his approval ratings. It could be argued that the 2010 election would have turned out better for Labor had Kevin Rudd stuck around. Turnbull, by contrast, is taking over for a government that has steadily declined in popularity over the past eighteen months, leaving him with significantly more ground to recover.
To have any hope of winning the elections set for next fall, Turnbull must enact wide-ranging economic, environmental and social reforms to counteract the blunders Abbott made over the past two years. One can assume he will avoid many of Abbott’s asinine public gaffes, and he should denounce Abbott’s sexist and misogynistic statements as well. His major cabinet reshuffle, which is expected by the end of the month, should include other women besides Julie Bishop, the sole female minister who served in Abbott’s front bench. Turnbull must also reach out to indigenous communities that Abbott alienated with his insensitive remarks. In sum, Turnbull should distance his leadership from Abbott’s legacy as much as he can. And, with an election looming on the horizon, it’s important he does it quickly.
Benson Cook is a first-year student at McGill University, studying Political Science.
Image Attribution: “Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Ministry leaving the swearing in ceremony” by Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, licensed under CC BY 3.0 AU