27 September 2015
Massive dissatisfaction with the Abbott Coalition Government probably had countless people expecting a leadership change. But there were too many factors making most people, including myself, doubt that it’d happen so soon – hence the sense of shock when it happened just under a fortnight ago, and just after the second anniversary of the election of the Abbott Government to power.
No sensible person would argue that Tony Abbott was ever popular during his time as Liberal Party leader, whether as Opposition Leader from 2009 or as Prime Minister from 2013. In fact, most people had long disliked him. They ended up voting for him because the Labor Party became distracting from governing because of internal leadership squabbles, and he’d done a good job of making the voters doubt the competency in office of Labor, particularly regarding economic management. But despite winning an election, Abbott never had voters warming to him, and once the main players in Labor’s troubles had departed politics, people no longer had anything reminding them of why they’d voted for Abbott and the opinion polls began to show it.
Having lost office to an unpopular rival, Labor was somehow able to benefit from this scenario, and found itself consistently ahead of the Liberal-National Coalition in the opinion polls, despite having done nothing to attract the voters. The Coalition made some mistakes in terms of policies and explaining the reasons behind them to voters, but these were all that Labor needed to lead in the polls.
However, despite the unpopularity of the Coalition and especially of Abbott, there was doubt over whether a leadership change would happen in the Coalition. Everybody talked about Malcolm Turnbull as a better alternative, and more popular with the voters, but the majority of Coalition MPs couldn’t abide him. And no other Coalition MPs even looked like they had what it took to replace Abbott, at least in the short term.
So there would’ve been some surprise when Turnbull quit his post as Communications Minister and moved to challenge Abbott for the Liberal leadership. He ended up beating Abbott 54-44 in a vote among Liberal MPs, which wasn’t quite an even split but also wasn’t a comfortable margin. The Liberals were clearly divided over Turnbull, and time will tell whether he can gain the trust of those who voted against him.
Turnbull is seen as too close to Labor on certain issues. He’s a firm believer in reducing environmental pollution and tackling climate change, which the Coalition is arguably divided over, with many Coalition MPs dismissing the whole notion of climate change as a myth. He’s more tolerant of same-sex marriage than other Coalition MPs, and he’s long championed the notion of constitutionally changing Australia to make the country a republic. Labor is more inclined to support these issues than the Coalition, and many in the Coalition ranks can’t abide Turnbull because of his positions on them.
But polls have consistently shown voters rating Turnbull more highly than Abbott as a leader. Turnbull has firm convictions, and he is articulate and able to sell messages well as a communicator. Some people argue that Turnbull could lure many voters away from Labor, particularly those who voted against the Liberals more because of disliking Abbott than actually preferring Labor. It may take several opinion polls over the coming months to show what effect Turnbull’s rise has on the Coalition’s vote. In a sense, we’ll soon see whether or not his rise to the Liberal leadership triggers climate change, albeit of a political kind rather than an environmental kind.
Now the challenge facing Turnbull as Prime Minister relates to the Coalition’s policies and its ability to sell them to the public. The Coalition has been burnt in the polls because of unpopular policies in relation to cuts in public spending and possible changes to employment laws. Although voters seem to accept that there’s a major budget deficit, they’re scared that potential spending cuts will hurt them personally. They’re not convinced that the Coalition wants to tackle tax avoidance by major companies, and they’re scared that the Coalition might try to deregulate the employment market, removing things like penalty rates for shift-based jobs, as happened when the Coalition was last in office. Can Turnbull convince voters to accept its policy agenda, or make any cuts seem less painful?
More importantly, can Turnbull convince the crossbenchers in the Senate, whose support he needs to pass laws? He needs six extra Senate votes to pass any laws, and he needs to engage with those Senators and persuade them as well as the public. I suspect that he’d do a better job of persuading and negotiating than Abbott did, but it’s not going to be easy.
Turnbull might just bring the Coalition’s vote up in the opinion polls. But he needs to win over the cynics in his own ranks, as well as the public and the crossbench Senators who could make or break his policy agenda. Very interesting times lie ahead as Turnbull confronts challenges from different directions.