2015 UK election opinion poll errors – what does this mean for Australian politics?

UK 2015 general election polling error
In the lead-up to the UK General Election held on 7 May 2015 nearly every opinion poll rated the contest to be a very close race between the Conservatives and Labour with the real prospect of a hung parliament (www.telegraph.co.uk/news/general-election-2015/11374181/latest-poll-tracker.html). The polls were proved wrong because they underestimated the Conservative vote by 4.2 percentage points (Booth, R. 15 May 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/may/14/why-did-the-election-polsters-get-it-so-wrong). The Conservatives secured a 7 point lead and clear majority with the capacity to govern in their own right (www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-307427/Why-DID-polls-wrong-Respected-pollsters-failed-account-shy-Tories-embarrassed-reveal-true-allegiances-writes-GUY-ADAMS.html).

This significant error across the polls caused the British Polling Council to establish an independent inquiry to look at the causes and make recommendations for future polling (www.bbc.com/news/uk-32652104).

A number of reasons have been suggested for the polling errors.

‘shy Tory’ voters who concealed their allegiance until they voted (see for example, Porter, T., 8 May 2015, http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/election-2015-five-reasons-why-pollsters-got-it-so-wrong-1500357).

Lower voter turnout than implied in most polls causing the opinions of non-voters to be included in polling results (Nardelli, A. 9 May 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/politics2015/may/09/election-polls-made-three-key-errors).

People lying to pollsters, for example, claiming to vote Labour but voting differently or not voting at all (www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-307427/Why-DID-polls-wrong-Respected-pollsters-failed-account-shy-Tories-embarrassed-reveal-true-allegiances-writes-GUY-ADAMS.html).

Fewer people owning landline telephones which has been a standard method for contacting voters in the past. (Australian research also points to sampling problems that landline surveys do not pick up mobile only households and potential demographic bias incurred because younger people are more likely to be mobile only households, older women are most likely to answer the phone and telephone interviews conducted during the day are more likely to reach unemployed persons, stay-at-home parents or retirees (Macreadie, R. 2011, ‘Public Opinion Polls’, Research Service, Parliamentary Library, Parliament of Victoria, http://www.parliament.vic.gov/publications/research-papers/2007-public-opinion-polls/download).

Internet polls based on a self-selected sample not constituting a random and representative sample and respondents more likely to lie online (see, for example, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-307427/Why-DID-polls-wrong-Respected-pollsters-failed-accounty-shy-Tories-embarrassed-reveal-true-allegiances-writer-GUY-ADAMS.html; http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/election-2015-five-reasons-why-pollsters-got-it-so-wrong-1500357).

Prospect of the Labour Party only being able to govern in coalition with the Scottish National Party may have put some voters off voting Labour because it was regarded as too risky (www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/may/14/why-did-the-election-pollsters-get-it-so-wrong).

Asking the wrong questions? A suggestion there is a difference between asking questions about attitude in relation to party choice and questions directly asking for choice of party at the ballot box (www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-307427/Why-DID-polls-wrong-Respected-pollsters-failed-account-shy-Tories-embarrassed-reveal-true-allegiances-writes-GUY-ADAMS.html).

It was also suggested that the betting market would be a more reliable indicator because the money at stake causes people to give more thought to their judgement. As a case in point, compared to the opinion pollsters prediction of a ‘tie’ the Conservatives were 5-1 on favourite to win on Betfair (www.mytimes.com/2015/05/09/world/europe/uk-british-election-polling-html?_r=0).

What are the implications of this issue for Australian politics?

As a general rule prime ministers are more likely to maintain their position so long as they and their party retain electoral popularity. In the Australian political context speculation about a leadership challenge for a sitting prime minister takes hold when polling results find the prime minister is very unpopular and the party in government would lose an election based on the predicted two-party preferred vote. It should be borne in mind, however, that Australian pollsters’ practice of assigning preferences based on the previous election result when calculating the two-party preferred figure does not take account of shifts in the party landscape that have occurred in the interim and which could possibly affect the accuracy of the result.

Poor opinion polls were central to the poll-axing of Australian prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard (Singleton, G. et al 2013, Australian Political Institutions 10th edition, pp. 222-224). Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s leadership was challenged in the government party room in January 2015 when his popularity slumped to 22 per cent and the government’s two-party preferred vote fell to a low of 44.5 per cent at which level of support the government would have lost an election (Singleton, G. Blog January 2015, ‘Abbott leadership under challenge’, https://singletonauspol.wordpress.com/tag/abbott-leadership-under-fire).

