Editor’s Note: Monica Attard is a former journalist and Russia correspondent with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). She is an author and lawyer and has won multiple awards for her journalism.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott survives a vote of no confidence in his own party by 61-39
He has accumulated critics over a stalled budget among other things
Tony Abbott was elected as Prime Minister of Australia in September 2013
It was an unbecoming way for the Australian prime minister to begin the week. But when he emerged from a 30-minute meeting with his Liberal Party colleagues, called to discuss his possible removal as leader, Tony Abbott was still the Australian premier, if irretrievably damaged.
When last week a member of Abbott’s party signaled his intention to move a motion to debate the leadership of the ruling party, shocks waves rippled through the body politic.
Elected just 17 months ago promising “adult government” after three years of backbiting, infighting and two leadership coups in the previous Labor Party government, unity wasn’t expected to be a problem Abbott would face.
But disunity set in quickly after a series of bad decisions, policy flip flops, poor polling and as they say in Australia, a “zinger” – the knighting of Prince Philip, the Queen’s husband, on Australia’s national day.
Abbott won Monday’s ballot, with 61 out of 102 of his colleagues voting down the motion to remove him, while 39 voted to vacate his position, along with that of his deputy, the Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. The principle of cabinet solidarity meant the prime minister went in to the meeting with nearly 40 votes secured.
Despite a significant block of lawmakers opposing their leader, the Liberal Party’s whip, Phillip Ruddock, a former immigration minister, said there was no debate and that “the result is clear.”
The meeting originally scheduled for Tuesday was brought forward a day, to prevent the prime minister’s detractors caucusing in Canberra ahead of the first week of parliament this year. The move was a “captain’s call” quipped his nemesis, the immensely popular Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull who was being urged to show his hand and pledge to stand for the top job in the event the motion to vacate the position was successful.
In the end, Turnbull skated close to declaring his candidacy but stopped short. He would now have been obliged to resign from the Cabinet had he done so.
He may well have won the vote, but the fact 39 out of 102 members of the party have declared a lack of confidence in their prime minister leaves Abbott very exposed. In recent Australian political history, no leader who has faced such a challenge, itself a vote of no confidence, has gone on to survive the wrath of colleagues.
All have eventually been overthrown. But for now Abbott has at least spared himself the indignity of becoming the shortest serving first term prime minister ousted by his own party.
READ: Abbott faces leadership challenge
While lawmakers remain angry by his failure to sell the government’s first budget, which has stalled in the country’s upper house, Abbott has been accused of not consulting his colleagues on big decisions, among them a botched paid maternity leave scheme, widely seen as favoring the wealthy, and the bizarre knighting of Prince Philip.
He seemed to consolidate this view of him as a non-collegiate player by calling Monday’s vote a day earlier than anticipated and without apparent consultation, even with his deputy whose job would also have been vacated had the no-confidence vote succeeded.
Australians have looked on at the shenanigans in their capital with a mixture of delight and dismay. Those who dislike the government were divided by a desire to see the end of Abbott’s government and the fear that replacing him with Turnbull would spell disaster for the Australian Labor Party’s chances at the next election. Others raised concerns about tossing out leaders when unpopular decisions are taken.
News Corp political commentator Paul Kelly noted that the apparently new political culture of tossing out leaders who make unpopular decisions was damaging the ability of government to govern.
“The politicians will try to deny it – but our system is moving inexorably into a ‘death of reform’ straitjacket,” he wrote.
The 2016 election is likely to be dominated by political advice to Liberal and Labor not to provoke the voters. This will put Australia on a long-run trajectory of decline and growing unhappiness.
There is broad agreement that frequent leadership changes are not good for Australia. But that is no guarantee that Abbott can and will survive to battle the next election. Indeed, Monday’s vote suggests strongly he won’t.
READ: Beleaguered Abbott looks to separate friends from foes