Australia: Comments on the Recent Leadership Ructions

Australia: Comments on the Recent Leadership Ructions

by James Doogue

6 September, 2018


I don’t know what role Tony Abbott played in the recent machinations of the parliamentary Liberal Party which has seen Scott Morrison replace Malcolm Turnbull to become Australia’s 30th Prime Minister.

According to left wing media commentators, Tony Abbott is a destructive wrecker.

The truth is more likely Abbott may have helped the Liberal Party avoid an electoral decimation from which they may never have recovered.

The Australian mainstream media, and in particular the Government funded ABC are incredibly transparent. They hate Tony Abbott, they love Malcolm Turnbull. Charged with causing the downfall of an elected Prime Minister, the Australian mainstream media have treated the two entirely differently.

I have listened to many political commentators blaming Tony Abbott for Malcolm Turnbull’s demise. That is demonstrably ridiculous. Abbottwasn’t putting himself forward as a candidate for the leadership. It is not Tony Abbott who controls the Newspolls.

When Tony Abbott’s Government lost it’s 30th Newspoll in a row in 2015, Malcolm Turnbull used that as an excuse to overthrow Tony Abbott, the sitting Prime Minister. Malcolm Turnbull’s government has lost 38 consecutive Newspolls. He has to take the responsibility for that, and for himself setting Newspolls as a benchmark of whether a Prime Minister should be replaced.

Election campaign logo in 2016: Where does it say “Liberal Party?”

The media thought we were well rid of Tony Abbott when Malcolm Turnbull replaced him in 2015. They celebrated because most of them had declared Tony Abbott un-electable in the lead up to the 2013 election. They were left with egg on their face when he won with a record landslide victory.

Tony Abbott had already nearly claimed victory in the 2010 election, after winning more seats than Labor’s Julia Gillard. He failed to form Government back then because two allegedly conservative politicians guaranteed Gillard that they would not vote against her government in a ‘no confidence’ motion. They made that promise after Gillard committed billions of dollars in policy decisions they asked for to benefit their electorate and political positions.

Back to the 2013 election. The people were sick of Labor and wanted Change. Abbott campaigned on stopping the illegal boat arrivals which had grown to 4,000 individuals per month and were costing over $7bn a year. Abbott also promised to get rid of the carbon tax, and committed to spending cuts to get the budget back to surplus and eventually pay down debt. The left wing media detested all of these policies.

The media took every opportunity to criticize Abbott’s policies.  They werein agreement that his plan to stop the boats not only wouldn’t work, but would create a major confrontation with Indonesia. Despite the media’s best efforts to sway the election, Abbott won a huge majority in 2013, gaining an extra 20 House of Representatives seats compared to his 2010 performance. Labor were decimated and the left wing mainstream media were furious. They were desperate to see the Abbott Government fail.

Abbott still didn’t control the Senate. The media had given that crazy Clive Palmer a pretty soft run up to the election which allowed him to get four Senate seats. Because only half the Senate goes to election at a general election, there was still a substantial hangover of Labor and Greens senators. Palmer hated Tony Abbott because the Liberal party had refused to endorse him for a safe Liberal seat. So Palmer was as keen to wreck Abbott’s chances just as much as the main stream media were.

Between the difficulty getting Senate support to pass the legislation required to fulfil his election promises, and the mainstream media’s continuous and biased sniping and criticism of Tony Abbott and his government, it was very hard going.

Australia was also going through difficult economic times as resource prices fell, electricity prices rose, manufacturing and other jobs fled overseas, unemployment grew and we tried to deal with over 50,000 mainly Middle Eastern and African people who had arrived illegally by boat during the past 6 years of Labor governments; plus an out of control ‘work’ and ‘student’ visa program which was ramped up by Labor, adding hundreds of thousands of people per year to our population.

Welfare, healthcare, education, and transport infrastructure were already struggling at a time when the Abbott Government were talking spending cuts. They were an easy target for their opponents, and they made a few mistakes as well. Abbott’s parental leave comes to mind. So things were pretty rocky for the Abbott Government from day one.

Let’s go back to the Turnbull history for a moment.

He knifed Peter King for the Liberal seat of Wentworth, getting elected in October 2004.

He then knifed Brendan Nelson in September 2008 to win the job of Liberal Leader of the Opposition. The media had no problem with his actions even though Brendan Nelson was proving to be a fairly moderate left of center political leader. Which they should have liked.

Malcolm Turnbull failed to make any positive impact in the role of Opposition Leader and was losing ground in the polls. He was pursuing a joint ticket with Labor on Climate change policy. Many in the Liberal/National Coalition were not convinced we had to shackle our economy based on alarmist predictions of climate change, using computer models which made unproven assumptions.

Others in the party didn’t question the climate change predictions, but thought the emissions trading scheme the former merchant banker Turnbull was proposing, would be far too damaging to our economy, while having little to no impact on global climate.

Why would we limit our industry to declining carbon dioxide emission levels, or insist they buy carbon credits from developing countries which had no restrictions on their carbon dioxide emissions?

Turnbull stated categorically that he would only be prepared to lead a party which was committed to his idea of action on climate change. The public were not convinced, and neither was the Liberal party which gave Tony Abbott the opportunity to challenge for the leadership. Turnbull was narrowly replaced by Tony Abbott in December 2009. Malcolm Turnbull and his admiring left wing media were of course furious.

