Tony Abbott and the Liberal Party: Has The Lucky Country Become Ungovernable?

First published in Clarity: February 11 2015

On Monday morning, Tony Abbott, amateur pugilist, survived the latest round of political circus in Canberra, 61-39, and for the meantime, remains Prime Minister of Australia. His opponent, a mirage, could not be interviewed, but two individuals claiming to represent it, Julie Bishop and Malcolm Turnbull, remained tight lipped on the possibility of a rematch, given the absence of a knock out blow.

The Australian public enjoy the drama. Twitter went into a frenzy. #libspill, #spill and #itson spent much of the week at the top of the trend charts. As the match began, the tension mounted. Tony Abbott walked into the ring flanked by an entourage. Julie Bishop blanked the media. And there was Malcolm Turnbull, the lone wolf, striding into arena unaccompanied. No matter that the outcome was an anti-climax. It made for good television.

Badly bruised by the encounter, Abbott came out fighting the following day, lamenting the “chastening experience,” but standing firm in his belief that “good government” had now begun. But with half of his backbenchers voting to remove him as leader, pundits quickly set the date for a rematch. Six months seemed an appropriate date. That was the interval between the Hayden-Hawke bout of 1982 and the Hawke-Keating bout of June 1991. Just soon enough to retain the attention of the viewers at home.

What has Australia come to?

Days before the spill vote was announced that put Abbott’s leadership in doubt, the Queensland Federal election produced the astonishing news that the Labor Party had overturned a 69 seat deficit against the Liberal Party, and had unseated Queensland Premier Campbell Newman. Just three years earlier, Labor had lost control of the state, losing 44 of its 51 seats to the Liberals, who had captured 77 of the 89 available seats.

What did the Liberals do to lose such a crushing majority? Some interpreted the result to be a referendum on the national leadership. Others believed that Abbott’s decision to knight Prince Philip on Australia Day to be a factor, and conclusive evidence that the party leadership was punch drunk and that change was needed. Either way, dissenters quickly mounted a spill campaign. But no opponent emerged to face Abbott. Julie Bishop emphasised her loyalty to Abbott. Malcolm Turnbull stated that he would only stand against Abbott if the spill was successful.

What next for Australia? One almost begins to feel nostalgic for the Howard days. At least there was security in stability, and the Howard years brought that in spades. Despite the occasional calls for Peter Costello to challenge for the Liberal leadership, the government and the nation generally rode on the back of a worldwide economic boom so strong that when it crashed in 2008,  Australia emerged largely unscathed. But recently, the boom has started to fade. Even the fortunes of mining magnates Clive Palmer and Gina Reinhardt have taken a hit.

The possibility of a forth Prime Ministerial change in six years is not an enviable prospect. However, a return to the policies of John Howard appears just as disagreeable given the nature of his eventual downfall. How does the Australian public wish to portray itself in 2015? I would imagine that it is not through Prince Philip. Is Tony Abbott so out of touch that he believed that Australians would welcome that decision?

In 1964, Donald Horne wrote in his seminal book The Lucky Country that Australia was run mainly by second rate people who shared in the nations luck. “Although its ordinary people are adaptable,” he wrote, “most of its leaders, in all fields, so lack curiosity about the events that surround them that they are often taken by surprise.” Never did this description feel more appropriate of an Australian politician than of Tony Abbott.

The Lucky Country offered some constructive advice on how Australia could create its future: A mineral boom could help Australia to stand on its own two feet, free itself from the White Australia Policy, and perhaps become a Republic. In the 50 years since the publication of the book, Australia has become a multicultural society. However, a 1999 referendum to make Australia a Republic failed. And since 2008, immigration has returned as a toxic issue. The Liberal Party after all, is proud of its record in “Stopping the boats.”

More than its leadership issues, Australia needs to resolve its future. If Tony Abbott is toppled, Malcolm Turnbull, an avid Republican, will no doubt bring the issue back to the table, as his most likely successor. A substantial Republican debate would at least give the Australian people an issue to unite around, instead of the persistent squabbling and infighting that has characterised Australian politics for nearly a decade.

As Donald Horne stated in the run up to the 1980 Federal election battle between Malcolm Fraser and Bill Hayden, when Australia is united around issues, as it was in the period between Robert Menzies retirement in 1966 and the election of Gough Whitlam in 1972, Australia prospers. However, when it is not, it tends to become absorbed by image, rather than policies. “In all societies,” he said, “people tend to see politics in terms of fun and games, anecdotes and personalities. It is simply a mirage, the whole leadership issue is so exploited, that it replaces the interest in politics.”

Let’s hope that in future rounds, Tony Abbott fights a real opponent, and not a mirage.

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