If you think American politics resembles the melodrama of a reality show, it has nothing Australian politics.
During the Labor government of 2007-2013, Kevin Rudd was ousted as Prime Minister and party leader by Julia Gillard only for Gillard to be ousted by Rudd. Here is what I wrote about this sorry state of affairs at the time:
Of course, the person who benefits the most from this row on the Labor front benches is none other than Tony Abbott. So long as there is instability as to who exactly is leading the Australian government, the Leader of Her Majesty’s Official Opposition needn’t say a word. With each passing day, Abbott looks more and more like a viable alternative by default, and if an early election comes to pass it would be the Liberal Party’s to lose. Australians are longing for the sort of reliable, stable government they had under John Howard and might be eager to give Abbott a decisive mandate. With each passing day, it is clear the Labor Party cannot govern itself, never mind Australia.
In September 2013, Abbott’s Liberal/National Coalition would be elected to a majority government, winning 90 of 150 seats in the Australian House of Representatives. Yet only 16 months into his mandate, Abbott finds himself clinging to power having just survived a challenge to his leadership of the Liberal Party in what is known as a leadership spill. Indeed, five years ago, Abbott became Liberal Party leader following a leadership spill that ousted Malcolm Turnbull after Turnbull supported the Rudd government’s Emissions Trading Scheme (i.e. cap & trade). Although Turnbull didn’t formally challenge Abbott in yesterday’s leadership spill, can there be any doubt Turnbull believes turnabout is fair play? A new poll conducted by News Corp. shows Australians would prefer Turnbull over Abbott as Prime Minister by nearly a 3-to-1 margin. If that wasn’t enough, the Labor Party that was unceremoniously tossed from power less than a year and a half ago now has fourteen point, 57-43% lead over the Liberal-National Coalition.
So how is it that Abbott is on the precipice of political oblivion? By the end of 2014, Abbott’s popularity had plummeted over budgetary matters such as the introduction of a Medicare co-payment, the defeat of higher education reforms, and his abandonment of paid parental leave amid a ballooning budget deficit. Complicating matters was Abbott’s autocratic governing style. When Abbott announced last year he was restoring knighthoods (which had been abolished by longtime Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke in 1986), he did so without consulting his Liberal National caucus.
Indeed, but what really accelerated Abbott’s descent was Prince Philip. Yes, Queen Elizabeth II’s husband. Late last month on Australia Day, Abbott knighted Prince Philip, prompting much mockery and derision. Critics across the political spectrum asked if it was Australia Day or April Fools’ Day.
On the surface, it would appear that knighting Prince Philip would be a trivial matter. I can think of far worse people in the world to honor. Although Australians voted to keep the monarchy in 1999, there is strong small-r republican sentiment. This republican sentiment against the knighting of Prince Philip was strong enough to cost the Liberal-National Coalition its majority in the state of Queensland and may result in the Labor Party leading a minority government. All of this was enough for Liberal-National backbencher Luke Simpkins to put the leadership spill into motion.
Although Abbott survived the vote, he is being written off. The Guardian’s Lenore Taylor argues that Abbott “is living on borrowed time.” An editorial at news.com.au observes, “Mr. Abbott will be cautioned by allies not make panicky changes to survive. But few could pretend he was no reason to panic.” Meanwhile, another editorial in the Australian declared, “While the leadership motion was defeated by 61 to 39 votes the size of the support for the motion is an almost fatal blow for the Prime Minister. It is also an almost fatal blow for the Liberal Party.”
The operative word here is almost. Politics, like nearly all human endeavors, is malleable from moment to moment. In any of those moments, a crisis could occur and Abbott could rise to the occasion in such a way to render this rough patch forgotten. The Australian intelligentsia is writing Tony Abbott’s political epitaph, but he might have the final word.
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