Abbott survived the challenge but the circumstances that brought it on remained an issue. Subsequent poor poll results with the Coalition continuing to trail Labour in the two-party preferred vote provided the breeding ground for further comment that the prime minister’s power base remained fractured (Matthewson, P. ‘New polls but same old pain for Abbott’, 13 April 2015 http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-04-13/nmatthewson-new-polls-but-same-old-pain/6388070).

The Abbott government’s May 2014 budget was a major contributing factor to its poor polling performance. Its 12 May 2015 Budget faired a little better. A ResearchTEL poll taken the day after the budget was brought down (www.reachtel.com.au/blog/7-news-national-poll-13may2015) which reported a slight increase in the Coalition’s PRIMARY vote of 1.3 per cent saw headlines by some media as an ‘Abbott lift’ (Perth Now) and a ‘much-needed poll boost’ (thenewdaily.com.au; skynews.com.au). There was media speculation that the response to the 2015 May budget would be the catalyst for an early election but this was not confirmed by the prime minister (abc.net.au/news/2015-05-13/budget-2015-tony-abbott-sidesteps-possibility-of-early-election/6465520) and for good reason. The Coalition’s vote may have increased slightly but the two-party preferred figures from the ResearchTEL poll taken on 13 May 2015 showed the Coalition at 47 per cent trailing Labor’s 53 per cent. On those figures the Coalition would lose a federal election. Abbott’s personal approval rating increased to 33 per cent but this is still a very poor level of electoral support for his leadership.

Australian politics, it may be argued, are ‘poll obsessed’ (Glenday, J. 2013, ‘Opinion polls explained: How to read them and why they matter’, Off the Hustings, http://www.abc.net.au/news/federal-election-2013/off-the-hustings). Even small movements in the polls down or up, despite the accepted 3 per cent margin of error, are watched very closely by the parties who respond accordingly with changes to policy and/or a change of leadership if it is thought this would enhance the party’s chances of improving their position in the polls always with an eye on winning the next election. Inaccuracies in the polls, such as occurred in the UK general election, could have policies and leaders placed in the firing line without a substantive reason. The question is whether Australian parties and their leaders would be willing to take the risk.

Informative articles on issues relating to opinion polls include: Macreadie, R. 2011, ‘Public Opinion Polls’, Research Service, Parliamentary Library, Parliament of Victoria, http://www.parliament.vic.gov/publications/research-papers/2007-public-opinion-polls/download; Bonham, K. 2013, ‘A Field Guide to Australian Opinion Pollsters’, http://kevinbonham.blogspot.com.au/2013/08/a-field-guide-to-australian-opinion.html; Glenday, J. 2013, ‘Opinion polls explained: how to read them and why they matter’, abc.net.au/news/federal-election-2013/off-the-hustings.

Dr Gwynneth Singleton
15 May 2015


COAG April 2015: Australian federalism business as usual

Federalism is based on the principle that sovereignty is divided between national and territorial governments but there are different ways in which power is divided between these two tiers of government. These include a confederation where there is no agreement by the territorial governments to cede authority to the national government; coordinate federalism where the national government and the territorial governments operate in separate and discrete spheres of jurisdiction and cooperative federalism where the national and territorial governments are supposed to reach agreement and engage in collaborative joint action to deliver policy outcomes (Singleton et al, Australian Political Institutions 10e, Pearson Australia, Frenchs Forest, p. 95).

The Australian federal system as practised today functions within a framework that bears a resemblance to the principles of cooperative federalism to the extent that the Commonwealth and the states and territories do reach agreement on some policy issues. The Council of Australian Governments (COAG) is the peak forum where the prime minister, state premiers, territory chief ministers and the president of the Australian Local Government Association meet to deliberate on policy issues that require their agreement. These heads of government are supported at the meetings by their relevant ministers and public service officials.

The politics of Australian federalism discussed in Singleton et al Australian Political Institutions, 10e pp 116-125 include the centralization of federal-state financial relations that has developed over time because of the Commonwealth government’s access to an increasing pool of revenue compared to that received by the states. This is always a bone of contention not only between the Commonwealth and the states and territories but also between individual states and territories seeking to maximise their share of the ‘money pot’ on offer.

