Let’s go back in time: it’s the evening of 24 November 2007, and Labor leader Kevin Rudd is making his election victory speech at Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium. Aside from the speech being long winded and making odd references to Iced Vovos and cups of tea, it ushered in speculation of a long reign of Labor rule. And with good reason too. Soon, Labor would be in office federally, and in every state and territory, with the Lord Mayor of Brisbane, Campbell Newman, the most senior Liberal in the land. Brisbane!
Gradually, the bookshop shelves that had been peppered with tomes outlining how Labor lost its soul during its time in the wilderness, how could it survive as a party, and what type of future does it have, were replaced with books suggesting that it was the Liberal Party without a future, a declining membership base, a lack of interest, and questions about how could it possibly survive with its lacklustre new leader, Brendan Nelson.
In the post-World War II era, with the exception of the Whitlam governments between 1972–75, federal governments have held long-term tenures. The election of Menzies government in 1949 ended eight years of Labor rule; the Liberal–Country Party coalition was in office for 23 years; again for eight years between 1975–83; then Labor in office for 13 years, followed by the Howard government for 11 years. Four changes of government over a 60-year period. Governments with longevity have been the norm in Australia for some time, so the expectations that Labor would also follow suit under Kevin Rudd were quite reasonable.
At the 2007 election, the Liberal–National Coalition was thrashed. Labor secured a crushing election victory: a swing towards it of 5.44 per cent, 53.8 per cent share of the two-party preferred vote, a majority of 24 seats in the House of Representatives, as well as the sitting Prime Minister, John Howard, losing his seat, leaving the Coalition in disarray.
Listening back to Rudd’s speech on election night in 2007, it’s incredible to consider that within the space of nine years, we would see:
- Three Liberal Leaders of the Opposition before the end of 2009—Brendan Nelson, replaced by Malcolm Turnbull who, in turn, was replaced by Tony Abbott.
- Kevin Rudd, a first-term Prime Minister, removed by his own party, and replaced with Julia Gillard, three months before the 2010 election.
- A hung Parliament at the 2010 election, the first result of this type since 1940.
- Prime Minister Julia Gillard replaced by Kevin Rudd, also three months before an election, in 2013.
- Tony Abbott becoming Prime Minister at the 2013 election.
- Malcolm Turnbull challenging Abbott, and becoming Prime Minister in September 2015.
- A double dissolution election in 2016, with the Liberal–National Party hanging on to office by one seat, and Pauline Hanson’s return to Parliament, along with four new One Nation Senators.
After Australia had four Prime Ministers over a 32-year period between 1975 and 2007, there was the unusual situation of five different Prime Ministers within five years, an instability that had not been seen in federal Parliament since the formative years of federation in the 1900s.
The real end of certainty
While he’s not the sole architect of this political dysfunction, the point where Tony Abbott became Leader of the Opposition in December 2009 coincided with a run of seven years of unstable government. Firstly, Abbott ruthlessly exploited leadership division in the Labor Party and constantly depicted the proposed changes to the mining royalty system and carbon emissions trading systems as “Labor’s big new tax”. Standard politics, but Abbott took brutal ‘whatever-it-takes’ political strategies to a new level.
When Abbott led the Coalition to victory in September 2013, there was relief in the electorate that the Labor leadership games between Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard were finally put to rest. The first words Abbott mentioned in his election victory speech were “Australia is open for business”, but his new government proceeded to be anything but, slowly paced for the rest of 2013, dismantling as much of the Labor program as possible, and then proceeding to open up agendas that he never outlined to the electorate (such as the proposed $7 Medicare co-payment), or reneging on clear election commitments (“no cuts to health, no cuts to education, and no cuts to the ABC or SBS”), cocooning offshore immigration detention into bureaucratic secrecy and introducing ‘on water matters’ into the political vernacular.
There was not much substance to the Liberal–National Coalition’s political agenda, surprising for a party that had spent six years in Opposition, and at least three years in a wilderness of soul-searching and attempts to define the relevance of the Liberal Party to a contemporary electorate.
