The turmoil in Australian politics is showing no sign of letting up.
Within a decade, it has had six prime ministers and two changes of government, compared with New Zealand’s single switch of government, accomplished with the economy of only three prime ministers. John Key’s eight years in office saw him dealing with five changes of Australian prime minister. One, Kevin Rudd, was dumped and later restored by the Labor Party only to lose an election 10 weeks later to Tony Abbott.
Abbott, of course, lasted 24 months until his brawler’s belligerence and go-it-alone rule saw the exasperated Liberals oust him in favour of the artfully smart Malcolm Turnbull 21 months ago.
Enduring a rival’s conquest and the agony of his – or her – ascendancy makes for a seething rage when an elected leader is wrenched prematurely from office by comrades. It’s a public crushing.
Abbott and Rudd think themselves the casualties of monstrous betrayal at the hands of their colleagues. There was slight consolation for Rudd: the woman who replaced him as prime minister and grew into the job, Julia Gillard, appointed him foreign minister, but this hardly assuaged him. He relentlessly undermined Gillard, finally ousting her after three years – only to lose the general election to Abbott Liberal’s.
Turnbull offered no Cabinet olive branch to Abbott; he has refused to lift him from the Government’s back benches, surely aware that he would use higher office to sabotage his replacement – as Rudd did to Gillard.
If anybody doubts that Abbott, 59, still harbours thoughts that he can return as prime minister, recent events show his rage and ambition to be undiminished.
Abbott took his campaign against Turnbull into a very public realm at June’s end by embarking on a series of jolting speeches and interviews designed to undermine Turnbull. Abbott now proposes cutting immigration – despite running an expansionary migration programme while in office. He demands a halt to new Government spending – save for defence – despite an inability to rein in spending when he was prime minister. And suddenly, he says the new submarines Australia is buying should be nuclear- rather than diesel-powered. Yet when Abbott was in office he pushed for diesel subs.
He now describes as “aspirational” greenhouse gas reduction targets he once said were firm commitments and says Australia should freeze its renewable energy targets and build a big coal-fired power station.
Most of all – as the self-proclaimed standard-bearer for conservatives – Abbott obstructs the legalisation of same-sex marriage, despite its overwhelming support, Turnbull’s included. It is, he declared at the end of June, the line in the sand for conservatives.
It appears Abbott’s tactic is to fire the governing Liberal Party’s conservative wing into rising against Turnbull ahead of the next general election in two years’ time. And if that fails, he can be reasonably certain that the disunity he stokes will see everyman Labor leader Bill Shorten comfortably elected at the next poll.
Earlier this month, Turnbull, 62, said he would leave politics if he were no longer prime minister. He cited Key’s decision to leave Parliament upon vacating the prime minister’s office as the exemplar. His words – in the context of Abbott’s fresh assaults – were an invitation to Abbott to follow Key.
But Abbott is no Key. Australians are left to become more frustrated as their decade of political and policy paralysis continues.
New Zealander Bernard Lagan is the Australian correspondent for the Times, London.
This article was first published in the July 15, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.