The April 2015 COAG meeting continued this pattern with differences between the Commonwealth government and state and territory governments over the distribution of federal-state finances. Western Australia had been exerting pressure on the Commonwealth for an increase in its share of the allocation of the GST (Goods and Services Tax) (see blog of 30 March 2015, ‘Will the Abbott government increase the GST?’. All states and territories were demanding the Abbott Commonwealth government restore the $80 billion it had cut from their funding for schools and hospitals in the May 2014 federal budget and if that was not forthcoming threatening to restore state taxes abolished with the introduction of the GST (Coorey, P. 13 April 2015, http://www.afr.com/news/politics/states-threaten-to-bring-back-old-taxes-as-new-gst-war-erupts-2015041301mjmzy).

Disagreement among the states and territories was also a factor with the other premiers and chief ministers determined that Western Australia’s push for a revision of the GST distribution would not succeed (Kenny, M. & Harrison, D. 17 April 2015, http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/states-spoiling-for-fight-at-coag-over-schools-hospitals-and-gst-20150416-1mmjqv.html). All except Western Australia signed a joint letter opposing any compromise on the current distribution of GST revenue (Owens, J. & Lewis, R. 17 April 2015, http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/coag-meeting-state-premiers-gather-in-canberra/story-fn59niix-1227303446035).

Cooperative federalism was also evident in the agreements reached on tackling significant issues, including ‘a national cooperative effort to reduce family violence and fight ice usage’ and ‘new levels of collaboration to increase our efforts to counter violent extremism and terrorism in Australia’. It was stated that the mechanism for federation reform would require ‘the states, territories and Commonwealth to work together to meaningfully address these long-term funding pressures and also look at structural reforms to ensure services can be delivered in the most effective way’ including the Tax and Federation White Papers being developed by the Commonwealth government (COAG Communique, 39th meeting, 17 April 2015, http://www.coag.gov.au). The states’ and territories’ insistence that the Abbott government’s $80 billion cut from state funding be part of those discussions has the potential to put some strain on the cooperative process (Grattan, M. 17 April 2015, http://theconversation.com/more-than-one-elephant-in-the-coag-meeting-room-40381).

The rhetoric of cooperative federalism was evident in the proposal by prime minister Abbott to bring together the state and territory leaders in a COAG leaders’ retreat without officials to discuss ‘the whole question of the fundamental reform of the federation’ (Abbott, T. 17 April 2015, http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/content/2015/s4218911.htm). Of course, it remains to be seen whether agreement on such a significant issue in which the Commonwealth, states and territories, each protecting and their own interests would be forthcoming.

The politics of Australian federalism more often than not has been fraught with disagreement when a prime minister has had to deal with states and territories headed by parties in opposition to the politics of the Commonwealth government of the day (Singleton et al, ibid. pp 125-126). The Abbott government, however, secured agreements at April’s COAG meeting which included state and territory leaders representing both Coalition and Labor governments because each had an intrinsic interest in progressing the agreed policy outcomes.

The flaws in the cooperative ideal induced by the basic and essential political interest of state and territory leaders intent on securing the best deal for their own jurisdictions was highlighted by the Western Australian premier’s extreme expressions of his discontent with the Commonwealth and the other states and territories over their refusal to countenance any change to the current distribution of the GST. While ‘leaders were crooning the same reassuring tune’ at the post COAG news conference ‘about their constructive talk and cooperation’, the Western Australian premier ‘declared he must have been at a different meeting’ adding ‘the elephant in the room is the GST and that’s what this COAG has been significantly about’ (Grattan, ibid.)

COAG creates the forum for the display of cooperative federalism but it also exposes the flaws in the system when states and territories and the Commonwealth fail to agree. It must be borne in mind that COAG meetings last for a mere 2-3 hours and provide the state and territory leaders with ‘the theatre’ for posturing and protesting about the inadequacies of the Commonwealth’s financial largesse. The ongoing work undertaken by Commonwealth, state and territory ministers and their supporting bureaucracies provides the basis for much of the cooperative work and consultation that helps maintain Australia’s system of federal-state relations as a functioning polity, whatever its flaws. Without this it might deteriorate into a situation described by Tony Abbott as ‘feral’ federalism: ‘Whether it is an unbuilt freeway, dilapidated railway, needy schools, overcrowded hospitals or inadequate support services for people in trouble, the demand goes up for federal assistance and the finger of blame is swiftly pointed at Canberra. Welcome to feral federalism, where state governments try to fund the infrastructure and services which are their particular political priority but demand the Commonwealth help for everything else that needs to be improved’ (Abbott, T. cited in Western Australian, 28-29 June 2003. See Singleton et al ibid. p 128).

