Monthly Archives: February 2015

Tony Abbott’s leadership under siege

The spill motion moved against Abbott on 9 February 2015 was defeated 61 – 39.  It has been suggested this indicates that if all members of the ministry supported Abbott then nearly 60 per cent of the Liberal Party back bench did not (Kenny, M. 9 February 2015, http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/tony-abbotts-removal-as-prime-minister-not-a-case-of-if-but-when-20150209-139f2p.html).

What does this augur for Abbott’s hold on office?  He will no doubt survive the Ides of March of 2015 but will he survive the knives of dissatisfied backbench members and potentially some of his ministry if the government’s electoral stocks and voter support for the prime minister do not improve?  As Judith Ireland comments ‘history shows us that leadership is often decided in multiple bouts’ and points to the Hawke versus Keating, Keating versus Hawke, Abbott versus Turnbull and Rudd versus Gillard leadership battles as recent examples (Ireland, J. 9 February 2015, http://www.theage.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/how-much-time-does-tony-abbott-have-left-as-pm-lessons-from-past-leadership-challenges-20150209-139j0c.html).

Will Abbott suffer the ‘poll-axing’ fate of his Labor predecessors that he and his party denounced so strongly?  Are there lessons he might take from the Rudd-Gillard-Abbott shuffle board?

Rudd-Gillard-Rudd leadership roller coaster 

The Rudd-Gillard-Rudd leadership contests underline the significance of poor performance in opinion polls to that process.  As you can see from my previous blog ‘Abbott leadership on the line’ (1 February 2015), Kevin Rudd’s satisfaction as leader of the Opposition on the eve of the 2007 federal election was 60 per cent.  When the leadership challenge was mounted in June 2010 this had declined to 36 per cent.  The Labor caucus supported a challenge for two reasons: falling polls indicating a likely election defeat and Rudd’s dysfunctional performance as prime minister.  Julia Gillard has explained the situation (My Story, 2014, Knopf, Sydney).  She writes:  Kevin Rudd’s ‘demeanour was now unremittingly one of paralysis and misery…Rather than dig himself out of the pile of undone work heaped on top of him, he ordered more paper to be piled on top.  On it all went and Kevin just could not make any decisions’.  She continued: ‘within the ranks of the Labor caucus, resentment towards Kevin was mounting. As the polling tightened and the sense grew that he was directionless people talked about him leading us to defeat…As the budget parliamentary session drew to an end, Labor members were fractious and brooding’ (Gillard, 17, 19). Gillard called on the leadership challenge which Rudd did not contest because he knew he could not win and she replaced him as prime minister.

The Labor leadership saga continued to fester and foment fuelled by Rudd’s resentment at his displacement and falling poll support for the Gillard government.  In February 2012 Labor’s two party preferred vote was polling at 45 per cent and satisfaction with Gillard’s leadership was a low 32 per cent.  On 27 February 2012 Rudd mounted a challenge to Gillard in the party room which Gillard won by  71 votes to 31.  Clearly the caucus was not prepared to return to Rudd even though Labor would have lost an election on existing polling results.  Gillard said the party now needed ‘to move forward’, that ‘she had learnt important lessons and acknowledged that she had made mistakes, saying that she intended to be “a stronger and more forceful advocate” for the government’s intentions (Wright J. & Ireland, J. 27 February 2012, http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/gillard-prevails-in-leadership-battle-20120227-1txbz.html).

Despite this strong caucus support for Gillard the leadership issue simmered on to erupt again on 21 March 2013 when Gillard faced a spill motion to be moved by Simon Crean ‘who demanded the leadership be put to a vote to end the “disunity” which he said was killing the party’ (Griffiths, E. & Atherton, G., 31 March 2013 http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-03-21/live-coverage-labor-leadership-crisis/4586250). The government’s continued poor showing in the polls was a major factor with the Gillard government’s two party preferred vote at 48 per cent and Gillard’s satisfaction rating as prime minister at 32 per cent.  The leadership vote did not eventuate because Rudd did not challenge, presumably because he did not have the numbers to win.  Gillard declared Labor’s leadership ructions ‘completely at an end’ (Griffiths & Atherton, ibid.).