Without a clear direction for which way the country was heading, Abbott reverted to an ideologue who was a hybrid Prime Minister/Leader of the Opposition. The skills required to be Leader of Opposition are vastly different to the skills of Prime Minister and the requirements of government, but Abbott never made the transition to power as well as he could have, or as well as he should have.
One peculiar aspect of the 44th Parliament was that very early on in the term, the government had the feel of a long-term government that had run out of steam and run out of ideas. Aside from a grab-bag of right wing conservative ideals that not too many people are interested in and remain unpalatable to a large section of the electorate—such as repealing Section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act—the government didn’t really have much going for it. It was primarily a do-nothing government that never really left the levers of Opposition behind when it returned to office and, if it ever felt any political pressure coming on, it would usually reach for the ‘stopping the boats’ mantra.
During the first few months of 2014, it was difficult to distinguish the performance of the Liberal–National Party in government, and in Opposition—both modes were pugilistic; both modes were based on winning every single minor battle, but losing sight of the overall game plan; both modes were shrouded in secrecy and obfuscation; ‘on water matters’ and the behaviours of Minister for Immigration, Scott Morrison, the prime example of this.
With no clear agenda, Abbott chose to go down the nationalist and militaristic path. The two Australian flags that appeared at his earlier media conferences became four; which then became eight, and finally 10 flags by June 2015. Most political matters became either an emergency or a war on something, including a ‘National Budget State of Emergency’; the creation of the Australian Border Force, with outfits and logos a seemingly odd combination of Darth Vader and a black-ops security firm; ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’, and the debacle of ‘Operation Fortitude’ on the streets of Melbourne.
Installed to government in 2013 with 90 seats and a majority of 30, obviously Tony Abbott had clear approval to govern, but not a mandate to introduce many of the severe measures introduced in the infamous Budget in May 2014. This Budget, also introducing the infamous ‘lifters and leaners’ by then Treasurer, Joe Hockey, was so severe and fiscally irresponsible, that it’s no wonder it was blocked by the Senate (incidentally, it was never passed by the Senate, and neither were the 2015 and 2016 Budgets).
Although the descent of Abbott had already commenced before this, Budget 2014 is the time his woes really started to set in and by mid-year, less than nine months after becoming Prime Minister, there were already whispers about when Abbott would be replaced, and who would replace him.
But, of course, when there is pliant conservative mainstream media willing to overlook any indiscretion, and unwilling to ask the hard questions, any fool of a Prime Minister can remain in office indefinitely.
However, for all of the meandering, misguidedness and ideological pursuits, none sharpened the barbs more that Abbott’s decision to offer a knighthood to Prince Philip on Australia Day 2015. It showed that Abbott was not just yesterday’s man, or from yesteryear, but from a sphere that no-one else had ever travelled to.
It was the day that marked the beginning of the end of Tony Abbott; unable to articulate who he really is or what his government stands for; engaged in petty pursuits of political opponents; and never going past the point of waging ideological battles from a bygone era. Abbott faced a leadership spill motion in February 2015 (which was defeated by 61 votes to 39); followed up with another failed Budget in May 2015; and finally ousted by Malcolm Turnbull in a leadership spill on 14 September 2015, where he lost the vote, 44–54.
Like the Greek myth of Icarus, Abbott had flown too close to the sun: not the golden sun, but the nefarious one and with his burnt wings, came crashing down, banished to the exile of the backbench, with a promise of ‘no wrecking, no undermining, and no sniping’. It’s odd that he felt the need to mention this, because no-one can ever believe that a Prime Minister losing a spill and the leadership would ever sit on the backbench and not feel the need to create the odd act of sabotage for his new leader, especially when Kevin Rudd had created the template for sniping when he lost the Labor Party’s leadership in 2010.
