February saw the Abbott government almost breaking one of its biggest election promises; that there would be no leadership spills while in government.
The secret ballot vote to determine whether the federal Liberal party would have a leadership spill failed with 61 votes against the spill, 39 votes for the spill and one informal vote ultimately resulting in Tony Abbott maintaining both his position as leader of the party and role as prime minister. While Tony Abbott declared that ‘this matter is behind us.’ Commentators, including liberal party supporters, are still concerned about the future Abbott’s leadership of the government, claiming that his leadership is terminal.
Recent issues such as the knighthood of Prince Philip, the substantial swing against the Liberal party in the January Queensland election, as well as the controversial aspects of the 2014-15 federal budget, have been cited by commentators as the key destabilisers of the Abbott government. In his article, published by Fairfax Media after the announcement of the spill vote, political commentator Waleed Aly argues that the ‘Coalition needs a heart transplant, not a facelift.’
Aly believes that the Abbott government’s fundamental issues reside in poor policy decisions. Those such as Dennis Jensen, Mal Brough and Andrew Laming ‘[mount] their attacks on clear policy bases’ he claims, and further notes that ‘they’re siding against unpopular policy and specifying the very problems they’d expect a new leader to fix.’
However, Monash Politics lecturer Dr. Zareh Ghazarian said the ‘backbench driven dissent within the federal Liberal party that led the motion to vote on a spill was spurred by leadership style, rather than the policies the Prime minister has introduced.’
The Monash University ALP Club President Ben Knight said that ‘the motion put to spill leadership positions within the Liberal party is a sign that not even Abbott’s own party can trust him, or even want him as leader of the party. If Liberal MPs cannot trust a leader – why should voters?’
Mr Knight also stated that the result of the spill ‘shows that Abbott is not only failing to communicate with the Australian public, but has lost confidence in his own backbench.’
The Monash University Liberal Club Secretary, Carolyn Dunn, said the vote’s ‘decisive result has shown that the Coalition Government will not go down Labor’s path of chaos and dysfunction.’
In light of the amount of dissatisfaction within the Liberal party backbench, it is unclear whether this is so. It continues to remain unclear as to whether Tony Abbott’s leadership is safe. If it is not, it is difficult to see how -or if – he can stabilise it. After the vote, Tony Abbott admitted that his government has made unpopular policies, and declared that ‘good government begins today.’
Dr. Ghazarian argues the vote on the leadership spill ‘may change the way Tony Abbott conducts himself in regards to how he works with his backbench’ implying that greater communication within the Liberal party may have the potential dissolve future dissent within the party room. If this dissent is dissolved, Dr Ghazarian believes that there ‘may be enough time for Tony Abbott to change his leadership style and stabilise this government’ for the 2016 Federal election.
However, if this was to occur it would be an uphill battle for the prime minister, who is continuing to perform poorly in the polls.
Mr Knight said ‘Voters know a dud government when they see one’ implying that the Abbott’s leadership may not be salvageable in the 2016 election. Knight believes that the Coalition’s policies have had a detrimental impact upon society claiming that the proposed changes to higher education, the introduction of a GP tax, and tax petrol as ‘isolate the most vulnerable in society, by entrenching conservative policies that decrease the quality of life for most Australians.’ He believes these policies show how ‘Abbott and his government are out of touch with what youth and students want’ as they create ‘a divide between students who can and can’t afford an education.’
Carolyn Dunn stated that after the spill ‘Tony Abbott and his team are getting on with good government and doing what they said they would do – delivering a strong and prosperous economy and a safe and secure Australia.’ In contrast to Knight, she claims that ‘reform to higher education…will have enormous benefits for students, universities and the nation.’ She highlights that ‘the [Liberal] Club is confident that voters will recognise that only the Abbott Government has a credible program of reform when it comes to the 2016 election.’
Previous Australian Prime Ministers, such as Bob Hawke, who have won leadership battles within their respective parties, rarely hold onto leadership into the next term. Furthermore, leadership speculation proved politically fatal for former Prime Ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd, similarly leading to dissent and anger from Labor supporters. While the result of so called #libspill may be seen as a victory for Tony Abbott, the internal or external dissent against his leadership could boil again.