National Security & Defense

Can Australia’s Conservative Leader Survive a Poltical Near-Death Experience?

(Stefan Postles/Getty)
After making it through a leadership-spill vote, Tony Abbott has to deal with a sluggish economy.

A “near-death experience” is how Australia’s prime minister, Tony Abbott, described his survival as national and party leader with two-to-one support in a “leadership spill” vote of (conservative) Liberal MPs earlier this week. Like other survivors of near-death experiences, he promised after the vote to be a different kind of person, or leader: more listening, more collegial; less primus, more inter pares.

Given that one third of his notional parliamentary supporters voted against him, he had little choice in the matter. But will he survive as prime minister until the next election in September 2016? Or face another leadership spill soon? And how come that he almost perished only 17 months after leading his Liberal-National coalition to a landslide electoral victory?

Some critics at home and abroad are confident they know the answer. Writing in the London Times, Matthew Parris, its genially liberal Tory columnist, writes:

Muscled, tanned, sharp-shooting, God-fearing, straight-talking, climate-change-mocking and tough on immigration, he’s the right’s dream: the kind of guy that Tory toddlers could paint by numbers, a politician that No Turning Back focus-groupers could have stitched together with canvass returns, polling data and steel wire.

Well, here’s news for them. There’s no need to dream. This populist paragon lives and breathes and was elected to lead in 2013. And this weekend, after only 17 months, he’s tanking. Australia’s most punchy right-wing prime minister since the Ashes team sailed out by ocean liner is, as we speak, on the ropes.

So for any Tory contemplating gambling on a sharp shift to the right to win elections, there’s no need to read the crystal ball: soon we shall surely have the book, the biography of Tony Abbott.

His way was not, after all, Australia’s way.

Wow. That surely settles Tony’s hash! Not much left to say.

A pedant could no doubt object that Abbott did in fact win elections. In the 2010 election, generally expected to be a clear Labour victory in line with the Aussie tradition that governments almost always win second terms, Abbott held his opponents to a dead heat. (Labour kept a shaky rein on power with the votes of independent MPs.) In the 2013 election, he won 54 percent of the national vote and a parliamentary majority of 35. He did so, moreover, by campaigning on largely conservative themes.

So there’s no need to read the crystal ball. We know a shift to the right can win elections because in Australia it just did.

But let’s cut Matthew some slack and assume that he means a conservative can’t continue to win elections once voters are exposed to the horrible reality of right-wing policies.

Does he have a stronger case that way?

Let’s look first at Abbott himself. Matthew generously concedes that Abbott is not quite the right-wing demon king — “muscled, tanned, sharp-shooting, straight-talking, etc., etc.” — that his early build-up promised. He’s not “shallow,” apparently, and “his long-standing concern for the Aboriginal people is unlikely to be born of political calculation.”

Well, that’s nice to know. Still, these concessions from Matthew understate Abbott’s departures from conservative orthodoxy more than somewhat. Two are especially important.

In government he backed away from a promise to repeal “Section 18C” of the race-relations act that, as interpreted in a controversial court ruling, had greatly expanded the concept of giving offense and so greatly increased restrictions on free speech. That retreat offended his libertarian supporters and was seen as a betrayal by his media allies. It goes some way to explaining the latter’s tetchy and irritated columns about him in the early stages of the leadership-spill debate.

#page#More significant, however, is Abbott’s large socio-economic “signature” reform: a very expensive scheme of six months’ paid parental leave for women. That proposal bore the mark of Abbott’s early political experience. He entered the Liberal party through the side door of the Catholic social-justice wing of Australian conservatism. His book, Battlelines, argues strongly that state assistance should reward service to society at least as much as meet need, in particular the service of parents in bringing up the next generation. Family assistance, seen in this light, is a form of workfare.

Whatever the merits of the argument, it’s hardly a conventional right-wing one. And because parental leave was to be financed by a tax on business, it was highly unpopular with both the corporate and free-market wings of the Liberal party. A buoyant economy might have saved it, but (see below) that rescue wasn’t available. Following the leadership spill, the scheme has been declared unsustainable and abandoned.

Surely, however, Abbott stuck with some of his right-wing populist nostrums. Wouldn’t that explain his fall from popularity? Well, yes, and on the other hand, no. He did stick with some conservative promises — two in particular — but they proved very popular rather than the reverse.

