Progress: The clean-up after the spill

If you feel frustration with current British politics, then a glance at Australia may make you feel a little better.

Since my recent arrival in Australia, most conversations have started with an apology for the soap opera that many believe has engulfed Australian politics, making their current state of politics a national embarrassment.

There have indeed been occasions where a dash for the popcorn has been in order, but equally perhaps the intra-party challenge to the leadership of the rightwing prime minister, Tony Abbott, reflects the ebb and flow of democratic politics. Leadership coups are part and parcel of democratic life – think Heseltine’s 1992 attempt or the 2005 Brown v Blair scenario – Australia just happens to be going through a particularly tumultuous time. Again.

Egged on by a baying media, it was Abbott’s decision on 26 January, Australia Day, to give a knighthood to Prince Philip – yes, that Prince Philip – which put the chaos theory butterfly effect into action. Abbott’s earlier decision in March last year to reintroduce Australian honours of knights and dames was controversial, reigniting the debate on whether Australia should remain a constitutional British monarchy. The initial announcement that such titles were to be awarded to ‘pre-eminent Australians’ meant that the recent knighthood of our British royal was met with widespread ridicule.

Couple that with an unexpectedly disastrous performance in the recent Queensland state elections for Abbott’s Liberals and the prime minister’s grip seemed decidedly tenuous. And so it proved, as two Liberal backbenchers announced last Friday that they were to move a leadership spill – a declaration that the leadership of a parliamentary party is vacant – against the prime minister the following week.

The weekend brought with it speculation as to how likely such a ‘spill’ would be to succeed in ousting Abbott from power and, if so, who might replace him. The betting syndicates had Malcolm Turnbull, the silky-smooth and self-confident former leader of the Liberal party, as the favourite to oust Abbott. A few more audacious punters backed the incumbent foreign minister, Julie Bishop, whose robust confrontation with Vladimir Putin over Russia’s involvement in Ukraine won her many supporters, and her carefully worded press statements meant that she never ruled herself out of contention.

The vote of no confidence at 9am on Monday morning proved an anticlimax, Abbott survived with a vote in favour of 61-39. He may have survived in the short term, but if past precedents are anything to go by, the blow is likely to prove deadly.

So much for the conservative Liberal party, but where does that leave our leftwing equivalents, the Australian Labor party? Keeping their heads below the parapet, and preparing for any given scenario that may result: it does not take much to bring back memories of their own recent internal problems.

Not for nothing did Abbott, interviewed on Sunday evening by the public broadcaster ABC, keep referring to Labor as the party with the record for ousting its own leaders. ‘When you roll a PM you look like the Labor party’, responded Abbott to questions over his future. The following day, the assertion was repeated, ‘we have looked over the precipice and decided we are not going down Labor’s road’. The jibe refers to the Rudd-Gillard tussle within Labor spanning from 2010-13, in which Gillard first toppled Rudd, before Rudd returned to overthrow Gillard.

Of great concern for Labor is the prospect of a moderate conservative replacing Abbott as leader of the Liberals. As the electorate and media continue to show increasing hostility towards the more rightwing tendencies of Abbott, and his penchant for ‘captain’s calls’ – a decision made unilaterally by a team leader without consulting colleagues, often with negative consequences – seen by many as a sign of growing hubris, the last thing Labor want is for Abbott to be replaced. The prospect of more electorally acceptable moderates like Turnbull, or even Bishop, replacing Abbott would bring unwelcoming challenges for Labor. The Liberal party’s confidence in Abbott has been shattered but while he stays in power, continuing his recent form of bowing to the party faithful but as a result further alienating himself from the public, Labor’s position only grows stronger.

Bill Shorten, current leader of the opposition Labor party, is making the most of the current furore with a vision of perfect unity, for now. Shorten has also been quick to jump on Abbott’s Sunday policy announcement that he would green-light an Adelaide shipbuilder’s bid for a tender worth at least $20bn for navy submarines. ‘It wasn’t the thousands of shipbuilding jobs at risk that forced Tony Abbott to act,’ claimed Shorten, ‘It was the threat of losing his own job. This is what policy making has come to under this chaotic Liberal government. It’s a complete shambles.’

As for the UK, as Matthew Parris recently wrote in the Telegraph, Abbott’s decline should mark as a warning to the Conservatives: faced with an onslaught from the far-right, pandering to populist sentiment might win you an election, but it will not keep you in power. But with the general election just weeks away, priorities may steer the Tories on a course to the right regardless of Parris’ warnings.

For Labour comparisons are more tricky. On the one hand the lesson appears obvious: let the Conservatives shift to the right allowing Labour to fill the void, stepping in as the ‘party of the people’. But with Ukip and now the Green party bombarding the mainstream from all sides, and Ukip itself no longer just a threat to the Conservatives, any lessons from their equivalents down under are less clear.

So, crack out the popcorn, put on a brew and enjoy the show, as the rest of the world looks on in wonder.

• This article was originally published by Progress, a political think-tank linked to the Labour Party in the United Kingdom, on 13 February 2015. To access the original, please click here.

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