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Federal Politics 2015: The Fuck Just Happened?

Let us help you understand what is actually happening in Canberra.

by Lee Zachariah
Feb 9 2015, 2:46am

Image by Ben Thomson

They say that Eskimos have numerous words for "snow." Australians have numerous words for "Federal leadership crisis," as this cluster-fuck of democracy is now becoming a regular occurrence.

But is it actually a cluster-fuck? Maybe it's a cluster-bother. So let's break this down, FAQ style.

Why is Tony Abbott so unpopular? (Related question: Who is Tony Abbott?)

I'm glad you (meaning me, speaking for you) asked that second question, because the only way you could ask the first is if you had no knowledge of who he is.

Tony Abbott was elected in 2013, after spending his time in opposition successfully destroying the Labor government by focusing on its broken promise of no carbon tax. Abbott, meanwhile, has broken a significant number of his own campaign pledges: from the Paid Parental Leave scheme to the Medicare co-payment, to cuts to the ABC and SBS, to the promise to spend a week per year in an indigenous community, and many others. He's not fared much better than the government he criticised.

But the fundamental problem within the electorate has come down to ideological priorities. The Australian people were told that our healthcare system was unsustainable, that disability pensions would be cut, that foreign aid would be vastly reduced, that we needed to tighten our belts. In times of economic uncertainty, this is usually accepted, albeit grimly, but these calls for action came alongside frivolous spending announcements: a quarter of a billion dollars for school chaplains, vouchers for marriage counselling, and numerous other programs driven by a desire to return to what is wistfully fixated upon as the good old days. Even the most conservative households recognised these schemes as being completely out of touch with 21st century issues.

When he chose to give a knighthood to Prince Philip, a Greek-born royal married to the British Queen, with more honours to his name than you could reasonably list without taking seven or eight breaths, that was the straw that broke the back. Nobody knew it was coming because, like so many of his policy decisions, he didn't bother consulting with his colleagues. The shock the country felt upon hearing the news was echoed in his cabinet and on the Coalition back benches. Nobody thought this was a good idea.

As we said the other week, once the leadership speculation begins, a spill is inevitable, and the backbench MP Luke Simpkins flagged that he was going to bring about a motion at the next party meeting.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has criticised all the leadership speculation of late as personality-driven. I trust this is just a line for the press, because it's entirely evident that the problem has had nothing to do with personality: it's all about policy. Honestly, if we cared about personality, we wouldn't have voted for Abbott in the first place, and nobody would have ever heard of Kevin Rudd.

So then why he is still Prime Minister?

A few reasons.

For one, the Coalition spent the last five years rightly berating Labor for its chronic instability, switching leaders whenever they got even mildly nervous about a dip in the polls. Hypocrisy is rarely something that politicians bother avoiding, but this is one so deep, so cutting, so defining that it would be disastrous in a way they probably could not recover from before the next election. Imagine for a moment that some of these pollies are able to think long term: some would surely have made the calculation that it's better for the party's long-term health to lose the next election with Abbott at the helm than to lose it after a leadership kerfuffle.

Also, nobody else was brave enough to stick their hand up. There wasn't actually another contender who declared they wanted the job. To be clear: the party room didn't vote to keep Abbott as leader, they voted to not have a spill at all. The numbers were hardly decisive, with 61 against and 39 for, but it did save them the trouble of actually having to decide between contenders. Likely candidates Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop played their cards very close to their chests, never outright declaring one way or the other. Bizarrely, given their equivocations essentially made them political weathervanes, they both emerged from this looking pretty good. They didn't (visibly) rock the boat, and that's important.

What didn't factor in to any of this was Abbott yesterday doing an extraordinary about-face on the contentious issue of submarine tenders. This was a frankly unbelievable decision on many levels. For one, it served to remind people that he'd shipped (literally and figuratively) manufacturing jobs overseas. It also showed him to be willing to sell out his decision to hold onto power, and for someone whose leadership was in crisis because he wasn't consulting with his colleagues enough, he appeared to have made this decision without any consultation whatsoever. So it was another so-called captain's call, but what good is it being the captain of a sinking ship? Actually, maybe that's why he's suddenly so concerned with submarines. If you know you're going underwater anyway...

So how is this different from Labor?

Labor's first spill was engineered from behind the scenes by the now-notorious "faceless men". By all reports, then-deputy Julia Gillard was initially reluctant, but became convinced when it became clear that Rudd was getting knifed no matter what. For more information, please consult Act I, scene ii of Julius Caesar.

The second spill was pure spite. Rudd was determined to regain his Prime Ministership, and did more than the opposition to undermine Gillard during her reign, eventually coming to power right before the 2013 election.

It was only one policy that served as the banner for Labor's undoing in its two-term reign: the carbon tax.

With the Liberals, it's the cumulative effect of many policies, the manner in which they're delivered, and the growing sense of mistrust within even their traditional base.

So Abbott's still PM. Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

Well, if you're Bill Shorten hoping to win in 2016 – and after Labor's result in Queensland, Shorten as the next PM is starting to seem a lot less fanciful – then you'd rather be facing Abbott than, say, Malcolm Turnbull. But at the same time, the Liberals have, despite the spill motion, demonstrated a steadiness in leadership that Labor can only dream of. Yes, Labor, you've lowered the bar so far that an unsuccessful spill looks like steadiness. Fantastic work.

On the other hand, had Abbott lost, that would have been a stick that Labor could have beaten them with endlessly for the next year and a half. So in some senses, it's a win-win for them.

If you're a Liberal, then just read the above paragraph and reverse the argument.

What happens next?

It would be an impressive feat if Abbott managed to get to the next election without another spill. He'll have to completely change how he does business: talking to colleagues before he makes any decisions, ensuring that everybody is consulted before major announcements are made.

But he'll also have to commit to walking back most of his policies. He does not want to be seen to break the majority of his election promises given that was his catchcry during the Gillard years, but it's those policies that have proven so disastrous.

Reports are that he's been given six months to get this right. If he can turn around public opinion—Newspoll currently has him so far down that he'd probably qualify for a mining tax subsidy—and satisfy his colleagues, he may just hold on to the top job until the next election. And given we haven't had a Prime Minister complete a first full term since John Howard in 1998, this, rather sadly, would be an achievement in itself.

Follow Lee on Twitter: @leezachariah