Monday, September 14, 2015

Turnbull Challenges Abbott

This post should have a very short shelf-life indeed, so I'll try to make it short!  Communications Minister and former party leader Malcolm Turnbull has today resigned and challenged Prime Minister Tony Abbott for the party leadership, and by implication his position as PM.  Many reports are suggesting the Turnbull camp believes they easily have the numbers although I have seen one contrary report that they are less confident than a few hours ago.  There may be a fair amount of foxing going on.  Julie Bishop is believed to be running with Turnbull, and Scott Morrison to be supporting Abbott and doing his numbers (but not running for deputy).

Update 8 pm: Both sides are claiming they have the numbers with the Turnbull camp apparently claiming 58 votes and the Abbott camp claiming in the 50s.  There are probably a few shallow liars  friendly people claiming to support both sides.

Update 9 pm: Turnbull camp now claiming 55 while Abbott camp claiming they can get there by one or two.  Anyone for a tie? :)

9:15 Members going in and the Abbott retinue much larger than the Turnbull one.  That said when Kevin Rudd rolled Julia Gillard he arrived alone.  Some press predictions around 54:45 to Turnbull, however that's also what the Turnbull camp think.  Will he avoid getting ahead of himself this time?

9:55 You know the drill - Turnbull won 54:44 (a promising sign for his team that they had the numbers so accurate!)  Julie Bishop was elected 70:30 to continue as Deputy Leader.  For some reason thirty people thought there was some point in voting for Kevin Andrews instead.

The ballot timing was variously reported as 9, then 8:30, then 10, then 9 before settling on 9:15. Unfortunately no comment from Peter Dutton as to whether the ballot is running on Cape York time was available.

A few things to note quickly here:

1. Whether this is the end for Abbott as PM tonight or not, Prime Ministers who face leadership challenges tend not to survive their term, as noted in my roundup of the spill early this year.  Only one of the thirteen previous major party leaders to have faced a leadership ballot or spill motion made it to the next election, that being Malcolm Fraser, who was defeated at that election.

2. After surviving the leadership spill attempt in February, Abbott asked for six months to turn things around.  That spill occurred at the high point of Labor's lead, a brief blowout to almost 56:44 caused by the cocktail of the Prince Philip knighthood, the loss of the Queensland election, and the initial leadership spill push.  That blowout subsided within weeks but the Abbott Government's net polling progress since then has amounted to only about 1.5 points, all of which was lost following the Bronwyn Bishop expenses scandal, and none of which has come back in the five weeks since that ended.  Basically the government is back around where it was at the end of last year:

It would seem from that that Abbott has not delivered on his lease extension. 

3. The Liberal Party has a funny habit of changing leaders ahead of by-elections, Turnbull being deposed in the week leading up to the Higgins and Bradfield by-elections in 2009 (although those by-elections were nothing like as significant as this one).  It's tempting to wonder whether some of the fervour tonight is down to a misplaced belief that losing by-elections with big swings causes loss of government at the next election (when in fact by-election losses are but symptoms of the loss of popular support that is the real cause).  On the other hand, the feeling in the Turnbull camp may simply be to strike while the iron is hot.

4. Apropos of nothing, in a parallel universe two years ago today, Julia Gillard went to her second election as PM and polled ... we'll never know.

5. My sidebar Not-A-Poll on when Abbott's career as PM will end currently has 11% voting for the current time period, vs 16% who voted for an earlier one, 22.5% for later this term, 31% for losing the next election, and 19% have him winning the next election and carrying on.  Given the leftward leaning of this site's major social-media hit-gathering grounds it will be quite interesting if the collective wisdom from a poll started in January ends up overstating his tenure!

6. As noted during the previous spill roundup the difference between the rolling of Kevin Rudd by the ALP and this is that Rudd was not given a fair go - he was removed having briefly become somewhat unpopular with his party in a historically winning position.  That made his removal illegitimate and meant that concerns about why it had happened plagued his successor, permanently compromising her rule.  In contrast if Abbott is beaten everyone will understand why it has happened and will know that he was given a long chance to turn around poor polling, and failed.

