Abbott’s spill vote: here we go again…

Charlie Pearson

Topics Politics

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The people of Australia almost landed their fourth prime minster in less than two years on Monday. What does this latest political melodrama tell us about the state of politics in Australia, and across the Western world?

In a meeting on Monday, Liberal Party MPs voted on whether or not to hold a leadership spill (a separate vote on who should lead the party). The contenders would, most likely, have been incumbent prime minister Tony Abbott and communications minister Malcolm Turnbull. The motion, however, was defeated 61-39.

This is the fourth time a sitting prime minister has had to defend their position in a party room since 2010. In June 2010, Julia Gillard ousted the incumbent Kevin Rudd as prime minister and leader of the Labor Party. In March 2013, Gillard called the spill herself and was the only candidate to stand. Finally, in June 2013, Rudd retook the top job from Gillard. For some perspective, the last time a prime minister’s job was put to a party-room vote before 2010 was December 1991.

The fact that the voters of the lucky country have sat by and watched prime ministers change with such regularity exposes the shallow nature of modern Australian politics. The four leadership spills are almost identical – each based more on small-p politics than any grand, ideological divide.

In both successful coups (June 2010 and June 2013), despite various pundits’ claims of sexism (against Gillard) and strong internal dislike (of Rudd), the motivations were grubby and tactical. In each case, it was an act of political bloodletting – an attempt to refresh a seemingly stagnating Labor. But to think that Monday’s contest was any different is deluded. Despite the fact that Abbott’s Liberal Party has attempted to paint inward-looking, political self-promotion as the sole domain of the Labor Party, events this week show that this malaise spreads across the (narrow) political spectrum.

The key criticism of Kevin Rudd’s first term in government (2007 to 2010) was that key decisions were made by the so-called gang of four ministers: Rudd himself, treasurer Wayne Swan, finance minister Lindsay Tanner, and deputy prime minister Gillard. Liberal backbenchers and ministers have made a similar complaints about Abbott this time around, suggesting, in particular, that his chief of staff Peta Credlin wields an excessive amount of power over decision-making.

However, these complaints ring hollow – in both Rudd’s and Abbott’s cases, it seems party mavericks only took issue once the polls turned south. When Rudd’s approval rating was hovering around 70 per cent, orders being issued from the ‘powerful four’ were not an issue. The same was true while Abbott was opposition leader, and in his early days as prime minister, when his approval-rating remained high. Credlin has always wielded a lot of influence as chief of staff. The fact that this has only now come to be seen as a problem, as Abbott’s stock is falling, speaks volumes about the opportunism of political insiders.

The politics of personality and popularity is the new norm in Australia. For here on, sitting prime ministers will find themselves devoting more effort to shoring up their positions internally than addressing the public externally. Either way, the electorate loses out.

Charlie Pearson is a writer based in London.

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Topics Politics


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