Television remote-controls worked overtime last night as viewers flicked between two equally absorbing reality TV programs. X-Factor may have been more entertaining, but the Liberal Party’s performance within Parliament House was no doubt the most fascinating.
In announcing his intention to contest the Liberal Party leadership, Malcolm Turnbull appeared to be taking direction from the prison warden in the classic 1967 Paul Newman movie “Cool Hand Luke”:
“What we’ve got here is… failure to communicate. Some men you just can’t reach.… I don’t like it any more than you men.”
Very apt. It has been a lack of effective communication that has resulted in Tony Abbott’s downfall. No one will discredit his intelligence, sense of being, and tenacity and doggedness when pushed into a corner. In fact, we saw plenty of that last night. What we, and Abbott’s parliamentary colleagues, didn’t see however, was a Prime Minister who evoked a collegiate approach. Regardless of the wins he delivered under his tenure, it will be the Captain’s Picks, the poor political and policy choices, and his predilection for foot–in-mouth that the electorate will remember.
Six months ago the Liberal Party put Abbott on notice. The last thing the Liberal Party ever wanted was to emulate the Labor Party; but last night it seems enough was enough.
What does this mean?
With this change, the Government will look to “press the reset button” – to refocus and refresh. Gone will combativeness, negativity and a focus on the past; replaced with positivity and forward thinking.
The past 30 polls have shown the Government is behind the eight-ball, but this change will certainly instigate a turnaround. Labor will attempt to discredit the incoming Prime Minister by claiming that this spill is about his personal ego and aspirations, not about leadership and the good of the nation. Nonetheless, there will be a honeymoon and the popularity of the Government will rise.
One of Turnbull’s first jobs will be to secure the relationship with the Coalition. During the Nationals’ Federal conference this weekend Abbott was a regular visitor, espousing the strength and might of the Liberal/Nationals’ partnership. Alas, this partnership was not mentioned in Turnbull’s speeches – an oversight not unnoticed by his National colleagues. The Nationals are likely to play hard ball, with commitment to policy and ministerial positions on their wish list.
Those expecting Turnbull to lurch to the left on issues such as gay marriage and climate change will be hugely disappointed given the likely promises he had to make to his parliamentary colleagues in order to secure their support.
The likely winners and losers
While it’s early days for ministerial machinations, it’s inevitable that a reshuffle will occur towards the week’s end. Joe Hockey will surely stand aside as Treasurer, as will a number of ministers from the Howard years and staunch Abbott allies, including Kevin Andrews and Eric Abetz, who are likely to retire to the backbench.
Not all Abbott-backers however will find themselves on the outer. Turnbull will need to maintain or promote a number of them – not simply for party solidarity but because they are some of the most capable members of the Government. Scott Morrison, Bruce Billson and Josh Frydenberg are all likely to be rewarded for their intellect and strong performances.
Others that have been knocking on the door, including Michaelia Cash, Kelly O’Dwyer, Peter Hendy and Christian Porter, may find it open. Ministers such as Sussan Ley, who like Julie Bishop, has performed and built confidence amongst their colleagues, are likely to stay put, should they choose.
With five Prime Ministers in five years, one might argue that Australians are the biggest losers of yet another leadership change. At the time, when the nation is crying for reform to restructure the economy and strengthen overstretched health and education services, the lens of politics has become so short that our political leaders are now lucky to survive one political term.
Sadly, Abbott joins a growing list of one-hit wonders – Australian leaders who failed to face the electorate at the next election including Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu and NT Chief Minister Terry Mills.
Just when will Australia return to the polls?
Turnbull appears to have learnt lessons from the ALP’s leadership coups and seems in no hurry to head to the polls, which are due between August 2016 and January 2017. A number of double dissolution triggers remain within his grasp – though some are weak at best – and the Government will truly benefit from 12 months of governing and delivering tangible policies and commitments that the electorate can see and grasp. The Free Trade Agreements with China, Japan and South Korea are a great example of solid achievements that have not been well communicated to the electorate, leaving the Government unable to recoup the just plaudits.
Turnbull will use this honeymoon period to rebuild and rebuild, with a desire to be known as the Prime Minister who always played a “Cool Hand”.
Written by Peta Lange – Associate Director, Parker & Partners