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Saturday 10 October 2015

Comment: Breaking the Abbott

Posted in: Comment, Features
By Craig Young - 15th September 2015

And so it ends. Across the Tasman, on the evening of September 14, 2015, the governing federal Liberal Party caucus voted to oust Tony Abbott after a secret ballot and replace him with Malcolm Turnbull, but with only a ten vote margin (54-44). What can we deduce from the political biographies of the respective leadership candidates?

Tony Abbott is a conservative Catholic and during the seventies at university was an outspoken supporter of centre-right Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser after the controversial sacking of Goff Whitlam's Australian Labor Party federal government in 1975 by Governor General Sir John Kerr, although relations between the past and present Liberal leaders have cooled considerably since then. He also demonstrated in support of Margaret Thatcher when she sent a flotilla of naval vessels to retake the Falklands in 1983. Given that background, it was probably inevitable that he ended up working for early nineties Liberal Leader of the Opposition John Hewson over the latter's Fightback anti-union and anti-welfare political agenda. However, as with Fraser before him, Hewson's social liberalism alienated Abbott. As a devout conservative Catholic, Abbott is anti-abortion, opposed to stem cell research and opposes marriage equality for lesbian and gay couples. Oddly enough, that attitude didn't extend to transgender rights, which he did not significantly oppose while Leader of the Opposition. Despite his conservative Catholicism however, he fell afoul of the church hierarchy on issues like Australia's repressive and draconian attitude toward refugees and asylum seekers, and New Right welfare retrenchment 'reforms' as incompatible with church social teaching. Abbott supported both.

Abbott has been in Parliament for the last two decades, first elected as Liberal MP for Warringah (New South Wales) in 1994. He was a supporter of the anti-republican Australians for Constitutional Monarchy, which placed him in conflict with Malcolm Turnbull, who led the ultimately unsuccessful Australian Republican Movement over whether or not Australia should retain Queen Elizabeth II as its unelected, remote head of state, or else elect a President.

It is now widely acknowledged that the republican side of the debate would have won if it had decided to go for a directly elected president, as in France. However, the ARM and Hawke/Keating ALP federal governments didn't agree with that step and consequently lost when Australia finally had its republicanism referendum in 1998. Before then, right-wing social conservative Liberal leader John Howard won office in 1996. In 1998, Abbott was appointed as Howard's Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business. In 2003, he became Minister for Health and Ageing, during which time he failed to stop the introduction of RU486 ("medical abortion") to Australia, and resulting in the ability of the Health Minister to obstruct the pharmaceutical approval process being removed from his portfolio. While abortion rights is a mainstream and popular bipartisan policy in Australian politics, Abbott must have found some solace when the Howard administration amended Australia's federal marriage legislation to pre-emptively prohibit same-sex marriage equality in 2004.

However, evidently Howard found Abbott otherwise convivial and ideologically compatible, because he served as Minister for Health and Ageing until the downfall of the Howard administration in 2008. Abbott then served as Shadow Cabinet minister under Liberal leaders Brendan Nelson and Malcolm Turnbull. During the latter period, though, Turnbull and Abbott experienced schism over the question of human-made climate change, given that Abbott is an anti-science climate change denialist and Turnbull is pro-science and accepts the reality of climate change. In 2010, Abbott challenged Turnbull for the Liberal Opposition leadership and then a single vote. Unfortunately, across the debating chamber, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard were busy engaging in a fratricidal personality debate that occupied much of the ALP federal term of office, although under Gillard, the ALP did win a second term in 2010, albeit narrowly.

Unfortunately, too, the Australian Labor Party ran afoul of long-term incumbency fatigue in New South Wales, Victorian and Queensland state elections, artificially burnishing Abbott's reputation as political leader. Thus, in 2013, the Liberal/National Coalition was returned to the Treasury benches in Canberra and Tony Abbott became Australian Prime Minister.