The first such promise was to “Stop the Boats” of illegal immigrants streaming to Australia from countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan via Indonesia. Both major parties declared that they wanted to do this, but Labour maintained that it simply wasn’t possible. “No, We Can’t” was their mantra. And admittedly their attempts to do so all failed and helped to elect Abbott.

Abbott has since proved them wrong by stopping the boats. No serious politician now proposes to reverse that policy. Its very success, however, has taken one of the Liberal party’s best issues off the table. And since gratitude in politics is a lively expectation of future favors, this achievement will no longer be a strong reason for voting Liberal — unless Labour were to self-damage by promising to reverse it. But stopping the boats is not driving away support either.

The second conservative promise that Abbott has redeemed is the repeal of Labour’s carbon tax. That may horrify the worldwide Green Blob, but it’s popular with Australian voters to the point where it works as a “wedge issue” in favor of Abbott’s Liberals. Labour committed itself so firmly to the unpopular tax that it now faces a choice between alienating voters by keeping it or embarrassing itself by ditching it. Indeed, one of the internal Liberal arguments against switching from Abbott to his rival Malcolm Turnbull this past week was the latter’s long identification with carbon taxation. Making Turnbull leader would have thrown away one strong Liberal advantage.

So if Abbott isn’t the consistently right-wing demon king of Matthew’s nightmares, and if his occasional conservative policies are apparently popular, what has caused his unpopularity?

The answer seems to be, as so often, the economy. Australia’s economy has done very well in recent years as the result of its booming raw-material exports. Aussies have been digging stuff out of the ground and sending it to feed China’s voracious industrial appetites for three decades. The government took its generous cut in the form of tax revenue. Almost alone among advanced countries (Poland was the other example), Australia avoided the post-2008 recession. In short, Australians in and out of government got used to the idea that the good times would roll on forever.

Suddenly, however, the good times have slowed down. Abbott arrived in office at the point when the terms of trade began to move against Australia. Raw-material prices have fallen, and this had a knock-on effect on the economy. Real GDP grew by 3.2 percent last year, but it’s expected to be nearer 2.5 percent going forward. Unemployment, which was 4 percent in the Howard boom years, has just risen to 6.4 percent, the highest level since 2002.

These figures would be cause for wild rejoicing in Spain or Portugal, but they have created unease Down Under. This unease has even spread to the central bank, which had been expected to raise interest rates to counter the fall in the Australian dollar until last week. The fact that it cut them to a record low of 2.25 percent suggests that, at least in the bank’s view, the dollar’s decline has not yet had the hoped-for stimulative effect on exports. In short, Australia’s economy is showing marked signs of sluggishness.

#page#Unfortunately — and any Brits reading this will think of the Gordon Brown years — the Labour government had created spending programs that relied blithely on the boom years’ continuing. Labour had inherited a budget surplus of more than $20 billion from John Howard’s administration. It left a debt of $147 billion to the incoming Abbott government. The money for a fiscal stimulus simply wasn’t there; it was soaked up by Labour’s spending programs. Indeed, as the economy slowed down, the debt rose inexorably to $226 billion.

Abbott made the decision, in the phrase coined by Tim Montgomerie of the London Times, “to fix the roof when the sun was still shining,” i.e., before the fiscal train ran into the buffers. But that meant taking tough economic decisions before the voters had woken up to the seriousness of the economic future and the need for budgetary reform. A tough budget was therefore introduced, but unless fiscal responsibility is itself a monopoly of the Right, that was not in itself open to criticism as a right-populist move. Macro-economically the overall budgetary reduction was not especially controversial, especially on the right.

What was open to criticism from both Right and Left was the distribution of the cuts. Some of these were unduly harsh on poorer constituencies, seemingly by accident. Some hit the natural supporters of the Liberal-National Coalition quite hard, in particular the elderly. Some budgetary changes contradicted others — thus the paid parental leave was partly financed by cuts in family tax credits. None were properly explained to an electorate that had hardly woken up to the crisis by budget day. And some were blocked by a senate without a governing majority so that the Abbott government got the blame for the announced cuts without receiving any of the cost reductions that should have followed.

