By-election forgotten as Liberal fortunes turn

30 October 2015


The surprise leadership coup of last month, which saw the Liberal Party dump Tony Abbott as leader and Prime Minister in favour of Malcolm Turnbull, seemed to put a Federal by-election in Western Australia almost in the shade.  The by-election, in the seat of Canning, on the fringe of Perth, was rated as a test of Abbott’s leadership, and some pundits were predicting that the Liberals would lose the seat.  But when they dumped Abbott for Turnbull just days out from the by-election, their fortunes seemed to turn around to the point where the by-election meant little.

Brought about by the untimely death of Liberal MP Don Randall, the Canning by-election should’ve been rated a non-event in the general scheme of things.  The Liberals held the seat by a margin of 11.8 per cent over the Labor Party.  Such a margin normally wouldn’t rate as a winnable seat.

However, the unpopularity of Abbott made Canning look vulnerable.  Opinion polls were showing swings against the Liberals potentially as high as the margin in Canning, which would’ve been disastrous for them and for Abbott’s leadership.  Abbott had never been popular – he was only elected Prime Minister because Labor had become so consumed with infighting that voters were put off.

Many people had long been predicting that Abbott’s leadership would be in trouble, and it looked like the issue would come to a head after the by-election, even if the Liberals had won it.  Governments sometimes get kicks up the rear end at by-elections, if voters are angry enough with them and want to show their anger before general elections come.  In any case, I wasn’t among those expecting a challenge to Abbott, simply because I didn’t see any viable alternatives.

I’d felt that the Liberals would never turn to Turnbull, who holds views on various issues, such as climate change, which are firmly at odds with Liberal MPs.  There was talk of the Liberals turning to either deputy leader Julie Bishop or senior minister Scott Morrison in place of Abbott.  But I didn’t see either as up to the job.  I think that Bishop isn’t cut out for leadership – she lacks the charisma as a speaker, and doesn’t make people snap to attention when they hear her.  As for Morrison, I rate him a better communicator who can get his message across well, but he’s only been in Parliament since 2007 and he probably needs more time before he’s ready for leadership.  Therefore, before the leadership coup, I didn’t see anyone else as able to replace Abbott – hence my surprise when the leadership coup happened, especially with the Canning by-election just days away.

Some people wondered if voters in Canning would react badly to the leadership coup.  Voters across the country had become sick of leadership changes in recent years, especially by Labor, whose MPs seemed to panic over leadership time and again.

In the end, the by-election result was a win to the Liberals, despite a swing of 6-7 per cent against them, which was perhaps in line with predictions.  I’d actually predicted the swing to be a bit larger, especially as by-elections often enable voters to give incumbent governments a collective kick up the rear end if they’re unhappy with them.

I suspect that had Abbott still been leading when the by-election happened, the eventual result would’ve set off leadership speculation in the media.  Given that opinion polls seemed to be showing a swing of 6-7 per cent to Labor on a nationwide basis, a swing in that range in Canning would’ve set the hares running, even though the Liberals would’ve held the seat.

But the leadership coup looks to have been a blessing for the Liberals.  Several opinion polls have shown their support turning around since Turnbull became leader, and they’ve gone from facing election defeat after a single term in office to looking like they’ll clearly win the next election, due in about twelve months’ time.

Until the coup, the Canning by-election was looking likely to give Labor a boost, despite voters’ misgivings about Labor’s performance.  But now it seems as if the by-election has been forgotten as Turnbull has made Liberal fortunes turn in a big way.

How long Turnbull’s popularity lasts will be worth looking at.  Many Liberals still believe in doing things that Abbott was aiming for before he lost the leadership.  Turnbull might change a few things, but he might still believe in other things.  The challenge will be whether Turnbull can persuade voters to accept what they’ve thought to be unpopular policies or plans, at least since the unpopular Abbott had been in charge.