So, what went wrong? Why was Abbott sacked after only twenty-three months in office? Part of the problem is that Australia's federal parliament is bicameral, not single-chamber (unicameral) as is the case here in New Zealand. Moreover, its Senate upper house is elected on the basis of the Single Transferable Vote, a more proportional and democratic form of electoral system than the Preferential Vote/Alternative Vote electoral system that is used to elect the lower House of Representatives, where the Liberal/National Coalition had a majority. That wasn't the case in the Senate. To be fair to Abbott, he has been genuinely progressive when it comes to indigenous rights concerns, unlike Howard. However, his administration has received stinging criticism for its attacks on Australia's public sector at a time when Australia's overall unemployment rate has soared to 790,000, 6.4%. This is also attributable to decline in mining investment given the global economic recession since 2008.

The Abbott administration faced strong criticism over other issues such as problems with financial planners at the Commonwealth Bank, slashed the Australian Disaster Recovery Payment one day after disastrous New South Wales bushfires, and repressive repatriation of "illegal" Australian refugees and asylum seekers, abrogating multiple Australian international treaty responsibilities for good practice. It dismantled government institutions that sought to proactively manage climate change due to Abbott's denialism and reduced hospital funding and increased general practitioner charges under Australia's Medicare health insurance programme, as well as slashing assistance to the Australian Red Cross. Student debt increased, due to increases in student fees. The Abbott administration also abolished the portfolio of Minister of Science and Technology. Despite being given a period of grace after an earlier leadership ballot in March 2015, the administration didn't get the message that this was only a temporary reprieve for another six months, and the disastrous expense funds scandal that engulfed former Speaker Bronwyn Bishop and planned demotion of three Howard era crony ministers from key portfolios probably sealed his fate and gave Turnbull the numbers.

All of the above have steadily accumulated to erode incumbency goodwill, at a time when the Rudd/Gillard factional disputes that had destabilised the Australian Labor Party ended with the election of Bill Shorten as Leader of the Opposition. How ALP strategy will change now that Turnbull has become Prime Minister is as yet unclear.
And so, Tony Abbott leaves the federal Australian political centre stage. What about Malcolm Turnbull, the new Liberal Party leader and federal Australian Prime Minister? Malcolm Turnbull was Abbott's short-lived predecessor as Liberal Leader of the Opposition. Attending the University of Sydney and Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, he undertook careers in law and journalism, as well as corporate management within Goldman Sachs, FTR Holdings, Axiom Forestry Resources and OZEmail.

Turnbull is a social and constitutional liberal, who led the Australian Republican Movement (1993-2000) during the republicanism debate of the nineties. Entering Parliament in 2004, Turnbull became the erstwhile Howard administration Minister for the Environment and Water Resources. As well as controversy over alleged forest "clear felling" operations in the Solomon Islands, Turnbull was criticised for his anti-environmentalist/pro-logging stance when it came to Tasmanian native forest preservation, as well as excessive parliamentary expenditure. After 2010, he served as Abbott's spokesperson and then Minister for Communication. The expansion of federal broadband access across Australia has also been troubled and hesitant during his tenure in that office. Other than his republicanism, little is known about his political philosophy. However, refreshingly, he seems more mainstream on social issues than Abbott was, given that he is pro-choice on abortion, supports stem cell research and endorses same-sex marriage equality.

But now that Turnbull has been elected leader, will social conservative troglodytes within the Liberal caucus such as Eric Abetz and Kevin Andrews try to destabilise him, given their multiple ties to Australian Christian Right pressure groups such as the Australian Christian Lobby, Endeavour Forum, Right to Life Australia, ad nauseum? On the positive side, Turnbull is highly popular outside his own party caucus, unlike the ill-fated Tony Abbott. His appointment will reflect that in opinion polls, no doubt. In the Guardian, Leonore Taylor (14.09.2015) said that any return to the scientific mainstream on climate change would be gradual. As for marriage equality, he favours a referendum on the subject, a position opposed by many Australian LGBT organisations, whether under Abbott or Turnbull.

