Tony Abbott made a political career out of being a divisive figure. The manner of his exit from the leadership should, therefore, come as no surprise. But, while murmurings of a coup have been heard all year, when the move came, its speed and ferocity did surprise, particularly coming only days out from a by-election.
Perhaps the internal polling in Canning was catastrophic. Maybe there was a real fear that Abbott would react to an adverse result there on the weekend by calling a snap election to stave off the inevitable leadership challenge, only to play the fiddle while the Liberal party burned. I guess we will only know the true spark of yesterday’s events once the ABC delivers The Killing Season Part II.
It was an ugly day for the Liberal Party. Turnbull’s announcement was delivered in characteristically smooth style, but beneath the head prefect veneer, his message was as aggressive as anything that Abbott could muster, trashing both the former PM’s leadership style and Hockey’s economic record. Gutsy stuff from someone who had sat on that front bench. Turnbull clearly judged this to be an all-or-nothing moment, and he won the gamble. His very public attack makes for an interesting contrast with Gillard’s careful public approach when challenging Rudd.
On the other side of the bout we had Abbott supporters lining up to give press conferences and proclaiming the Liberal Party’s greatest virtue as not being the Labor Party. When the defence minister stood up in front of the flags, Siri must have been overwhelmed by the question: ‘Who is Kevin Andrews?’ (remember, he was the one who put his credit card down on the bar and shouted: ‘Marriage counselling vouchers for everyone!’). Meanwhile a sweat-soaked Jeff Kennett’s personal attack on Turnbull was truly something to behold (surely someone at ALP HQ popped a tape in the VCR and pressed record).
The Coalition once had the moral high ground on the issue of stability. From the moment Gillard challenged Rudd, Abbott skilfully made great mileage out of the ALP volatility and perhaps, more than anything, this propelled him into the top job. He promised an era of good and stable government, but the pugilistic instincts that served him so well in opposition proved his undoing once he made his way to the PM’s chair. Captain’s picks, public gaffes, broken promises and intransigence on issues like marriage exposed a style that belied any facade of good and stable government.
Having come to an abrupt end just shy of the two year mark (significantly less than either Gillard or Rudd), Abbott’s term is destined to be viewed by history as an outright failure. Of all Prime Ministers to have won an election, his tenure is the third shortest; only Harold Holt, whose office was cut short by disappearance, and Joseph Cook, defeated at election against the outbreak of World War I, were there for fewer days. Abbott’s moment at the top was also characterised by a legislative inefficiency that ranks below any federal government of the past 40 years.
So are things about to get any better and just what sort of Prime Minister will Turnbull make? We have to go back to another Malcolm to find the last ‘liberal’ Liberal PM. But while Turnbull is certainly far more progressive than his immediate predecessor, it is difficult to predict just how liberal his Prime Ministership will be. Like Rudd before him, Turnbull finds himself party leader by virtue of his public popularity, while some within the party privately seethe at his elevation. He is also destined to have an uneasy relationship with his Coalition partners. Turnbull may therefore find himself beholden to the social conservatives in order to maintain power. The careful responses last night regarding marriage and climate policy point to this.
When self-interest beckons, Turnbull has always been remarkably flexible. He famously called John Howard “the Prime Minister who broke this nation’s heart” but gladly accepted a promotion to work as his parliamentary secretary. And does anyone really believes the tech-savvy Turnbull was really in favour of that NBN policy he brought to the last election? On the other hand, his first tilt as Liberal leader came to end when he stuck to his guns about the carbon trading scheme.
Turnbull is undoubtedly a crafty politician; having now realised his ambition, will we now see the pragmatist or the progressive running the country?
Written by Matthew Trainor