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).
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