Respecting people’s intelligence
To say that there was relief when Tony Abbott was deposed as Prime Minister in 2015 is an understatement: there was ecstatic jubilation. Not in the same way that émigré communities celebrate when a much despised dictator in their homelands is deposed or dies, but an acknowledgement that we had just seen the end of a truly incompetent Prime Minister, who was now being unfavourably compared with the yardstick of incompetence, Bill McMahon, Prime Minister in the early 1970s. Abbott was in office for one day short of two years; at least he stayed in longer than McMahon, but not by much.
Once he became Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull didn’t need to say much. He pulled the Liberal–National Party two-party preferred polling up to 57 per cent in late November (after being behind in 124 consecutive national polls from April 2014 to September 2015 and languishing at 43 per cent of the two-party preferred vote); and had massive personal approval ratings, reaching a preferred Prime Minister rating of 76 per cent in October 2015; and net approval ratings of +51 (Approval: 69 per cent, less Disapproval: 18 per cent).
A bedazzled media entourage lapped up every word: Malcolm was king, and it wasn’t a question of whether he’d win the next election, but by how much, and how many decades he would be Prime Minister—retiring at the time of his own choosing, of course.
A Prime Minister anywhere near as good as the media made him out to be, would have announced an election in early October, and held it in late November 2015. I’d say that in that scenario, Turnbull would have probably held or increased the Coalition majority; Bill Shorten would have been replaced as Labor leader after this election and we’d again be talking about Labor facing another decade in Opposition. By prevaricating in the same way that Kevin Rudd did in early 2010 when faced with an option for a double dissolution election on climate change, Turnbull lost momentum, dithered and fell in love with the mellifluous tones of his own voice.
Narcissism trumped pragmatic politics and, as Turnbull would find out, there would be a large price to pay, in more ways than one.
If the end of 2015 represented a lost opportunity for Malcolm Turnbull, 2016 was shown to be a waste of time and a loss of political capital not seen in this country before. John Howard as Prime Minister, had the right strategy—his greatest virtue was that while he made many early mistakes, he learned from them and rarely made them again. But Turnbull never learned.
Turnbull’s government meandered through the first few months of 2016, with various political flares thrown around to gauge public reaction: increasing the goods and services tax to 15 per cent; a bizarre plan to allow states to raise their own income taxes (even though this is not allowed in the Australian Constitution); speculation about when the election would be called—general or double dissolution? Would it be after or before the 2016 Budget?
Eventually, Turnbull agreed that 2 July 2016 was the best date for an election, and that both houses of Parliament would be dissolved. A media frenzy followed, with all the cool journalists bandying the ‘DD’ moniker, claiming yet more false dawns for Malcolm Turnbull, extolling the bravery and courage of a Prime Minister taking on a high wire risk, but assuring us all that his courage would be rewarded with electoral success.
Many in the media were predicting a small loss of seats, but a solid victory with an ‘8’ in front of the amount of the seats won, meaning anywhere between 80 and 89 of the 150 seats in total. ABC journalist, Chris Uhlmann, confidently predicted on 15 June that “looking at the entire picture though, it still leaves Labor well short of government”, and the Coalition was on track to win at least 80 seats. This was a theme picked up by all mainstream media, overlooking the consistency of all published polls that were pointing to a much closer election result. Professional journalism? Not at all, just evidence of unethical hacks and spivs pushing the agendas of their conservative masters.
So, what to make of election day 2016? The media was doing its best to concoct a leadership crisis for Bill Shorten; Fairfax Media journalist, James Massola, being the worst culprit, with more discredited rumblings published on 27 June, claiming that “some have begun to discuss Bill Shorten’s future” and further claims the day before the election, that Sam Dastyari had withdrawn his support for Shorten, and thrown it behind Anthony Albanese. Why bother with ‘fake news’, when the supposedly reputable scribes at Fairfax Media are just plainly making the news up, and feeding gossip to their friends at other media establishments? Credibility? Zero.