If Western Australian premier Barnett’s threat to disengage with the rest of Australia came to pass the outcome would be a fractured federation (Alexander, D. 16 April 2015, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-04-16/alexander-how-to-carelessly-lose-a-federation/6396802). There is no secession clause in the Australian Constitution (Singleton et al, pp 453-473). In 1933 a successful referendum supporting Western Australian secession was rejected by the British government on the grounds that it did not have the legal power to do so. Some useful information about this referendum and the issues it raised about the capacity of a state to secede can be found at: Foley, G. 2013, ‘”Westralia Shall Be Free” – The Western Austrailan Succession Referendum in 1933’ 4 April 2013, State Records Office Western Australian Government, http://www.sro.wa.vg.au/blogs/westralia-shall-be-free-western-australian-secession-referendum-1933; Williams, G. 11 May 2010, ‘Too rich, too weak to succeed seceding’, http://www.smnh.com.au/federal-politics/political-opinion/to-rich-too-weak-to-succeed-seceding-20100510-uoma.html; Musgrave, T. 2003, ‘The Western AustralianSecessionist Movement’, Macquarie Law Journal, Vol. 3, pp. 95-129.

Dr Gwynneth Singleton
22 April 2015

Will the Abbott government increase the GST?

The framework of Australia’s Commonwealth-State financial relations is described in Chapter 4 of Australian Political Institutions 10e pp 105-107. Commonwealth grants to the states include goods and service tax (GST) payments distributed among the states in accordance with the principle of horizontal fiscal equalisation to enhance the capacity of both small and large states to provide comparable standards of government services. GST revenue is not ‘tied’ and can therefore be spent by the states according to their own priorities. The GST since its introduction in July 2000 has been levied at 10 per cent, with some exemptions including fresh food. Under Schedule A13 of the Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) on Federal Financial Relations any proposal to vary the rate of GST requires ‘the unanimous support of the State and Territory governments, the endorsement by the Commonwealth Government of the day, and the passage of relevant legislation by both Houses of the Commonwealth Parliament (www.federalfinancialarrangements.gov.au/content/inter_agreement_and_schedules/current/scheduleA.pdf).

No Commonwealth government since 2000 has been prepared to risk electoral damage by proposing the rate of the GST be raised or that it be extended to include fresh food. In keeping with this trend Liberal leader Tony Abbott promised on the eve of the 7 September 2013 election that there would be ‘no change to the GST’ if his party was elected to government (http://australianpolitics.com/2013/09/06/abbott-promises-no-cuts-to-key-programs.html). Shortly after the election he rejected pressure from West Australian Liberal state premier Colin Barnett for an increase in the GST and is reported to have said: ‘Let me be as categoric as I can, the GST won’t change, full stop, end of story’ (Wilson, L. 20 September 2013, http://www.theaustrlaian.com.au/national-affairs/tony-abbott-dismisses=fresh-push-to-reexamine-the-gst/story-fn59niix-1226723309057).

The issue was reignited after the Abbott government’s first budget in May 2014 cut over $80 billion in health and education funding to the states, raising suggestions that the state governments should mount a case for changes to the GST to make up the shortfall. Federal Treasurer, Joe Hockey, said that if the states ‘want to increase funding in their areas of responsibility, they they’ve got to run the argument on the GST’. He also said: ‘We went to the last election promising that we would not change the GST. We are honouring that commitment…Any changes we would take (to the entire tax system) we would obviously take to the next election’ (Massola, J. & Nicholls, S. 14 May 2014 http://smh.com.au/business/federal-budget/federal-and-state-governments-on-gst-collision-course-20130514-zre5m.html).

Reform of federal-state financial relations was broached in October 2014 by prime minister Abbott in a commemorative speech he gave in Tenterfield, the place where 125 years before then NSW Premier Sir Henry Parkes spoke in favour of creating a Commonwealth of Australia. Abbott referred to the perennial question of ‘vertical fiscal imbalance’, meaning the shortfall between the amounts the states receive and the funds they have to spend in delivering goods and services (see p. 106 of Australian Political Institutions 10e). Abbott said ‘we could either adjust the states’ spending responsibilities down to match their revenues, or we could adjust their revenues up’. He said the Commonwealth was ‘ready to work with states on a range of tax reforms that could permanently improve the states’ tax base – including changes to the indirect tax base with compensating reductions in income tax’ (Abbott, T. 25 October 2014, http://www.pm.gov.au/media/2014-10-25/sir-henry-parkes-commemorative-dinner-tenterfield). This caused media speculation whether Abbott was about to raise the GST (Farr, M. 27 October 2014, http://www.news.com.au/finance/is-tony-abbott-planning-to-raise-the-gst/story-e6frfmli-1227103537861). In responding in parliament to a question from the Leader of the Opposition about his intentions with regard to the GST Abbott reiterated the thrust of his Tenterfield remarks: ‘Obviously, if we are going to have a mature debate about our federation, we need to look at spending responsibilities and at revenue capacities…I am very happy to have that debate. I invite the Leader of the Opposition to participate. I invite all of the states and territories to participate…the GST is a matter for the states but certainly it is something which ought to be looked at as part of the federation reform process and as part of the tax reform process’ (Abbott, T. 27 October 2014, House of Representatives, Debates, p. 11974).

