‘Poll axing’ as the modus operandi for replacing a sitting prime minister discussed in Singleton et al 2013, Australian Political Institutions 10e, Pearson Australia,pp 222-224 continues to prevail with the coup against Coalition prime minister Tony Abbott that saw him defeated 54 to 44 by Malcolm Turnbull in a Liberal Party room leadership ballot on Monday 14 September 2015.
Abbott joins the growing ranks of recent Australian political leaders deposed because their party’s poor showing in opinion polls and voter dissatisfaction with the performance of the prime minister threatened the party’s tenure in office and for opposition leaders the prospects of their party gaining office.
Liberal opposition leader Brendan Nelson was defeated by Malcolm Turnbull 45 to 41 votes on 16 September 2008 because of his poor showing in the polls. Turnbull was narrowly defeated 42 to 41 by Abbott on 1 December 2009 when poor polling gave impetus to a push by conservative party members opposed to his support for climate change legislation.
Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd was felled on 24 June 2010 when a low 36 per cent poll satisfaction with his performance as prime minister provided a caucus unhappy with his leadership of the government with a reason to dispatch him from office.
Rudd was replaced by Gillard who suffered the same fate on 27 June 2013 when Rudd was rewarded for his dogged persistence in seeking to regain the leadership with a 57 to 45 Labor caucus vote in his favour. The reasons for Gillard’s defeat were her government consistently trailing in the two-party preferred polls that indicated a substantive loss of seats and defeat of her government as well as dissatisfaction with her performance as prime minister running at over 60 per cent (http://polling.newspoll.com.au March-June 2013). Labor MPs and Senators deserted Gillard for Rudd because it was considered she was leading the party to a disastrous and historic loss and Rudd was more likely to salvage Labor seats (Griffiths, E. 27 June 2013, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-06-26/rudd-prevails-over-gillard-in-leadership-ballot/4783422). Rudd’s position, however, was short lived with Labor’s loss to the Coalition at the 7 September 2013 federal election when voters had their direct say on the performance of the Labor government.
The Coalition won but voter satisfaction with prime minister Tony Abbott sat at a low 33 per cent at the time of the election and remained low for the duration of his term of office, slumping to 24 per cent in February 2015 with the Coalition trailing Labor 43 per cent to 57 per cent on the two-party preferred basis in a 6-8 February Newspoll (http://polling.newspoll.com.au). Dissatisfaction with Abbott’s performance as prime minister and leader of the government and the dire polls led to a party room spill motion on 9 February 2015 which Abbott survived by 61 yo 39 votes, described by him as ‘a near death experience’ and ‘a shot across the bow’ (Bourke, L. 9 February 2015, http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/prime-minister-tony-abbott-avoids-leadership-spill-201502090-139c1m.html). Nevertheless, the rumblings of discontent within the Liberal party room about Abbott’s leadership continued unabated with speculation continuing that another challenge to his leadership was imminent. This was dismissed by Abbott as ‘Canberra insider gossip’ (Doyle, J. 28 February 2015, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-02-27/abbott-dismisses-speculation-over-leadership-challenge/6267830), but the question had been asked whether Abbott’s failings were ‘mortal’ (Hodge, J. 9 February 2015, http://theconversation.com/problem-with-cut-through-politics-is-leaders-can-swiftly-be-cut-down-37334).
Abott’s promise to turn things around in six months did not happen and the Coalition continued to trail Labor in the two-party preferred polls. A Fairfax-Ipsos poll taken 13-15 August 2015 placed Labor at 54 per cent and the coalition at 46 per cent. Tony Abbott’s approval rating was a low 35 per cent (http://ipsos.com.au/labor-lead-increases-after-choppergate-scandal-fairfax-ipsos-poll). A Galaxy poll taken 3-6 September 2015 placed the Coalition at 46 per cent compared to Labor’s 54 per cent of the two-party preferred vote which indicated Labor would have won an election on those figures. Tony Abbott’s personal approval rating as prime minister had fallen to 30 per cent (Galaxy Research, http://www.galaxyresearch.com.au/polling).
