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