Clearly the prospect of raising the GST was already on his mind because it was reported that prior to his Tenterfield speech he had raised the issue of increasing the rate of the GST or broadening its base in private talks with cross bench Senators, whose votes clearly would be crucial to the passage of any enabling legislation (Maiden, S. 9 November 2014, http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/news/tony-abbott-floats-increased-gst-relinquishing-education-health-to-states-and-tax-cuts-for-workers/story-fni0cs12-1227116899252).

The deteriorating electoral standing of the Abbott government following hostile reaction to its May 2014 budget and media speculation about a challenge to Abbott’s leadership meant that any prospect of promoting increases or changes to the GST had to be placed on the political ‘backburner’. On 14 December 2014 the government’s two-party preferred rating stood a 42.5 per cent compared to Labor’s 57.5 per cent (http://www.roymorgan.com/morganpoll/federal-voting/2pp-voting-intention-trend-1901-2015). Treasurer Hockey indicated that the Abbott government would not attempt to increase the GST in its next term on the basis that the budget could not afford the compensation necessary to encourage the electorate to accept an increase and because the ‘move would be politically unpopular’ (Coorey P. 18 December 2014, http://www.afr.com/news/politics/gst-rise-inttohard-basket-joe-hockey-20141218-12a7s7).

In early January 2015 with the government performing badly in two-party preferred polling and heightened speculation about a leadership challenge to Abbott, it is not surprising a comment by Country Liberal MP Dan Tehan that the Abbott government should being the new year ‘by broadening the GST’ to cover currently exempt items such as fresh food, health and education which raised the ire of Australia’a farmers, evoked a response from Assistant Treasurer Josh Frydenberg that the GST would be part of the government’s white paper on tax, but ‘we have no plans to either increase the GST or broaden its scope’ (Hutchens, G. & Heffernan, M. 6 January 2015, http:www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/think-tank-abbott-government-would-raise-6-billion-from0-gst-on-fresh-food-20150105-12i9b6.html). Abbott reiterated there would be no changes to the GST before the next federal election (http://www.insideretail.com.au/blog/2015/01/06/abbott-says-no-gst-change).

The government’s poor political polling eased after Abbott survived the 9 February 2015 party room challenge to his leadership failed and his government had retreated on unpopular budget measures which it had failed to get through the Senate. However, there is a marked discrepancy in the polls. A Roy Morgan poll taken 14/15 March and 21/22 March 2015 shows the ALP at 56 per cent and the Coalition well behind at 44 per cent on a two-party preferred basis (http://www.roymorgan.com/morganpoll/federal-voting/2pp-voting-intention-trend-1901-2015). A Newspoll-Australian two-party preferred poll taken on 20-22 March on the other hand put Labor at 51 per cent and the Coalition at 49 per cent (http://www.newspoll.com.au/opinion-polls-2/opinion-polls-2). Even though the latter poll is more encouraging for the government it would still be likely to lose an election on those figures.

The GST continues to simmer along on the political agenda. Reserve Bank Board member Roger Corbett is reported to have said the federal government must raise the GST (Lynch, J. 17 March 2015, http://www.afr.com/business/media-and-marketing/roger-corbett-calls-on-tony-abbott-to-raise-the-gst-and-get-his-house-in-order-20150316.1m0t7t). The Western Australian Treasurer sought a greater share of the GST for his state from Federal Treasurer Joe Hockey on the base of of the state’s falling revenue base following a marked drop in mining royalties and declining GST revenue (O’Connor, A. 19 March 2015, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-03-19/gst-fight-goes-to-canberra-nahan-meets-hockey/6333420). It has been reported that the Abbott government is considering giving Western Australia a $400 million GST windfall and reducing the amount given to NSW by$200 million. Abbott commented: ‘No doubt this is a matter that will in the fullness of time be dealt (with) by the Commonwealth Grants Commission’, he said. The Treasurer’s office stated ‘the Treasurer had received the Commonwealth Grants Commission Report and the government would ‘now consider its recommendations and consult with the states in the usual way prior to finalizing 2015-2016 GST relativities before the 2015-2016 budget’ (Borello, E. 26 March 2016, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-03-26/hockey-considers-plant-to-give-wa-more-gst-cash/6349694).

