Important: The views expressed on this blog are my own. The Council on Foreign Relations takes no positions on matters of policy or politics.
Just before New Year’s, I predicted that Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott would potentially be ousted in 2015 in an internal party battle. Abbott’s leadership in 2014 had been atrocious – he often looked confused or outright deceitful when discussing policy questions. His treasurer, Joe Hockey, seemed staggeringly unconcerned about the major challenges facing Australia’s economy as China’s economy cools and the Australian real estate market returns to earth.
Some policy commentators dismissed my predictions, but Abbott just faced down a potential leadership challenge, defeating a motion for leadership challenge ("spill motion") by a 61-to-39 vote even though there was no other candidate declared in the party for prime minister. Abbott defended his policies effectively this week – he is a tough debater – but he is hardly safe. Having (for now) quashed the dissenters in his coalition, he has asked his coalition to give him six months to “reset” his policies and his political style. What will the revolt mean for Abbott as prime minister, and for the direction of his policymaking?
Without a doubt, one of the key messages Abbott must take away is that he has to communicate better, both with his own coalition and with the Australian public, if he intends to hold onto his job. Abbott reportedly vowed to members of his coalition to operate in a more consultative way, and we are likely to see Abbott make a similar attempt to be a better listener with the public in general. Abbott also simply will need to gain a better command of the details of policy if he is to avoid another leadership challenge. He needs to drastically revamp his senior staff. He also probably needs to make at least one major sacrifice among the top ministerial positions, such as treasurer.
Abbott also may modify some of his more conservative positions that appear to have alienated a swath of the public, including even some supporters of his coalition. Abbott’s social conservatism and staunch monarchism do not go down well even with many conservative Australians. The fact that Abbott did not emphasize monarchism and social issues in his winning electoral campaign, but then focused on these areas once in office, also has proven alienating to many Australians. Meanwhile, Abbott’s position on climate change, though popular with conservatives, is out of step with the majority of the country (let alone with the rest of the world) and is out of step even with more moderate ministers in his government like Malcolm Turnbull.
To be honest, though, I do not think Abbott will avoid another challenge to his job. A poll taken this week showed Abbott with a record low approval rating from the Australian public, and also revealed that voters would prefer other coalition leaders, like Turnbull or Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, as prime minister. And even though he survived for now, the win was no great triumph. “No matter how it is sliced and diced though, this [party room vote] was a pretty miserable outcome for Abbott,” wrote Mark Kenny, a political columnist for the Sydney Morning Herald; a significant percentage of Abbott’s backbenchers wanted to get rid of him, even though no other candidate had declared himself or herself for the PM job. And in Australian politics, one challenge, even if defeated, tends to be the equivalent of blood in the water for sharks – commentators and other politicians circle the bloodied leader even more, waiting for another opportunity to pounce.
It’s hard to imagine Abbott, who built his reputation as a certain kind of blunt, conservative, monarchist leader, drastically shifting how he operates or actually changing his policy positions on social issues or climate change. His putative opponents within the coalition, like Communications Minister Turnbull, simply will wait for the gaffe-prone prime minister’s next major slip-up. According to the West Australian, “A minister who did not support yesterday’s leadership spill motion offered a brutal assessment: ‘Abbott will last as long as his next big mistake.’”