Malcolm Turnbull has defeated Tony Abbott by 54 votes to 44 in a spill for the Liberal Party leadership and will become Australia’s 29th prime minister. Turnbull, a former opposition leader and the government’s communications minister, announced on Monday afternoon that he would challenge Abbott in a partyroom ballot.
Julie Bishop, who earlier switched her support to Turnbull, remains deputy leader after being re-elected with 70 votes to Kevin Andrews’ 30.
The Conversation’s experts react to the night’s events below.
The results of the leadership spill
Zareh Ghazarian, Lecturer, School of Social Sciences, Monash University
Malcolm Turnbull has been like the sword of Damocles hanging over Tony Abbott’s head ever since he was defeated by Abbott in the leadership ballot in 2009 by just one vote. Tonight the two Liberal Party heavyweights faced off again and Turnbull exacted revenge.
Following a vote of the Liberal partyroom, Abbott received 44 votes to Turnbull’s 54. Julie Bishop retained the deputy leadership with a comfortable 70 votes to challenger Kevin Andrews’ 30.
At the organisational level, the Liberal Party leader is crucial in setting the policy agenda. By turning to Turnbull, the party has moved away from the staunch social conservatism of Abbott and embraced a more socially progressive leader who has openly advocated for same-sex marriage, lobbied for Australia to become a republic and has been sympathetic to an emissions trading scheme.
With the change in party leadership, others are expected to follow Abbott. A big question mark remains over the future of embattled Treasurer Joe Hockey. More certain changes will occur in the Prime Minister’s Office, where chief of staff Peta Credlin is expected to be replaced by a successor of Turnbull’s choosing. Cabinet will also look different once Abbott supporters make way for Turnbull’s handpicked team.
A challenge for the Coalition government now will be to regroup and present a sense of solidarity. Coalition MPs will have to leave aside their divisions and somehow work as a team – something they have demonstrated only in glimpses since coming to government in 2013.
In leadership battles there is a sense of finality, a sense that a party has gone through immense pain to resolve a troubling question. But recent history in Australian politics suggests that while the Liberal Party (and the nation) has a new leader, the knives remain sharp and ready for use in future.
What does this say about the future of politics in Australia?
Natalie Mast, Associate Director, Research Data & Strategy, University of Western Australia
Following the election of the Abbott government, I told a few close friends that I didn’t expect Tony Abbott to serve a full term as prime minister. Many looked at me as though I was crazy, but a few agreed as I claimed that the media and political commentators were missing the real lesson from the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd era.
When Julia Gillard challenged Kevin Rudd for the leadership of the parliamentary Labor Party in 2010, many commentators argued that the removal of a first-term prime minister was a strategic error of the worst kind. They argued it would anger the electorate and was bound to lead to electoral misery.
In many ways, they were right.
The flip-side of that argument was that a precedent had been set: there is no longer an excuse to keep an underperforming prime minister, clearly out of their depth, in power.
In our modern political landscape, once the leadership genie is out of the bottle, it’s extremely difficult to get it back in. The focus of the media, with constant comments from cabinet ministers and backbenchers alike, keeps the story alive.
Tensions escalate until there’s a spill. Then, the matter appears settled and we continue on – with either a new leader or a leader operating under a pall. Despite reassurances from Abbott and cabinet ministers following February’s empty challenge, nobody thought the issue was resolved. Abbott was on probation and his inability to perform as an effective leader brought his demise.
The Fairfax-Ipsos poll suggesting a 10% two-party-preferred swing to Labor at this weekend’s Canning byelection – a Liberal seat within a conservative state – clearly led to an epiphany in the minds of many backbenchers and cabinet ministers alike, who realised a swing of that magnitude in next year’s election would see them out of a job.
Until this poll, it was assumed the Liberal partyroom would assess the results of the byelection and determine Abbott’s future. Clearly the numbers were severe enough that the idea of three weeks of speculation, prior to parliament resuming, was unpalatable.
Turnbull argued that the government has lost 30 Newspolls in a row. At some point, regardless of your view of polling, that sort of trend leads to the inevitable conclusion that the government was likely to be a one-termer. It’s a strong argument to make to backbenchers.
There is another lesson from the Rudd/Gillard era that the Liberals should learn from. A former prime minister should be removed from parliament as quickly as possible. The damage Rudd and his followers caused to Gillard after her ascension to power was so destabilising that it almost cost Labor the 2010 election.
A Turnbull government will have a reasonable period of time to re-establish cabinet, pass a few pieces of legislation with the support of minor parties and independents in the Senate, and begin to campaign for a second term for the government – assuming Abbott and his supporters accept their loss and work for the good of the party.