The sticking point for any increase to the rate of the GST or the basis of its distribution lies with getting the unanimous agreement of the states and the federal government getting its legislation through the Senate. Not surprisingly the states are squabbling about the proposal to give Western Australia a $500 million ‘windfall’ with the South Australian Premier reportedly saying ‘the WA government was trying to “rob” the smaller states and territories’ (Kagi, J. 26 March 2015, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-03-26/gst-war-erupts-between-jay-weatherill-colin-barnett/6351822). Andrew Constance NSW State Treasurer prior to the NSW state election held on 28 March 2015, is reported to have pledged to fight the GST shake-up and shift to a formula based on population that would favour NSW: ‘We don’t agree with this proposal. We want our per capita share of GST and that’s what we’re fighting hard for’ (http://afr.com/news/politics/nationa/nsw/labor-slams-mike-baird-over-gst-carve-up-20150326-1m82cxz).

The release by the Commonwealth Treasury of a discussion paper on tax reform setting out the case for an increase to the GST suggests the issue is firmly on the Abbott government’s policy radar. The cautionary note in the discussion paper that proposals for changes to the GST would only be considered if there was ‘broad political consensus for change, including agreement by all states and territory governments’, however, highlights the groundwork and politically difficult discourse with the electorate and the states and territories that has to be done before any changes become hard policy.

It was reported that the release of the discussion paper including suggestions that the GST should be increased, ‘flagged that the government is open to raising the rate of GST’, but Hockey insists he is ‘not going to buy into the debate about broadening the base of the GST’ but ‘is hoping for a meaningful conversation’ about the issue which needs ‘community and political backing’ to be implemented (Danckert, S. 30 March 2015, http://theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/treasury/treasurer-joe-hockey-wants-gst-changes-with-state-backing/story-fn59knsif-122784235009).

It would be a brave, if not foolhardy, government that led the charge for an increase to the GST as long as it is trailing in the polls. However, if its electoral standing should improve markedly then it is possible, but not necessarily probable, that an increase to the GST may be placed on the Abbott government’s political policy agenda.

Dr Gwynneth Singleton
30 March 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).


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

The political culture of Australian government

Chapter 2 of Australian Political Institutions 10e explains the various influences on the organization and operation of our political institutions such as ideology, federalism, liberal democratic principles, the Westminster tradition and party government.  The purpose of this blog is to update the detail contained in the chapter,

The growth of government that has occurred since Federation is indicated in figures for NSW and federal ministries set out on page 27.  Recent data indicates that institutional growth in these arenas has stabilised.  The NSW ministry in 2011 and December 2014 remains steady at 22 ministers.  The Gillard government federal ministry in March 2010 comprised 21 cabinet ministers, 8 outer ministers and 12 parliamentary secretaries.  The Abbott ministry at 29 December 2014 comprised 19 cabinet ministers, an outer ministry of 11 made up of 3 ministers of departments and 8 assistant ministers, and 12 parliamentary secretaries.

The ongoing significance of the major political parties in Australia’s federal parliamentary system is evident from Table 2.1 ‘Total first preference votes for major parties’ (p. 28). However, the data reveals a decline in voter support in recent years.  Major parties in 2007 secured 85.47 per cent of total first preference votes, in 2010 this fell to 77.88 per cent and to 74.04 per cent in 2013.  On the other hand the  percentage of first preference votes for the major parties in the last two half-Senate elections remained relatively stable at 65.45 per cent in 2010 and 66.98 per cent in 2013.  The larger cross-bench Senate following the 2013 election was a function of preference swapping between minor parties to deliver a quota.

Multiculturalism is a factor in the make-up of  Australian society.  Migration continues to be a major contributor to Australia’s population growth.  Between June 1996 and June 2013 the proportion of the Australian population born overseas increased by 51.2 per cent to 6.4 million people (Australian Migration Trends 2012-2013 at a glance: http://www.immi.gov.au/pub-res/Documents/statistics/migration-trends-2012-13-glance.pdf).