Bizarre rise to political leadership

24 October 2015

Last month marked thirty years since a bizarre event took place in politics.  Even if you’re conditioned to expect the unexpected in politics, I doubt that anybody would’ve confidently predicted what happened in Canberra in early September 1985.

How often does a man start a day as the deputy leader of a political party, theoretically one step away from being a rooster, and wonder if by day’s end he’ll be a feather duster as a mere MP on the party’s backbench, only to end up actually the leader of the party and hence a rooster?

Well, this was what happened to John Howard in September 1985.  Arguably by accident, he became leader of the Liberal Party, for the first of two stints in the job, the second of which included his election as Prime Minister in a big election win in 1996 and more than a decade on top.

Howard had run for the Liberal leadership after the Liberals lost office in 1983, with defeated Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser calling it quits in the aftermath, but Andrew Peacock beat Howard to the leadership.  Both Peacock and Howard had been senior ministers under Fraser, the former holding several different portfolios in the Fraser Government and the latter being Treasurer for all but the first two years of it.  Peacock was considered the more popular of the two among Liberal MPs, but Howard was thought to be stronger on advocating policy.

In late 1984, less than two years after leading the Labor Party to its first Federal election win since 1974, Prime Minister Bob Hawke saw fit to call a snap election.  Despite Hawke’s immense popularity, Peacock reduced his parliamentary majority a fair bit in that election.  Afterwards, Peacock was unsurprisingly elected as Liberal leader again.  But Howard publicly declined to rule out challenging Peacock for the leadership in future, which unsettled Peacock to some degree.  Howard presumably decided that Liberal MPs clearly preferred Peacock to him, and that he should just concentrate on doing his job as both a shadow minister and as deputy leader of the Liberals, to which he’d been elected.

During the period from late 1984 until September 1985, Howard came across as a better parliamentary performer than Peacock, who was considered all-style-no-substance.  Peacock subsequently became flustered and was convinced that Howard was undermining him, although Howard was never apparently doing any such thing.  In the end, Peacock sought a change of deputy leadership, but nobody was really interested in taking on Howard.  A challenger was subsequently found, namely former minister John Moore, who ran reluctantly.

When a vote was held for the deputy leadership, Howard was probably wondering if he’d still have the job by day’s end.  But he ended up winning the vote over Moore.  Peacock was therefore humiliated, and he resigned as leader, with Howard becoming the new leader in the aftermath.

Howard’s accidental rise to the Liberal leadership that day must surely rate as a bizarre rise to political leadership if ever you could describe one.

Interestingly, soon after Howard had become Liberal leader, he and his supporters held a celebratory meeting, during which his wife proclaimed that their next destination, so to speak, would be The Lodge, namely the official residence of the Prime Minister in Canberra.  But history shows eleven years passing before they got there.

In that eleven-year period, Howard would go through rough times which might’ve broken the back of countless other politicians.  He’d go on to lose an election to Hawke in 1987, lose the Liberal leadership to Peacock in a surprise coup in 1989, live through election losses in 1990 and 1993, and ultimately return to the Liberal leadership in 1995, ten years after first obtaining it and only after Liberal MPs reluctantly decided that only he could bring them back to office.  Howard sensed that he’d never been as popular among Liberals as Peacock was, and his accidental rise to the leadership in 1985 didn’t really endear him to them, for years after the event.

As a final point, when Howard finally made it to The Lodge upon his election as Prime Minister in 1996, he seldom lived there.  He preferred to base himself at Kirribilli House, the Sydney residence of the Prime Minister, which happened to be close to his northern Sydney home base, and also because he regarded Sydney as more important than the national capital in terms of business affairs.

History shows Howard going through a rocky road in politics, as many political leaders would’ve endured.  But his first stint as Liberal leader, putting him a stone’s throw from the top job in the country, came about after a bizarre political event.  Few stories of would-be roosters avoiding becoming would-be feather dusters could match what Howard went through back in September 1985.