A third figure has also figured in the Liberal leadership turmoil - Deputy Prime Minister Julie Bishop. Bishop is a political survivor- she's held the position of Deputy Leader of the Opposition and Prime Minister under both Turnbull and Abbott (2007- Present). Under Howard, she occupied senior Cabinet posts as Minister for the Aged (2003-2006) and Education (2006-2007). Before entering Parliament, she served as a commercial litigation lawyer at Robinson Cox/Clayton Utz. Divorced and without children, she is currently in a relationship with property developer David Parton. She has considerable administrative experience, serving on Western Australia's Town Planning Appeal Tribunal and Director at the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) multicultural television channel, as well as a fellow of the Australian Institute of Management.

In Opposition, she served as spokesperson on employment, business and workplace relations under Brendan Nelson and Shadow Treasurer and Foreign Affairs spokesperson under Turnbull and Abbott. In 2013, she became Australia's first female Minister of Foreign Affairs. However, unlike her past ALP counterpart Julia Gillard, Bishop denies wanting to eventually become Prime Minister herself- despite her eminent qualifications for the post, it would seem. Apart from a book for the Liberal Sir Robert Menzies Trust, there is little clue to Bishop's political stance, other than her previous legal career as lawyer for leading Australian industrial and mining corporates. Unlike the prior party leader, Bishop is widely respected within her caucus. It was her defection to the Turnbull camp and visit to Abbott that indicated that there would be a renewed leadership challenge. Bishop was challenged for the leadership by Howard and Abbott religious social conservative MHR Kevin Andrews. In that case, the margin was considerably larger in favour of the incumbent- Bishop easily won, 70-30.

If the Turnbull premiership doesn't work out, Bishop will make an excellent eventual first centre-right federal Australian Prime Minister, given her long apprenticeship as deputy leader under Abbott and Turnbull. As for other Cabinet positions, they have yet to be announced, although it seems certain erstwhile federal Treasurer Joe Hockey will be replaced by Abbott Social Service Minister Scott Morrison.

Can Turnbull turn the fortunes of his party around? Will Abbott and religious social conservative party elements accept his sacking and replacement, or will they set out to destabilise the party? Can Turnbull woo the truculent rural social conservative National Party, its coalition partner, who threatened to walk out of the government if the Liberals replaced Abbott? Will the polls see loss of religious social conservative voters, and if so, what proportion of the Liberal vote will disaffiliate? Will Turnbull's appointment lead floating/swing voters back to the party, given that he represents more mainstream liberal Australian social values? How soon can we expect a marriage equality bill and free federal Liberal parliamentary caucus vote on the issue? Will there be another Australian republicanism referendum, given his past pedigree in that role?

All of the above questions remain to be answered. However, Turnbull and Bishop have their work cut out for them, challenging a unified ALP Opposition against a divided Liberal (and Coalition?) parliamentary caucus. They only have a year to turn the fortunes of the Coalition around before the next Australian federal election.

Julie Bishop: Liberal Frontier: Building a Civil Society: Melbourne: Sir Robert Menzies Memorial Trust: 2006.
David Marr: Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott: Yarra: Collingwood: Black Inc: 2013
Malcolm Turnbull: The Reluctant Republic: Melbourne: Heineman: 1993.
Malcolm Turnbull: Fighting for the Republic: Yarra: Hardie Grant: 1999.
Malcolm Turnbull: Liberal Values and Policies: Melbourne: Robert Menzies Memorial Trust nd.
"Australian PM Tony Abbott ousted by Malcolm Turnbull":BBC News:14.09.2015: 34245005
"Republicans welcome Malcolm Turnbull victory" Channel 9 News: 14.09.2015: 14/22/35/republicans-welcome-turnbull-victory
Leonore Price: "Malcolm Turnbull: Three things we need to know about our new Prime Minister" Guardian: 14.09.2015: news/2015/sep/14/malcolm-turnbull-the-three-things-we-need-to-know-about-the-challenger

Not Recommended:
Tony Abbott: Battlelines: Melbourne: Melbourne University Press: 2009.
Tony Abbott: A Strong Australia: Canberra: Liberal Party of Australia: 2012.

Craig Young - 15th September 2015

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