All in all, the budget was not far short of a political disaster prompted by high motives of prudence. But it was signed off on by the entire cabinet, including Malcolm Turnbull and other critics, and it was not traceable to Abbott personally except insofar as the paid-parental-leave scheme distorted budget priorities. Even so, the political reality was that it poisoned the government’s reputation in the country to the point where otherwise minor errors had the potential to be seriously damaging.

Abbott’s decision to award a knighthood to Prince Philip falls into this category. Lucky the country where awarding a knighthood to the queen’s consort becomes a massive controversy. Not much else can surely be wrong. It soon became a proof, however, that Abbott was in the grip of a romantic nostalgia for royalty and thus out of touch with a modern Australia that is approximately 60 percent republican (except when William and Kate are around).

My guess is that Abbott (who met Philip last year on a trip to Britain) had a much more human motive. At 93 the duke can hardly stick around for much longer, Abbott probably thought. Well, he’s always been a good friend to Oz — sent his son to be schooled here, established the award scheme for young people that bears his name, and made frequent visits to the Outback. Let’s give the old boy a decent Australian send-off.

Unfortunately for Abbott, that’s not the kind of reasoning he can make in public. So when the knighthood was announced, Abbott did little more than take responsibility for the decision, not really defending it, and a curious mood of hysteria fueled by a hostile press took over the political class, leading to vitriolic attacks on Abbott, to the “spill,” and to the prime minister’s near-death experience.

After which the atmosphere changed completely, as after a fever breaks and the patient becomes calm. Though prior to the vote it was commonly argued that if Abbott suffered the loss of 40 or more votes, he would survive only briefly, the feeling after the vote was that he might well now lead the coalition into the next election. Indeed, the MPs most openly pushing for a spill vote — most of them, incidentally, closer politically to Abbott than to Turnbull — said afterwards that they were satisfied one had been held and that the party should now unite under the prime minister. That same afternoon in the House of Representatives, Christopher Pyne, the education secretary, effectively mocked the Labour leader for having prepared a speech plainly rooted in the false assumption that Malcolm Turnbull would be the Liberal prime minister by lunchtime. The Liberal benches loyally cheered this. Unity had, however temporarily, been restored.

Abbott himself is thought to have shown both dignity and determination in fighting the rebellion — and even a little ruthlessness. (He overrode opposition to bring forward the vote to Monday morning in order to prevent any momentum building behind a Turnbull candidacy.) That was necessary because Turnbull is a gifted parliamentarian and a serious threat. But Turnbull himself never declared his candidacy, relying on backbenchers to deliver a second vote in which he would have stood as the favorite. It was the Australian equivalent of a Rose Garden strategy, but he wasn’t the man in possession of the Rose Garden. He didn’t take the necessary risk, and he didn’t win.

Of course, the rules of Australian politics allow him to mount another challenge at any time. In reality, a challenger can mount only so many challenges; every time he does so, he uses up a little more political capital and a little more party sympathy. And Turnbull faces three obstacles to success in another bid between now and September 2016.

The first is that the nearer the election, the less understanding there will be in the Liberal ranks for whoever starts another round of brutal infighting. They will reason, rightly enough, that such fratricide weakens them in the more important fight with the Labour opposition. Secondly, contra Matthew Parris, Turnbull is actually a more divisive figure than Abbott within the Liberal party. Liberals prefer Abbott to Turnbull as leader by 43 to 27 percent because they recognize him as one of them. And, third, Turnbull at this point has no alternative to Abbott’s policy on the overriding question of how to deal with the growing economic crisis. Abbott’s main mistake on economics may have been to tackle that crisis prematurely. He may have also have blundered at the margin in selecting the wrong specific cuts. But any new party leader will have to pursue much the same economic approach as Abbott. How could Turnbull justify dividing his party and weakening its appeal in order to pursue a policy of “More of the Same”? Not easily.

All these considerations will be blown away like thistledown, however, if Abbott does not raise his game. His approval rating is in the mid-30s; the coalition trails Labour by 45 to 55 percent. These figures are not healthy, but they can be turned around in the 19 months he may have until the next election.

He needs to explain his policies more often and better, to make people understand and respect (if not necessarily like) him, and above all to show some signs of reversing the slowdown of the economy. Last weekend the pundits were declaring these aims impossible. Since then Abbott has shown, following Nietzsche, that what did not kill him has made him stronger.

— John O’Sullivan is an editor-at-large at National Review.

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