On 14 September 2015 it was reported that ‘ministerial paranoia, the Canning by-election (a normally comfortable Liberal safe seat that was trending towards marginal with a projected 10 point swing, Uhlmann, C. 14 September 2015 http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-09-13/tony-abbott-likely-to-face-leadership-spill-before-end-of-year/6772098), fear that Abbott would bring on a snap double-dissolution election to head off any leadership challenge, and Turnbull polling ahead of Abbott as preferred prime minister brought the prospect of another leadership challenge into sharp relief (Matthewson, P. 14 September 2015, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-09-14/matthewson-how-abbotts-leadership-is-in-doubt-again/6772414). One cabinet minister is reported to have commented on 14 September 2015 that Abbott ‘has had six months and things have gone from bad to worse. He should just resign’ (Uhlmann, C. 14 September 2015, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-09-13/tony-abbott-likely-to-face-leadership-spill-before-end-of-year/6772098). The prospect of losing their seats caused even conservative hardliners who had moved to oust Turnbull from the leadership in 2009 to move towards support for Turnbull as ‘their only chance of avoiding electoral oblivion’ (Matthewson, P. 14 September 2015, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-09-14/matthewson-how-abbotts-leadership-is-in-doubt-again/6772414). When making his leadership challenge Turnbull said: ‘The one thing that is clear about our current situation is the trajectory. We have lost 30 Newspolls in a row. It is clear that the people have made up their mind about Mr Abbott’s leadership’ (Crowe, D. 15 September 2015 http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/abbott-v-turnbull-malcolms-triumph-as-tony-loses-5444/story-fn59niix-1227527440989).
On Monday 14 September 2015 Turnbull defeated Abbott to become leader of the parliamentary Liberal Party and prime minister. Abbott’s one year and 361 days in office is the shortest time served as prime minister since Harold Holt’s tenure but Holt disappeared at sea and was not defeated in a party room ballot.
In the five years since 2010 three prime ministers (Rudd, Gillard, Abbott) have come and gone through the revolving door of the prime ministerial suite at Parliament House because of lack of success in the opinion polls. In the immediate aftermath of Turnbull’s accession to the leadership the Coalition raced ahead of Labor in two-party preferred polling. He also improved his position as preferred prime minister ahead of opposition leader Bill Shorten (www.roymorgan.com/findings/6451-australia-better-pm-turnbull-shorten-september-15-201509150557; ww.news.com.au/finance/work/malcolm-turnbull-leads-poll-surge-for-the-coalition/story-fn5tas5k-1227532578919).
ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr has described ‘Abbott’s downfall’ as an example of ‘the brutality of modern politics’ (Kelly, E., Thomson, P., Burgess, K. 15 September 2015, http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/polituical-news/liberal-leadership-zed-seselja-disappointed-after-tony-abbott-loses-to-malcolm-turnbull-20150914-gjmhzo.htnl). Australian politics has been experiencing the unrelenting displacement of any prime minister or opposition leader who cannot sustain their party’s dominance in the polls. Speculation has been rife that opposition leader Bill Shorten may be replaced if Labor’s polling declines into an unwinnable deficit.
A party room coup creates a schism between the supporters of the victor and the vanquished. As we saw with Kevin Rudd the defeated leader and his or her supporters will re-group and plot to take control if the new leader does not sustain a favourable polling record. It is very early days for Turnbull’s leadership and it remains to be seen whether the spike in the polls that his takeover has generated can be sustained. If not, it is likely that the conservatives who were the driving force in Turnbull’s defeat in 2009 could work against his leadership a second time. A victory for a Turnbull led Coalition at the next federal election would be a defining element in sustaining his leadership.
The recent record of ‘poll axing’ first term prime ministers and opposition leaders casts a glaring spotlight on the significance of ‘the leader’ to the Australian political process. Should the tenure of a party leader be challenged every time the polls turn sour? If this becomes the norm then prime ministers who want to retain their job will need to be in constant campaign mode pandering to the dictates of a poll-driven popularity contest. This will make governments reluctant to take the hard decisions necessary for good government that may inflict short term pain in the polls but long term gain in good policy. If this is the case public policy will be determined by short term knee jerk reactions designed specifically to shore up the government’s popularity in the polls.
It is interesting to ponder the implications of this revolving door process which it has been alleged has injected instability into Australia’s political system. The ‘poll axing’ of political leaders of governments within the party room displaces the choice of voters who cast their ballots at a general election in the expectation that the majority party (and its leader) that they elected will govern until the next election. Does the ‘poll axing’ of the prime minister on the basis of opinion polls undermine this democratic process? The coups against Abbott, Rudd and Turnbull were received with hostility by electors in the community who had voted for them and supported the policies they projected. On the other hand, regular opinion polls provide the opportunity for ongoing judgement from within the electorate on the government’s performance and its policies that a three-year electoral cycle does not afford. Because opinion polls are not going to go away governments will have to work within the political environment that has been created. Popularity in the polls derives from acceptance and approval on the part of the electorate for government policy. Any government that wants to secure a favourable opinion poll approval rating will need to develop support for its policies by informing and taking the majority of the electorate along with them. In the final analysis, however, a federal election which provides all voters with the definitive say in which party will govern remains the fundamental plank and basis for the Australian political process of democratic majority government.
Dr Gwynneth Singleton
30 September 2015