What challenges will Malcolm Turnbull now face?
Todd Winther, PhD Candidate in Political Science, Griffith University
With the election of Turnbull as its leader, the Liberal Party has not actually solved the most significant problem it faces. Instead, the same problem has merely taken on a different form. Where Abbott wasn’t popular for the middle ground – the traditional swinging voters that both major political parties strive for – Turnbull will instead have trouble solidifying the Liberal Party’s base.
Accordingly, expect to see Turnbull’s initial poll numbers inflate, as he will likely garner support as Liberal leader from people who are never going to vote for him anyway. The true test will be whether he can win votes from older Australians, conservatives, as well as voters previously described as “Howard’s battlers” that live in the outer suburbs of capital cities
Turnbull has the same challenge that has faced every major party leader this decade. The success of his leadership will be determined by his ability to keep his internal enemies at bay. Can he win over many of the same people who ousted him in 2009? This will be an enormous task. Expect more leadership instability to come from both the government and the opposition in the next year or two.
Why did Abbott fail in selling his economic message?
Flavio Menezes, Professor of Economics, University of Queensland
The Abbott government never had a solid economic narrative. The first budget failed badly to gain support as it was based on a narrative of the “end of the age of entitlement” that was very skewed. Having failed to sell this, the government did not offer an alternative view.
Instead it sent a number of mixed messages. For example, it eliminated millions of dollars in subsidies to the car industry with an argument that industrial policy should not involve subsidies, but then promised to spend billions building ships in Adelaide.
The lack of narrative and mixed messages impacted on business confidence. It created an environment where the expectation was that anything could happen; everything was a “captain’s pick”; and there were no policy processes.
However, there are no economic circumstances that make Australia ungovernable or reform impossible. Surely, the economy is softer and the international context is more challenging, but some of the mechanisms that are inbuilt – such as the floating exchange rate – are already working and will continue to work.
What we need is sound fiscal policy – developed based on a sound process – to support monetary policy in doing its thing to manage the economy. There are other more difficult and complex issues – industrial relations, state-federal relations and managing health costs – but they are not impossible to tackle.
The key message is that these issues are complex. They require complex answers, not three-word slogans, which seem to have been the Abbott government’s forte.
Malcolm Turnbull and the Liberal Party’s right
Dominic Kelly, PhD Candidate in Politics, LaTrobe University
As has been well documented, the main barrier to Malcolm Turnbull’s return to the leadership was the Liberal Party’s right wing. Turnbull’s socially liberal views have always been treated with suspicion by hardline conservatives, but by 2009 this became outright hostility, leading to the putsch that almost ended his political career.
Six years on this hostility has not subsided. Leading right-wing powerbrokers such as Eric Abetz, Kevin Andrews and Cory Bernardi simply cannot abide Turnbull, and will no doubt set about undermining him right away. There are also questions about whether Turnbull has sufficient support among the Liberal Party’s base, which is more conservative than many of its MPs.
Scott Morrison is key to Turnbull being able to achieve stable government until the next election, and perhaps beyond. Though Morrison declared his support for Tony Abbott prior to the ballot, he clearly did so only to avoid gaining a Bill Shorten-like reputation as a backstabber, and most probably had an agreement to become treasurer in a Turnbull government.
Morrison’s senior role will be vital in managing and placating the right, and keeping some of Turnbull’s progressive instincts in check.
If Turnbull does manage to stabilise the government, we may see some early retirements or even a defection. Cory Bernardi is close to Family First senator Bob Day, so don’t be surprised if he abandons what he might see as an insufficiently conservative party. However, the promise of a Morrison prime ministership in the not-too-distant future should be enough to prevent a disastrous split in conservative politics.
What does this mean for Labor going forward?
Narelle Miragliotta, Senior Lecturer in Australian Politics, Monash University
Turnbull’s victory does not bode well for Bill Shorten’s future prime ministerial aspirations. Turnbull possesses qualities and political instincts that his predecessor did not enjoy in abundance.
Turnbull is articulate and cautious. He is also popular among key segments of Labor’s base. Turnbull is not weighed down by any particular sentimentality or attachment to those Howard-era ministers that Abbott protected even when they where under-performing. Nor is Turnbull likely to incur a significant political penalty for his decision to challenge an incumbent prime minister.
While it is safe to assume the public do not necessarily rejoice a government going to war against itself, the reality is that frequent leadership change is the new political normal.
And whatever Abbott’s leadership failings may have been, he is also a true party-man. Abbott is unlikely to do what Kevin Rudd simply could not do when he was vanquished in the first leadership challenge, which is to stand aside so as to give the new leader the space that he needs to rebuild the party brand without being constantly undermined.