The ructions did not cease.  When the Gillard government’s two party preferred vote tumbled to 43 per cent and satisfaction with Gillard’s performance as prime minister fell to 28 per cent, Gillard’s leadership again came under threat. This time Rudd’s support had grown within caucus because Labor MPs, including some senior ministers, considered he was more likely to salvage the party’s electoral prospects (and potentially save their seats) at the forthcoming 2013 federal election.  A poll of voters preferred Rudd as Labor leader to Gillard by 33 per cent to 14 per cent (www.roymorgan.com/findings/preferred-leader-l-np-june-2013-20130613050530).  In response Gillard called another caucus ballot for 26 June 2013 which Rudd contested ‘to boost electoral chances and prevent the Coalition from winning the election’ (Griffiths, E., 26 June 2013, http://www.australiaplus.com/international/2013-06-26/kevin-rudd-to-face-off-against-julia-gillard-in-labor-leadership-spill-loser-to-quit-parliament/1152080). Rudd won 57 to 45 and began his short second-term as prime minister.

The politics of replacing a prime minister or an opposition leader are discussed in Australian Political Institutions 10e, pp 222-224).

Conclusion

So what does this drawn out saga suggest for Abbott’s capacity to remain as prime minister?  Declining support in the polls for the prime minister and the government and dissatisfaction within the party about the lack of connection between the prime minister and the backbench and poor performance in the polls were common factors in the challenges to Rudd and Abbott as first-term prime ministers. Gillard was removed in favour of Rudd because Labor faced losing the next election in what could have been a landslide.  Abbott needs to improve his government’s standing in the polls to protect his leadership from a similar fate.

Abbott has the added disadvantage of the disastrous state election results for the LNP in Victoria and Queensland which some blamed in part on negative responses to the Abbott government’s performance.  In the lead-up to the Victorian election the satisfaction rating of the Liberal premier was 41 per cent and the two-party preferred vote for the Coalition was 48 per cent.  In Queensland the satisfaction rating of the Liberal premier was 35 per cent and the two party preferred vote stood at 52 per cent, higher than the current standings of Abbott and his government.  Both state  governments suffered a catastrophic reversal at the booths with the first-term Victorian government defeated and the Queensland result on a knife-edge.

The forthcoming NSW state election is likely to be a significant factor in whether Abbott retains the leadership.  The prospects are more portentous than Victoria and Queensland because current polling shows satisfaction with the Liberal premier at 60 per cent and the two-party preferred vote at 56 per cent.  Two party preferred analysis, however, can only be indicative  because of the optional preferential system used for elections for the New South Wales lower house.

Gillard saw off Rudd in February 2012 71 to 31 votes but continued undermining of her leadership and falling polls for her government proved terminal when she was deposed on 26 June 2013.  Abbott’s defeat of the spill motion by 61 to 39 is a closer contest.  This substantial backbench disquiet needs to be mollified with improvements to the government’s and the prime minister’s standings in the polls as the 2016 federal election approaches.  Abbott reportedly described the Liberal Party room vote as ‘a near death experience’ and ‘committed to more backbench involvement in policy and policy outcomes’ (news.com.au, 9 February 2015, http://www.news.com.au/national/abbott-leadership-spill-updates-on-liberal-party-vote/story-fncynjr2-1227212569172).

Gillard was undermined by the ‘Rudd factor’ and continued media speculation about if and when he would challenge.  Abbott did not have alternative candidates prepared to put up their hand to support the spill but media speculation no doubt will continue about ‘contender/s in waiting’.  In these circumstances, failure to address the communication issue with the ministry and the backbench and continuing poor performance in the polls are likely to prove to be the catalyst for another leadership challenge if Liberal MPs contemplate turning to an alternative leader to bolster the prospect of saving their seats.

Note:  Poll results cited in this blog are taken from Newspoll and The Australian, newspoll.com.au, unless otherwise stated.

Dr Gwynneth Singleton

11 February 2015

Abbott leadership on the line

Speculation about a possible leadership challenge to prime minister Tony Abbott is redolent of the politics surrounding the replacement by the Labor government of first-term sitting prime minister Kevin Rudd by Julia Gillard (see Australian Political Institutions 10e, 2013 ‘Case Study’ pp 222-224). There are many similarities in the situation facing Tony Abbott.