So confident of victory was Malcolm Turnbull that he donated $1.75 million of this own money to the Liberal Party—on 1 July, so the news of the donation wouldn’t be released by the Australian Electoral Commission until a year after the election—and stopped campaigning at midday on election day, and going for a leisurely public train trip to Parramatta, before returning to his Point Piper mansion to watch the election coverage on television.
As votes continued to be counted, Turnbull’s confidence turned to gloom, and then to outright hostility. Seat after seat was lost by the Liberal–National Party during the evening, and it became clear that the result was going to be much closer than the mainstream media had anticipated (or hoped for), with many analysts on the night predicting a hung Parliament. When Turnbull eventually appeared at the Sofitel Wentworth Hotel in the Sydney CBD well after midnight, it wasn’t a prime ministerial appearance of any kind. Turnbull was ropeable and the body language spoke a thousand barbed words: How could you fuckers not choose me! I spent $1.75 million to get elected! Laaaabor… you wanted them instead of me!
It was, without doubt, the most diabolical election night political speech from any state or national leader. It was embarrassing and demeaned the office of Prime Minister.
We started with Kevin Rudd’s speech from 2007, a folksy tale that was as inspirational as watching varnish dry. But it was a kind-hearted, principled speech with some gravitas. Turnbull in comparison, was akin to the spoiled bully boy without his expected prize at a school academic speech night, overturning chairs, abusing people and giving the middle finger to everyone, including his supporters.
He lashed out the “an extraordinary act of dishonesty,” claiming that Labor had tricked people with text messages to voters in marginal seats with “Mediscare” messaging. “No doubt the police will investigate,” he said. Afterwards, the Liberal Party lodged a complaint with the Australian Federal Police but, in August 2016, the AFP stated that the matter was “evaluated by the AFP [and] no Commonwealth offences were identified. This matter is now considered finalised and no further comment will be made.” Turnbull’s response was: “if that wasn’t a crime, it should be one.”
Back to election night at the Sofitel Wentworth: No thanks were offered by Turnbull to the Australian electorate for exercising their democratic right to vote, or the usual platitude about how Australia is the model of excellence for having free and fair elections and, unlike some countries, no blood spilled onto the streets. There were no ‘thank yous’ to the Liberal Party stalwarts all around the country that set up the polling booths the night before, hoping to persuade voters to their cause. No thanks to all of the candidates that risked their careers to run for the Liberal and National parties. No commiserations to the Liberal and National Party members of Parliament that had lost their seats—14 of them. Although they never gain public sympathy, these are emotionally difficult times for losing members of Parliament, yet not a word of public thanks from their leader on election night.
And then Turnbull turned his attention to the putative reason for the double dissolution election—the Australian Building and Construction Commission legislation—a matter that was barely raised during the election campaign.
Looking at all the evidence, Turnbull’s strategy and campaign for 2016 was a disastrous failure and showed a deep lack of judgement. The end result was a loss of 14 seats (90 seats, down to 76), a swing against the Liberal–National Party of 3.13 per cent, a loss of three Senators—resulting in more independent cross-benchers to deal with in the Senate, making key legislation even more difficult to pass.
The media become so engaged with Turnbull’s musings that they forgot to consider what the public thought, and so thoroughly dismissed polling showing the election was going to be close, that they were stunned into silence when the Liberal–National Party was returned to office with a slender one-seat majority.
The mainstream media failed miserably in overlooking the incompetence of Tony Abbott, and were even more irresponsible in failing to point out the many failings of Malcolm Turnbull.
Politics is eating itself
Whenever politics is seen as being in the doldrums, waiting for the next Nietzscherian Superman (Übermensch) to arrive on the stage and redeem the future, there are clarion calls for a re-invention of the political system; it’s broken, it needs to be fixed. But the system itself is not broken—after all, the constitution has functioned perfectly well since 1901 (except for the 1975 constitutional crisis and the sacking of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam), and the method for managing Parliament and electing its representatives is a good system.
