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.