The relevance is also evident from Table 2.3 ‘Overseas-born Australian residents: Top 15 countries of birth, 2006 Australian census (see page 31 of the text book).  The 2011 census (which reduced these rankings from 15 to the top 10 countries of birth) reveals movements in the contemporary mix of migrants resident in  Australia: 1. United Kingdom (previously ranked separately as England and Scotland); 2. New Zealand; 3. China; 4. India (previously 6); 5. Italy; 6.
Vietnam; 7. Philippines; 8. South Africa; 9. Malaysia; 10. Germany.  Greece, Netherlands and Lebanon included in the 2006 rankings were bundled into the general category of ‘born elsewhere’ in the 2011 census (http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@nsf/Lookup/2071.0Main+Features902012%E2%80%932013?OpenDocument accessed 27 December 2014).

There have also been changes to the rankings of the top 10 countries of origin of permanent arrivals to Australia since the figures for 2005/2006 contained in Table 2.4 (see page 31 of the text book).  The rankings in 2010-11 were: 1. New Zealand (previously 2); United Kingdom (previously 1); 3. People’s Republic of China (previously 4); 4. Ireland (did not rank in 2005-2006 table); 5. Philippines; 6. India (previously 3); 7. South Africa (previously 6); 8. United States of America (did not rank in 2005-2006 figures); 9. Vietnam (previously 10); 10. Malaysia (previously 8) (‘Net Overseas Migration by Citizenship’ http://www.immi.gov.au/pub-res/Documents/statistics/migration-trends-2012-2013.pdf).

The political representation of Australia’s Indigenous people at the federal level has been instituted by a series of different bodies established  in the context of the political agenda of the government of the day (see page 34 of the text book).  The Abbott government’s approach continues this trend with the establishment of the Prime Minister’s Indigenous Advisory Council charged under the Terms of Reference to ‘provide advice to the Government on Indigenous Affairs’ and ‘focus on practical changes to improve the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People’.  Council members, prescribed to be indigenous and non-indigenous and include representation from ‘private, public and civil society drawn from across Australia’ including ‘at least one representative from a remote area’ are appointed by the Prime Minister in consultation with the Minister for Indigenous Affairs (https://www.pm.gov.au/media/2013-12-05/first-meeting-prime-ministers-indigenous-advisory-council).

The issue of constitutional recognition of Australia’s Indigenous people discussed in the text book (see Chapter 3, pages 87-88) gained traction on the Abbott government’s political agenda when an interim report of the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples included a ‘strong view’ that the referendum should be held no later than the 2016 federal election (www.abc.net.au/news/2014-09-16/committee-calls-for-referendum-on-indigenous-recognition/5748504).  However, prime minister Abbott expressed the view that he would like the referendum to occur on 27 May 2017, the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum (www.abc.net.au/news/2014-12-11/indigenous-recognition-vote-could-be-delayed=pm-says/5962010).  This is an example of the prime minister shaping the issue in the context of his personal preference.

Dr Gwynneth Singleton

29 December 2014




G20, ASEAN, APEC and Australian foreign policy

Australia’s participation in multilateral forums as a factor in the federal government’s foreign policy process is explained in Chapter 13 of the textbook (Australian Political Institutions, 10th edition), the significance of which is demonstrated by prime minister Tony Abbott’s attendance during November 2014 at APEC and ASEAN forums and Australia’s hosting of the 2014 G20 Summit in Brisbane.  Associated meetings attended by Australian government ministers and officials included: APEC Finance Ministers’ Meeting attended by the Treasurer; APEC Ministerial Meeting attended by the Foreign Minister; APEC Senior Officials’ Meeting attended by officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade; ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Retreat; G20 Finance Ministers’ Meeting.  The scope of Australia’s engagement with its membership of the G20 can be seen from the 2014 event schedule at http://www.g20.org/australia_2014/event_schedule.

Influences on the making of Australian foreign policy, including the role of the prime minister and cabinet, are explained in the textbook.  The significance of the prime minister’s input derives from status attached to holding the position of leader of the government (p.433).  This is evident from the media attention given to prime minister Abbott’s attendance at the APEC, ASEAN and the G20 summits, including photo opportunities in group or individual situations and reporting of Abbott’s personal meetings with significant national leaders such as US President Barack Obama.  Other cabinet ministers were also engaged in the process (p. 435) of presenting and arguing for Australia’s policy views, i.e. the Treasurer Joe Hockey and Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop.  The role of the bureaucracy (p. 436) is highlighted by the attendance of public service representatives at the APEC Senior Officials’ Meeting and input in terms of advice given to ministers as a function of departmental responsibilities.