7. Eric Abetz has made the interesting claim that changing leaders does not win elections.  Oh really? The Liberals were losing under Snedden until they switched to Fraser in 1975.  Labor probably would have won under Hayden in 1983 but a switch to Hawke at least ensured there was no fade-out.  Labor were being slaughtered under Hawke in 1991 and won under Keating.  The Coalition were losing under Downer and won under Howard.  Labor might have won under Beazley in 2007 but not as easily as they won under Rudd.  Of course there are also leadership changes that did not deliver victory and one particularly stupid one in 2010, but on the whole parties that have changed leaders when they had to have been rewarded.  Even Tony Abbott got there by this method!

I'll aim to add edits through the evening when there's anything to report, in between running a chess club!  

PS Many press gallery hacks wrote effusive pieces about the brilliance of Tony Abbott in destroying PMs Rudd and Gillard.  I will put their names on lists and out every one who, within two weeks, does not write the same praising Bill Shorten!  In reality, neither deserves all that much credit.

Here's the final output of my Not-A-Poll:


  1. Another extraordinary day in Australian politics. I for one did not predict the timing of last nights challenge. Watching TV, it had the feel of being the best organised and most efficient of the spills we've seen over the past 5 years. Maybe they are improving with practice.

    One of the repercussions of Turnbull PM is the sizable drop in the probability of an early election. Peter Brent (and others) assumed there was at least a reasonable chance that Abbott would spring an early election in an effort to shore up his leadership. This would of course mean the JSCEM recommendations not passing before the election. I now struggle to see any possibility of an early election, a strategy which would involve a repeat of the first Rudd coup which almost led to the defeat of a first term government.

    There is media commentary assuming (rightly or wrongly) that Turnbull will have better chance of negotiating with the independents than Abbott. This remains to be seen, although I would assume any attempt by Turnbull to improve relations with the cross benches would involve further pushing back the adoption of the JSCEM recommendations. I believe there is still a chance we could see another election with GTV and the existing electoral system.

    1. Yes it was particularly neatly done as these things go.

      I did not agree that the chance of a really early election (say before March 2016) was high. Perhaps if there was an extremely strong result in Canning (say 58-42) it would have been taken as a signal that the national polls were wrong, but otherwise it wouldn't have been possible to sell the case for going to an election to the party.

      I've always regarded whether or not the Senate system gets reformed (and in what way) as a believe-this-when-we-see-it matter. So I also think there is still a risk of the old system surviving (as ludicrous as it is) even if the parliament goes full-term. I would hope though that if necessary the Coalition will, with a few months to go, just decide to hell with the crossbench and pass it, supported by the Greens. I have heard that it will not be as difficult for the AEC to cope with a shortish lead time as has been widely suspected.

  2. We've now had three PMs in a row rolled, and it's worth asking why this has happened. The usual explanations are the pressure of the 24-hour news cycle, now made even more incessant by social media, and the impact of non-stop polling. I would add the qualitative change in the kind of people who become MPs. The kind of blind loyalty that used to be typical of MPs, the kind that let Evatt and Calwell lose three elections without challenge, is no more. Both sides now have many MPs who have spent most of their careers as staffers, to whom intrigue and faction-fights are second nature, and they are much more willing to stage palace coups than old-style MPs were. But there were also specific causes for each of three rollings. Rudd was not rolled because of bad polls - as you note, his polling wasn't all that bad. He was rolled because he was and is an insufferable shit, and the majority of Cabinet and Caucus were simply not willing to tolerate his behaviour any more. Gillard was rolled because of a genuine Caucus panic about the coming election, caused both by her own lousy judgement and Rudd's relentless sabotage. Although Rudd was still an insufferable shit, the majority of Caucus was willing to put up with a few more months of him (no-one thought he could actually win the election) in the hope of saving their own seats. Abbott is a different case again. He's a pretty obnoxious person (though not as bad as Rudd), but that wouldn't have been enough. His polling was bad, but it wasn't terminal - we're a year out from the election and Shorten has plenty of vulnerabilities. That wouldn't have been enough either. What seems to have sunk Abbott was his utter incompetence, aggravated by his loyalty to Hockey, who was also utterly incompetent. The Liberals seem to have decided that Abbott just wasn't up to being PM, and wouldn't be able to exploit Labor's weaknesses and win the election. So we have three different reasons for rolling three successive PMs: Rudd's shittyness, Gillard's polling weakness; and Abbott's incompetence. Can Turnbull break this cycle of failure? Not if his judgement is as bad as it was during his last stint as leader. His weaknesses then were vanity, prolixity, pomposity and an inflated belief in his own ability. Perhaps he has learned from failure last time around, perhaps not. We will see.