Prime ministerial popularity and the polls

On the eve of the 2007 federal election Kevin Rudd’s satisfaction was 60 per cent.  His popularity declined from 59 per cent in October 2009 to 36 per cent in May 2010.  He was routed from the leadership by the Labor caucus in June 2010.

Tony Abbott’s satisfaction rating prior to the 2013 election was only 44 per cent (Newspoll and The Australian, polling.newspoll.com).  The fact that he was elected as prime minister from a low popular base sowed the seeds for his current dilemma.  His lack of popularity was evident even within Coalition supporters.  A Roy Morgan poll taken in June 2014 found only 15 per cent of intending Liberal and National Party voters preferred Abbott as prime minister compared to 44 per cent for Malcolm Turnbull (www.roymorgan.com/findings/5625-preferred-leader-in-np-alp-june-2014-201406060420).  By December 2014 voter satisfaction with Abbott’s performance had slumped to 33 per cent (www.roymorgan.com/findings/5625-preferred leader-in-np-alp-june-2014-201406060420).   Abbott’s decision to grant a knighthood to Prince Philip in the Australia Day Honours which was roundly criticized saw his performance rating slump disastrously to 22 per cent (ww.skynews.com.au/news/top-stories/2015/01/29/ministers-say-govt-can-turn-things-around.htm).

Government performance and the polls

Kevin Rudd experienced a fall in his government’s electoral standing in the polls caused in part by problems with the home insulation scheme, criticism about perceived waste of money associated with the Building the Education Revolution scheme, his backflip on carbon pricing and internal disquiet within the Labor cabinet about his failure to follow up on policy announcements and his handling of the policy process (see Australian Political Institutions 10e, 2013, pp 222-223). The Labor government was elected in 2007 with a two party preferred vote of 52.7 per cent but at the 2010 federal election, subsequent to Rudd’s replacement by the caucus with Julia Gillard, Labor’s support had fallen to 50.12 per cent. Labor failed to gain a majority of seats in the House of Representatives and governed only with the support of cross bench members (http://results.aec.gov.au/13745/Website/HouseTppByState-13745.htm; http://results.aec.gov.au/15508/Website/HouseTppByState-15508.htm).

The Abbott government romped into office on 7 September 2013 with a two party preferred vote of 53.49 per cent compared to Labor’s 46.51 per cent (http://results.aec.gov.au/17496/Website/HouseTppByState-17496.htm)  but its electoral support began to decline almost immediately.  In October 2013 its two party preferred vote fell to 51 per cent; in November 2013 it was 48.5 per cent; in May 2014 (after the federal budget which was highly criticized and poorly received) it fell to 45 per cent.  A poll taken 23-27 January placed the government at 44.5 per cent based on preference distribution at the 2013 federal election and 43.5 per cent on the basis of how electors surveyed indicated they would vote (www.roymorgan.com/morganpol/federal-voting/2pp-voting-intention-recent-2013-2016). A Galaxy poll similarly showed the government at 43 per cent two party preferred (www.dailytelegraph.com.au/news/galaxy-poll-reveals-support-for-prime-minister-tony-abbott-and-the-coalition-plunges-dramatically/story-fnpn1181-1227203595932). The Coalition would lose a federal election on the basis of these latest poll results.

Some of the causes for voter disapproval of the Abbott government’s performance lie with its difficulties in getting the support of cross bench Senators for a range of significant budget measures designed to reduce the deficit.  However, more significant must be the voter backlash against these measures which were considered unfair to lower income Australians and the failure of Treasurer Joe Hockey to sell those measures to the voting public.  Other factors must also be the broken promises of the government and the perceived mishandling of policy decisions such as the proposal to cut the GP rebate for shorter doctor visits, topped off by his unilateral ‘captain’s pick’ decision to award a knighthood to Prince Philip which proved very unpopular even among his own parliamentary party.

Leadership under challenge

When Rudd’s electoral support slumped ‘factional heavyweights’ within the parliamentary Labor Party and the extra-parliamentary party succeeded in having him deposed by Julia Gillard in a leadership coup (see Australian Political Institutions 10e 2013, p. 223).