Membership of multilateral organizations is used to promote and protect Australia’s national interests.  This may not be easy to achieve because each member state has the same objective to protect its own interests.  Bilateral talks between leaders are part of that process.  For example, during the APEC and ASEAN summits, Indonesian President Joko Widodo held talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping requesting China take steps towards bolstering economic ties with Indonesia, with US President Barack Obama to demand that restrictions on Indonesian palm oil entering the US be lifted and with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and Tony Abbott (Witula, R.A. 2014 17 November, http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2014/11/17/foreign-friendships-must-benefit-ri-jkowi.html).  Prime minister Abbott also met, for example, with Putin, Xi Jinping, Obama, Merkel and British prime minister David Cameron.

The summit process seeks to achieve a negotiated consensus on outcomes agreed by the participants and presented in the joint communique.  The real work is done behind the scenes.  The APEC summit, for example, appeared ‘to be little more than an endless stream of meaningless press conferences and multilateral back-slapping…it’s festival season for diplomats, but the real show takes place on the sidelines’ (Schaefer, D. 2014, 11 November, http://thenewdaily.com.au/news/21014/11/11/apec-waltz-meetings-matter).  Abbott wanted the G20 meeting ‘to be seen to achieve something tangible, not just to be a pointless talkfest’ (Taylor, L. 2014, 12 November, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/nov12/g20-brisbane-abbott-faces-uphill-task-summit-relevant-effective).

The fact that Australian governments do not always achieve their policy objectives in these multilateral forums was apparent at the G20 where Abbott was unsuccessful in keeping climate change out of the spotlight and off the formal agenda.  The issue gained traction following the announcement of an agreement reached between China and the US governments on emission reductions just prior to the G20 meeting.  The US agreed to cut emissions by 26-28 per cent by 2025 and China pledged its gas output would peak by 2030 and it would draw 20 per cent of its energy needs from zero-emission sources by 2030 (Taylor, L. & Hurst, D. 2014, 16 November, http://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2014/nov/16/joe-hockey-climate-change-speeches-g20-real-work),   In contrast, the Abbott government,  which includes a number of climate sceptics ideologically opposed  to a carbon tax or emissions trading scheme, is committed to reducing its emissions by 5 per cent of 2000 levels by 2020 through a program of direct action (Grattan, M. 2014, 17 November, http://www.businessspectator.com.au).

US President Obama’s strong support for increased action to combat climate change enunciated at a public speech at  Queensland University ensured the topic was addressed at the summit and included in the communique.  Abbott’s ‘impassioned’ support for fossil fuels in a private meeting with Obama (Scott, S. & Volger, S. 2014, 17 November, http://www.couriermail.com.au/news/queensland/g20-brisbane-t0ny-abbott-clashes-with-barack-obama-over-climate-change/story/fnmd7bxx-1227125019686) did not have a substantive impact.  A ‘clear majority of leaders’ supported ‘stronger language in the communique on climate change’ and ‘ explicit endorsement’ of the global Green Climate Fund supported by the US (Allard, T. 2014, 17 November, http://www.smh.com.au/business/g20/climate-change-in-g20-communique-after-trench-warfare-20141116-11no3q.html).

Multilateral forums such as the G20 issue communiques but, unlike a treaty, the recommendations are not binding on members.   No doubt there is pressure on member states to comply but no enforceable penalties if they do not other than the potential to place sanctions against recalcitrant states if the issue is considered serious enough to warrant such extreme action.  It is unlikely that the G20 communique will alter the Abbott government’s ideologically driven policies on climate change.  Treasurer Joe Hockey is reported to have ‘downplayed the significance of pledges by the United States and China to cut emissions’, emphatically refuted the notion that climate change is an impediment to growth and said ‘we have to do what we believe to be right for the nation; he (Obama) is doing what he believes to be right for the United States’ (Taylor, L. & Hurst, D. op.cit).  Abbott continues to support the coal industry as ‘a crucial energy source’ and did not commit his government to pay into the Green Climate Fund (Scott,S. & Volger, S. op.cit).

Membership of multilateral forums do not always deliver on the policies preferred  by Australian governments.  However, they do play an important role in providing Australia’s prime minister and cabinet ministers with the opportunity to meet personally with world leaders for discussions that can facilitate the development of good working relationships that enable the government to work towards achieving Australia’s policy preferences.  Nevertheless, membership of multilateral organizations is only one element in the development of Australian foreign policy which is determined principally within the context of the country’s national interest, framed within the context of domestic factors such as party ideology, economic policy and electoral concerns discussed in Chapter 13.

Dr Gwynneth Singleton

19 November 2014