Analysis by Fiona GESKES
Following the most recent ‘coup’ on 15th September, Australia can now boast a record five prime ministers in 8 years – quite the achievement for a stable democracy. However, Malcolm Turnbull’s election may be seen as inevitable by many, given Tony Abbott’s falling poll numbers, questionable political decisions and priorities, and a Chief of Staff who seemed to alienate everyone in the Liberal Party. Yet despite these factors, few expected the speed of the coup, especially given that the Liberal Party had previously never shied away from criticising the Labor Party during its turbulent time in power. To understand the reasoning behind this swift change and the flagging poll numbers of Tony Abbott, it is key to look beyond personal motives and ramifications and instead examine policy issues.
Abbott certainly did not help himself with the bizarre calls to bestow Prince Philip with a knighthood or letting his Chief of Staff, Peta Credlin, increasingly run the show (she was said to be present at every cabinet meeting). However, to fully understand why Abbott was so unpopular towards the end, we must consider his positions on the key issues facing Australia today.
First, despite climate change remaining a crucial issue throughout his tenure, Abbott has failed to present a clear and powerful break from his previous statements on the topic – his rollback of climate change policy. In 2009 he described the science of the human impact on climate change as ‘crap’. As the 13th largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world and one of the countries most likely to suffer the consequences of climate change, it is inconceivable that a climate change sceptic could lead Australia. Malcolm Turnbull’s election marks a seismic shift with his infamous declaration that Abbot’s climate change policy was ‘bullshit’. While it will be difficult for Mr Turnbull to effect a U-turn on these policies, it does put the country in a better position, especially regarding the upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris this December.
Climate change was not the only policy area where Abbott seemed to resemble a backward US Grand Old Party candidate though. Abbott also seemed increasingly at odds with the electorate on the issue of same-sex marriage. For years, polls have demonstrated that a high percentage of Australians support same-sex marriage, and 76% of coalition voters were in favour of Abbott allowing a conscience vote. A conservative Christian in opposition to the issue, Abbott was looking increasingly out of touch even within his own party. As late as August, the coalition held talks to discuss the divisions within the government and the Liberal Party. Turnbull, on the other hand, seems to be far more liberal on this issue. While Turnbull may hail from the liberal wing of the party, he will face opposition from the more conservative sections, so it is hard to argue that policy on these key issues will change quickly.
Most importantly, the issue that would have undoubtedly been the hardest to overcome in an election was the economy. Abbott, who came into power by declaring that Australia was ‘open for business’, has had to stand by as Australia’s unemployment rate jumped to a 13 year high. Overall, Abbott’s stance on all of the issues mentioned here – in addition to many other issues – meant that dissatisfaction with him had not fallen below 60% since mid-June. It therefore seems the ex-Prime Minister’s demise was inevitable, not least because the gulf between his opinions and the general public opinion on key issues seemed impossible to ignore.