Will the same happen to Abbott?  The situation Abbott finds himself is very similar to the Rudd experience with his poor showing in the polls and the Coalition’s dismal re-election prospects given the current levels of voter support explained above.  Media reportage is rife with commentary about dissatisfaction with Abbott being expressed by Coalition MPs.  As far back as June 2014, for example, comment was made that Abbott faced his greatest threat ‘from within his own parliamentary party’ (Fitzgerald, J. https://newmatilda.com/2014/06/11/history-points-leadership-challenge-not-if-when). On 20 December 2014 the question was asked whether Abbott could hang on to his leadership, his saving grace appearing to be that no Liberal MP was publicly considering making the challenge (Kitney, G., http://www.afr.com/p/national/can_tony_abbott_hang_on_ to_his_leadership_XhjuRBLBmg9kwSsPDFBvOP). On 22 January 2015 Abbott argued that changing party leaders would not be a good idea as he defended his leadership (www.afr.com/p/national/tony_abbott_dismisses_leadership_awgsCgL7mAMkEBbcaPghNK). on 31 January 2015 he declared himself ‘a very good captain’ with the comment that ‘it takes a good captain to help all the players of a team to excel’ (www.abc.net.au/news/2015-01-30/abbott-declares-himself-ad-good-captain-of-the-government/6057484).

However, it appears ‘the team’ may not be so sure of this.  Liberal backbenchers are reported to be considering calling a meeting to discuss ‘the direction of the team’, implicitly with ramifications for Abbott’s leadership.  One Liberal MP is reported to have said ‘Liberals are turning on Tony Abbott.  There’s a changing climate, things are very serious, they’re progressing and progressing very fast’.  Another MP warned Abbott was ‘going down unless he changes his leadership style’ (www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/angry-liberal-backbenchers-consider-meeting-after-tony-abbotts-decision-to-make-prince-philip-a-knight-20150127-12yr5d.html). The rout of the Queensland Coalition government at the state election on 31 January 2015 shone the spotlight squarely on the capacity of Abbott to retain the leadership.  A senior federal Coalition source is reported to have said ‘the next move was Tony Abbott’s. So far the chatter has been among privates and corporals.  It’s time for generals now.  And a time for the general: Tony Abbott.  He has to decide what’s in the best interest of the party’ (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-02-01/lnp-rout-leaves-abbott-terminally-wounded/6060126).

Will a leadership challenge eventuate?  A challenge requires one or more Liberal  MPs to put their hand up to take on the prime minister.  So far the main contenders Malcolm Turbull and Julie Bishop, both of whom poll better than Abbott as preferred prime minister, have not indicated this is their intention.  One constraint may be the voter dissatisfaction experienced by the Gillard Labor government caused by the way in which Rudd was deposed. These sentiments were expressed by Coalition minister Barnaby Joyce who reportedly ‘cautioned restive federal Coalition MPs against repeating the mistakes of the past. “If you behave like the Labor Party at the last election you will be treated like the Labor Party at the last election, and you will be annihilated.  You don’t usurp the right of the Australian people.  They don’t like it.”‘. ( (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-02-01/lnp-rout-leaves-abbott-terminally-wounded/6060126).

There is a mantra of politics that ‘disunity’ within a party, whether in government or opposition, is toxic to its electoral standing.  However, a lack of public support and the likelihood of losing an election also concentrates the mind on whether a change of leadership will enhance the prospects for survival.  That is the conundrum facing the Coalition.  The latest polls, the Victorian and Queensland election defeats and headlines such as ‘PM TO FACE POLL RUIN’, ‘GOOD KNIGHT TONY’ do not make for comfortable reading for the incumbent.  The fact that no challengers have so far put up their hands is also no comfort.  How many occasions over the years have prospective candidates in both the major parties iterated their full support for the leader yet gone on to participate in a leadership challenge?   One Liberal MP is reported on 2 February 2015 to have said ‘we are willing the Prime Minister to succeed, but if he can’t succeed, all bets are off’ (http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/galaxy-poll-reveals-support-for-prime-minister-tony-abbott-and-the-coalition-plunges-dramatically/story-fni0fiyv-12272037).  Punters have been putting their money on Abbott being ‘odds on’ to face a leadership challenge before the next election (www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/bookies-say-tony-abbott-more-likely-than-not-to-face-leadership-challenge-20150129-130wzt.html).  Those odds are likely to have shortened to a more imminent leadership challenge after the Queensland election debacle.

Dr Gwynneth Singleton

1 February 2015