But, it’s the character of the people that move to politics, and the party institutions that make up the Parliament. Public trust in the political system is low, according to many polls, and many electors say members of Parliament are greedy, personally corrupt, put themselves and their political parties first, and see personal aggrandisement as their primary purpose in politics.
How difficult is it for members of Parliament to update their pecuniary interests register after purchasing an investment million property, as former Minister for Health, Sussan Ley, managed to avoid in early 2017? Ley continued to spin the fib that she purchased a $780,000 luxury apartment on the Gold Coast as a ‘spur of the moment’ decision, while on parliamentary business. Evidence came out that she had made several enquiries about the property beforehand, and the real estate agent that she made the purchase through is a prominent figure within the Liberal Party, as well as substantial donor to the party. Several months later, Minister for Employment Michaelia Cash also failed to declare a $1.4 million property purchase, saying that she was “mortified” about the oversight.
Mortified? How stupid do they think the electorate is?
Parliament should be reflective of the community, and there’ll always be charlatans unable to resist the temptation of rorting their travel allowances, or stretching the boundaries of the rules of entitlements. But parliamentarians are also meant to be role models for acceptable behaviour in society, not reflections of old-styled aristocracy, where public monies are splurged at whim.
Many people have asked me about the causes of this instability over the past decade, but it’s difficult to pin-point it to one key factor. For Labor, the key personalities were in the backroom—former National Secretary Karl Bitar, and former politician Mark Arbib—not real Labor people, but factionalised people interested in ratings, polls, group research, personalities, self-aggrandisement and trouble making. Where is Mark Arbib now? After four years as a Labor Senator (2008–12), he’s now a senior executive with James Packer’s private investment company, Consolidated Press Holdings. And Karl Bitar? After the disastrous 2010 election campaign and resigning as National Secretary in 2011, Bitar became the chief government lobbyist for Crown Limited—yes, also owned by James Packer—and is now Executive Vice President of Crown Resorts. They were Labor, but they may have well been working for a tuna can factory. They ruined the Labor Party for a generation and now work for one the biggest benefactors and supporters of the Liberal Party.
Former Labor member of Parliament Martin Ferguson is another. Supported by the union movement and the Labor Party for most of his life, Ferguson was a senior figure in the Rudd government, holding several key industry portfolios. He left Parliament at the 2013 election, and took up lucrative lobbying positions within the mining and tourism sectors, taking pot-shots at Labor policies and criticising any Labor leader on climate change and mining issues that were detrimental to the industries that he now represents.
Although not in the federal sphere, former NSW Premier, Mike Baird, resigned from office in January 2017. Although he clearly stated that he was retiring from politics due to ‘family reasons’ and to spend more time with his children (which are all perfectly valid reasons), the following month, he took up a senior position with the National Australia Bank, on a salary of $1 million, with the potential to increase to $2 million. So much for wanting to spend more time with the family.
As at July 2017, Labor is well placed to form government at the next federal election, due before November 2019. But Labor provides hope to the electorate, in relative terms, mainly because the current Liberal–National Party is so inept at government, and is headed by a Prime Minister that has disappointed the electorate so much, that even with a very supportive mainstream media, it is difficult to see how long he will survive for.
Will the cynical cycle of politics continue if Labor is returned to office after the next election? The template for dissent and destructive politics was created by Tony Abbott in 2009 when he became Leader of the Opposition, and his reward was becoming the Prime Minister and returning the Liberal–National Party to government in 2013. The double-edge sword is that not only was he ill-equipped for the role of government, but he also created a vacuum for his own demise. Any future Leader of the Opposition will closely look at this time and be tempted to implement such a destructive path, even if the reward is the prime ministership and a return to government for just a couple of short years, which, surely, is far better than languishing in the misery of Opposition, away from the limelight. Meanwhile, the political wellbeing of the nation can take a back seat.
Australia, along with many other countries in the world, faces great economics challenges, along with the future of food and energy resources, employment, education, and technological change. The main question facing Australia’s political system is whether the current personal within Parliament are the right ones to face these great challenges.