That was sudden.
In case anyone didn’t notice, Tony Abbott has been dethroned as PM, and not a moment too soon. I wouldn’t blame you for not noticing until it was all over; it was a scant (if exciting) few hours between Malcolm Turnbull’s announcement he would challenge for the leadership and the party room vote last night.
That it was over so quickly doesn’t come as a surprise to me. Abbott brought forward the previous spill motion in February in part so as to avoid giving his opponents time to organise and campaign against him. In situations of uncertainty, the devil you know always enjoys extra support. I’d be pretty confident that he was trying to do the same thing this time. And it almost worked — the margin by which he survived last time was over 20%, and this time he lost by half that margin.
But much as I spent a fair portion of the evening cackling over the whole mess — and there was plenty to cackle over, from the fact that the Liberals had finally managed to get Q&A off the air (so the ABC could cover the spill), to memes of Julia Gillard eating popcorn, and the poetic justice of Abbott’s comments about a house divided coming back to bite him — I do not believe that the result of last night’s debacle is necessarily a good one.
Malcolm Turnbull is not a small-l liberal. At least, if he were, and if being one actually meant anything to him, he would have left the LNP long ago. He has already confirmed that the government’s policies on climate change and marriage equality will not change under his leadership, and we can bank on the horrific treatment of asylum seekers continuing under his government (as, for that matter, we could under Bill Shorten’s milquetoast ALP). His cabinet will be made up of most of the exact same individuals as Abbott’s was, most of whom are incompetent wankers in their own right, even if the really evil ones like Peter Dutton, Joe Hockey and Scott Morrison happen to get left by the wayside. (And if they do, it won’t be because they’re evil, it will be because they supported Abbott last night; and it’s far from a certainty that they will be cast aside at all.) The most substantial difference between Turnbull and Abbott is that Turnbull has better PR. And that’s the worrying factor.
With Abbott in charge, almost no matter what happened over the next year, the LNP had a snowflake’s chance in hell of getting re-elected. And they knew it, of course, which is why they’ve now replaced him.
Part of Turnbull’s appeal to the swinging voters is down to differences in his stated beliefs, of course. But the fact that he’s a republican doesn’t mean we’ll get another referendum on that issue. The fact that he personally supports marriage equality doesn’t mean we’ll see a conscience vote on the issue — he wants a plebiscite, same as Abbott did, which could be incredibly harmful, and as far as I’m concerned is an abdication of the government’s responsibility. But these things do make him more electable. It’s sad to think that things of no material consequence can have effects on a candidate’s electability, but they do.
And that’s a real danger. I would have gladly suffered another year with the Mad Monk in charge if it meant the LNP got thoroughly routed at the next election. I don’t think it’s likely on balance that Turnbull will be able to turn them around in the polls, but Bill Shorten is so unlikeable, and the ALP so widely (and not unfairly) perceived as standing for very little of substance, that it’s certainly possible. At least this means the ALP will have to be less complacent.
So please, don’t think that the change in leadership means anything else will automatically happen. Turnbull is still an LNP prime minister, and if he wants to keep his job, regardless of his personal views, he will have to govern as such. I might be wrong; Turnbull might genuinely want to turn the LNP around, and he might even be able to do so without tearing it apart and alienating its base of bigots and paranoids. But we can’t expect that. It would be a most pleasant surprise, but it would be a hell of a surprise. Remember, 45% of the parliamentary party supported Abbott to the end.
Despite the pig’s breakfast the major parties have made of things lately, though, I’m very thankful for the system we have. Preference deals aside, the Australian electoral system is much fairer than that used in the UK, and light-years ahead of the incredibly corrupt American way of doing things. Preferential voting means you don’t have to hold your nose and vote for the less evil major for fear of splitting the vote and handing it to the other guy. We’ll hopefully never again see either major party with a Senate majority. The Greens have started winning lower house seats and might even become a full second opposition before long. And if Abbott really is as selfish and aggro as he appears to be, and if he can persuade even some of his rusted-on supporters to stay, he may well be able to tear the LNP apart from the inside, or splinter off a sizeable batshit faction, as revenge for last night. Indeed, they’re already acknowledging the possibility and trying to head it off, spinning Turnbull’s 55% majority as “overwhelming” and “clear consensus”.
Well, I can hope. This Saturday’s by-election just got even more interesting.
The tide is turning, for both sides. Austerity, neoclassical economics and cuts to things like education and health are all deeply unpopular, no matter who’s doing them. On the left, Bernie Sanders is climbing in the American polls, and Jeremy Corbyn just came from nowhere to win the British Labour leadership with a huge swell of public support — avowed socialists both of them. How much longer will the mainstream Australian left stand for a conservative inside man like Bill Shorten representing them, especially when the LNP has a republican, pro-marriage equality, centrist in charge itself?
So long, Lizard King. As First Dog said, don’t let the door hit you in the arse.