Problem with cut-through politics is leaders can swiftly be cut down

Since Kevin Rudd welcomed Tony Abbott to The Lodge 17 months ago, startling parallels between the prime ministerial struggles of the two populist leaders have emerged. AAP/Alan Porritt

The unsuccessful Liberal leadership spill on Monday arose from two disjunctures: between the electorate and the political class, and the leadership and backbench. This former disjuncture has occurred since the downfall of John Howard in 2007 and the rise of the 24/7 media cycle. Underlying trust in politics and political leadership has not been sustained because of this disjuncture.

This disjuncture is related to a particular combination of electoral calculations, media messaging and policy formulation and administration. Both parties in recent years have chosen leaders because of their ability to poll well and win elections through a media style that “cuts through”. Both Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott could do this, though in different ways.

Rudd was personally popular and purposefully cultivated a media profile. Combined with effective policy positions (on climate change, for example), he was able to defeat Howard, Australia’s second-longest serving prime minister.

Similarly, Abbott combined an effective media message with popular policy positions, which appealed to the electorate. His simple messaging (his “four-point plan”, for instance) played to his strengths. His relentless adversarial style exploited the Labor government’s failures, increasing the electorate’s distrust in its administrative and political abilities.

Appeal lost in translation to government

A command-and-control style of government has led to Tony Abbott’s chief of staff, Peta Credlin, becoming a focus of resentment. AAP/Alan Porritt

Both Rudd and Abbott lost support for the same reason: the inability to translate effectiveness in the media while in opposition into effective government. This has led to poor polling and accusations of a dictatorial leadership style. The Coalition has not lived up to Abbott’s much-vaunted promise to be an “adult government” that could be trusted.

The Abbott government has not been adult for two main reasons. Firstly, Abbott’s simplistic and adversarial mantras in opposition have not worked in government. Governing is a more complex task, as he has found out, especially without a majority in the Senate.

An uncompromising, negative style in opposition does not work in government. One needs to be for something, and make convincing arguments. Abbott’s oppositional style has rebounded on him.

The complexity of government, particularly in negotiations with the Senate, requires more than simple media statements and strategies. The media cycle and polling have focused the minds of politicians in one way, while leaving them unprepared for the more complex tasks of governing.

Secondly, Abbott has not been as disciplined and consultative in government as he needs to be. In opposition, he showed remarkable discipline to the surprise of his opponents. He also expressed a willingness to consult in opposition and avoid the leadership mistakes of Rudd.

On both counts, Abbott seems to have failed. The question at this point, after he survived the vote on a leadership spill despite 39 Liberal MPs voting for one, is whether the failings are mortal.

In both cases (Rudd and Abbott), the party in government found the needs of opposition and government very divergent. This gulf makes the politics very different, too. The inability to fully transition, resulting in erratic governing and poor polling, is one of the underlying reasons being given for the move against Abbott, and was said to be one of the main reasons for the move against Rudd.

Failure to deliver policy loses voters

Regardless of whether this “transition argument” gives the full story, both Abbott and Rudd failed to implement key policies and bring the party and country with them as leaders in their first term. Following remarkable electoral victories, they both became electorally unpopular rather quickly and faced the serious prospect of not being re-elected.

Their failures – Rudd in relation to climate change and his leadership style, Abbott in relation to the budget and his style – have led to bad polling results. These results, combined with internal dissatisfaction, seem to be the major motivation for both Rudd’s removal and the Liberal backbenchers’ move against Abbott.

Without bad polling results, however, there would likely be no spill. A bad style can be tolerated when one is winning. Rudd’s re-installation as leader in 2013 shows that polling is key, despite the narrative of repentance for his style that was put forward after his re-installation.

The regularity of polling, combined with fast-moving and shifting media narratives, has introduced a new element of instability into modern politics. Nevertheless, polling is linked to a combination of factors, including a leader’s style and popularity, the electorate’s trust, and partisan political narratives, principles and policy.

Policy rifts deepen Liberal intrigue

Despite his public popularity, Malcolm Turnbull’s policy differences with Tony Abbott may help the latter’s defence, but not his government. AAP/Mick Tsikas

Both Abbott and Rudd relied on polling results for their leadership positions – though Abbott’s position was combined with policy disputes with his predecessor as Liberal leader, Malcolm Turnbull. Because the contest with Turnbull has policy dimensions, this gives Abbott another element to exploit in order to save his leadership, in contrast to Rudd. However, Turnbull could yet neutralise this if he promises to not pursue hot-button issues like climate change and gay marriage.

Whether Abbott can differentiate himself from Turnbull again, his major problem remains: the budget. He was elected with a vague mandate to fix the “budget emergency”. He created a crisis that he cannot now fix.

The Abbott government has dug a hole of its own making, in which Treasurer Joe Hockey is also stuck. Abbott misjudged the extent to which the electorate was willing to accept neoliberal policies to fix the budget, especially while the economy is still seemingly recovering from the global financial crisis and is moving into a post-mining-boom phase.

It is interesting to hear Liberal politicians now talking about shifting the budget strategy towards spending and stimulus. This is an acknowledgement of where the electorate is at and how it has shifted away from talk of an exaggerated crisis, especially while the government fails to act effectively and in a consultative fashion, just as the electorate shifted away from Rudd on climate change once he failed to act effectively.

One possible difference, however, between Rudd and Abbott in this regard is that Rudd had a specific mandate for a carbon trading scheme from the 2007 election, while Abbott had not prepared the electorate for budgetary pain with specific proposals at the 2013 election. He and Hockey then failed to convincingly explain and implement their budget measures in 2014. Nevertheless, concerns about the budget remain, but this needs to be balanced with a focus on economic management and jobs.

Liberals look uncomfortably like Labor

Abbott’s major strategy has been to differentiate his side of politics from the Rudd-Gillard years. In particular, he has distanced himself from the rolling door of leadership change. This is because the leadership changes overshadowed policy (and the pretence at the priority of policy) and showed the Labor Party’s dogged desire to win elections.

Unless the electorate is convinced that Abbott’s leadership is untenable and that Abbott is the real problem for the government, leadership spills risk showing that the Liberals are the same as Labor: that winning is what matters, not principles or policies. The argument that Monday’s spill is a warning for Abbott to change is a way to avoid this risk, but will voters be convinced?

Some scoff at the idea that politics concerns principle, but without it, politics is just about the brutal fight to win – which so repulsed the electorate during the Rudd-Gillard period, as I argued here. Sameness is fatal for any leader and government: one must be different to have the legitimacy to lead.

Ultimately, poll standings fall when one is in government without good policy, arguments and communication. And when this happens - when a leader is no better than his/her opposition in terms of polling and policy - the fear of sameness and loss leads to internal dissension and irrational conflict.

Thus, from the Coalition’s perspective, to change a first-term prime minister may be worse than sticking with Abbott because it looks like a mirror image of the Rudd-Gillard years. I would have thought this should be avoided, but the fear of opposition does strange things. However, Abbott’s efforts to differentiate his party have lost much of their substance due to this spill as well as the inability of Abbott to lead an “adult government”.

If this spill is just a warning to the prime minister, then he needs to seize the opportunity to fully transition to a consultative government. The question now is whether Abbott can put substance to his assertions: is his government better than Labor’s was? Does he have the policy and political skill to lead an “adult government”?


Other articles in The Conversation’s ongoing series, “New Politics”, can be read here.