Tony Abbott

Abbott then successfully won Government in 2013.

Despite Turnbull’s antagonism towards him, Tony Abbott appointed Turnbull to the senior front bench Cabinet position of Minister of Communications. From that position Turnbull was able to continue his romance with the mainstream media and maintain his profile in the public eye.

It was at this time Turnbull famously tried to distance himself from a number of key Liberal Party policies. He said that Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers was cruel. He refused to endorse the Coalition’s climate change policy, and he continued to snipe at climate change skeptics. The left wing media loved that about him.

During this time the media didn’t characterize his behaviour as ‘destructive’ or ‘wrecking’ or even disloyal. They encouraged the behavior. As a cabinet member Turnbull had a moral obligation to maintain cabinet solidarity on cabinet policy decisions. He didn’t, Abbott didn’t sack him, and the media loved Turnbull for it.

We know of course that in September 2015, after months of cabinet leaks to embarrass the Abbott government, and stepping up his campaign of criticism, Malcolm Turnbull challenged for, and won the leadership of the Liberal party, installing himself as the 29th Australian Prime Minister.

Turnbull was not as gracious, or perhaps as naive as Abbott, and refused Abbott a ministerial role, banishing him to the back bench. Back-benchers are not morally required to maintain cabinet solidarity in the Liberal party and have often crossed the floor in opposition to their party’s policies.

Tony Abbott was fully entitled to criticized government policy when he felt inclined to do so. He only ever did in line with what we already knew were his strongly held views.

Abbott warned that any weakening of our border control would be disastrous and would invite the people smugglers to start up business again. He criticized Australia’s high level of immigration which his own government had started to reduce. Abbott criticized the lack of infrastructure spending when his government’s previous policies were shelved. He bitterly opposed the back-down on corporate tax rate reductions, a policy he had pursued in his government.

Malcolm Turnbull was determined to get himself in the international limelight and even to embarrass the US by introducing legislation to support the Paris Climate Agreement, which the US had walked away from.

Tony Abbott clearly articulated why that was a bad idea, and he clearly had the support of the majority of the party. Turnbull backed down on that policy at the last minute.

Turnbull also had a last minute back down on his National Energy Guarantee (NEG) scheme which Abbott said was ‘mad’ and only guaranteed increased electricity prices. Pretty much any honest analysis agreed with Abbott.

The media have been characterizing Abbott’s behavior as destructive and wrecking. They didn’t say the same of Turnbull when he actually had the moral obligation to support policy when he was in Abbott’s Cabinet.

To challenge Abbott for the leadership, Malcolm Turnbull used the yardstick that the Abbott government had lost 30 consecutive Newspolls, saying “the people have made their decision”.

Why was that OK with the media commentators? But it isn’t OK for Abbott to try to steer the party back to the center-right from the center-left where Malcolm Turnbull had taken them? Abbott was trying to stop Turnbull’s rotting Government, which lost 14 seats at the 2016 election, and was looking at losing even more at the upcoming election?

Not only had the Turnbull Government lost 38 consecutive Newspolls, they were losing Liberal party members in droves, because Malcolm Turnbull were was taking the party away from their conservative roots.

Tony Abbott didn’t have a moral obligation of Cabinet solidarity which Turnbull broke when sniping against Tony Abbott’s government. In speaking out publicly, Abbott was also simply supporting the conservative Liberal party positions against which Malcolm Turnbull was acting. Positions on immigration, taxation, spending, climate change and power generation. Abbott was accurate in knowing where the majority of party room members stood as evidenced by the rejection of Malcolm Turnbull.

Tony Abbott replaced Malcolm Turnbull in 2009 because Turnbull was an ineffective Opposition Leader. Malcolm Turnbull replaced Tony Abbott in 2015 because Turnbull polled better than Abbott with the public, and the party thought Turnbull’s good relationship with the mainstream media might change their attitude to the Coalition Government.

The mainstream media were very pleased with the ousting of Tony Abbott, but they still insisted on their left wing agenda. Turnbull tried to walk the tightrope between popularity in the media and Coalition’s right-of- center policies. He did this by moving to the left of the Abbott Government’s policies on spending, taxation, climate change, immigration and elsewhere. In doing so he managed to disenfranchise a great deal of the Liberal and National Party’s base, but also failed to keep the media happy. He had to go.

Whatever part Tony Abbott had to play in the dumping of Malcolm Turnbull, was done from a more honourable position than Malcolm Turnbull’s role in dumping Abbott as Prime Minister. But the media will never forget that Abbott made fools of them by sweeping into power in 2013 when they maintained he was un-electable.

The story we have heard from left wing media commentators since Turnbull was dumped in the party room, is that Abbott is a destructive wrecker.

The truth is more likely Abbott may have helped the Liberal Party avoid an electoral decimation from which they may never have recovered.

I had hoped Scott Morrison had the good sense to offer Tony Abbott a role on his front bench instead of the token ‘Special Envoy’ role Abbott has accepted with the Australian Indigenous community. Indigenous affairs has always been something Tony Abbott has been passionate about, so he had to accept Scott Morrison’s offer. But Tony Abbott still has a lot more to offer Australia.