It feels inevitable.
After a disastrous month the vultures are swooping around the dying leadership of Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Over the past week there have been reports the camps of Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison are mobilising and it seems unlikely the issue will go away until there is another spill. Abbott’s leadership is truly in trouble.
But does it really matter? Will a leadership change actually change anything?
I don’t think so.
To start with let’s be realistic and accept that a leadership change will have little to no policy influence.
While some progressives as still pining for a shift to Malcolm Turnbull, wrongfully in my opinion, it is becoming increasingly clear that Scott Morrison has become the front runner to be the next Liberal Leader. That’s right: the Scott Morrison who was the architect of the Coalition’s asylum seeker policy and was recently pushing for a referendum on same-sex marriage in order to make it more difficult for it to pass.
So before you get your hopes up you can forget about legislating same-sex marriage, increased ambition on climate change or a more progressive approach on asylum seekers. And you can also continue to expect attacks on our public services, unions and those on welfare. None of that is going to change.
Yet, much like the leadership turmoil that engulfed Rudd and Gillard the recent turmoil inside the Coalition has nothing to do with policy anyway. While Abbott has been criticised for being a little ‘policy light’, few are actually questioning his philosophical direction. Instead the pressure is focused almost entirely on style — his preference for ‘captain’s picks’, his focus on ‘announceables’ and his lack of consultation. As Jack Waterford of the Canberra Times argues:
“He has to go because he wont stop being Tony Abbott. He cannot or will not change his style. The public, if not the front or back bench, is increasingly angry with him about it.”
Abbott has to go not because his philosophy is bad, but because his Government has become a “shambles”. He has to go because the public have stopped listening, with it now being impossible for him to ever win them back.
But will a leadership change actually create a more effective Government? Will it give the Coalition the authority they need to implement their agenda?
Again, I think not.
To answer this question we need to look at why Abbott, and the Government in general, are struggling so much.
Abbott clearly has his major flaws. He’s made some ridiculous decisions recently, whether the knighting of Prince Philip or defending Bronwyn Bishop to the death. Clearly he is not the greatest of leaders. But the Coalition’s crisis is not just one of leadership, but one of politics itself. Abbott is suffering because the public have lost so much faith in the political class that he has no ability to power through his Government’s flaws as leaders once did.
Just think back to the last enduring federal political leader in Australian history: John Howard. Howard’s Prime Ministership was so lengthy that we often forget his first term was a relative disaster. Howard lost seven Ministers due to political scandals, faced splits in his party over gun legislation and his response to One Nation, and was branded a liar for his reversal on the GST. It was probably enough to destroy a leader in today’s age but despite all this Howard survived. He had enough authority within his party to hold off the threats, and enough authority within the community to win another three elections.
Howard’s feat seems impossible for leaders today. Our society has developed, rightfully, a huge distrust in our politicians. Due to the eroding of their social bases political parties now no longer have the authority to push through this distrust. This leads to politicians constantly battling the last scandal, with each one affirming already held views within the public. Each day becomes a desperate attempt to create some form of authority. Hence Abbott’s ‘announceables’, the focus on national security and attempts to show ‘leadership’ through ignoring the cabinet and back bench.
Don’t believe me? Look back at Australia’s recent political history and you can see trend play out as clearly as day. Since 2007 we have lost seven Government leaders from spills and scandals — Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard federally, as well as Barry O’Farrell, Nathan Rees, Morris Iemma, Ted Bailiey and Terry Mills at a state level. Another three, Campbell Newman, Kristina Keneally and Denis Napthine have then gone on to lose elections based on similar problems. And that doesn’t even take in to account the opposition leaders — federal and state — who have been thrown away in recent years. Our politics has become one of constant turmoil. Turmoil that is not going to end any time soon.
So, Abbott, Turnbull or Morrison?
It doesn’t matter.
While a change in leader will most likely give the Coalition a reprieve and turn attention back onto Bill Shorten, it will not automatically produce an amazing functioning Government. Australian politics, at least for the time being, has moved beyond that.
Get strapped in for a fun ride.
Simon Copland is a freelance writer and climate campaigner. He is a regular columnist for the Sydney Star Observer and blogs at The Moonbat.