Shakespeare, or politics down under? When faced with a story of back-stabbings, betrayals, and backroom brawls, it’s sometimes hard to tell. After his own deputy, Julia Gillard, toppled Labor Party Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2010, Tom Switzer wrote here at The American Interest that Australian politics had taken a page (or a few acts) from Macbeth. Where once a Prime Minister could keep his throne for as long as a decade or more, now party leaders sit uneasy. Most recently, Liberal Party Prime Minister Tony Abbott fell to his long-time rival within the party, Malcolm Turnbull.
This latest rebel has revived the Liberal Party’s popularity: The government leapt ahead of the opposition Australian Labor Party in the opinion polls after lagging behind for the previous 15 months. Moreover, Turnbull styles himself more like the virtuous Macduff than Macbeth, promising to restore stability to the system and put an end to the disruptive coups. Act I of his premiership has begun.
Though only Prime Minister for two years, the charismatic but controversial Abbott had lost favor with an electorate that often found his position on social issues out of step. Combative to the core, he had failed to guide crucial legislation through a Senate controlled by the Labor Party and their allies, especially the Greens. Many factions of the Left developed a deep-seated hatred of Abbott, some going so far as to attack him for being Catholic. Abbott’s party concluded that it had no prospect of political recovery under his leadership—to the contrary, it faced the strong possibility of an electoral demolition. As Turnbull said in the lead-up to the party-room vote: “It is clear that people have made up their minds about Tony Abbott’s leadership.”
Turnbull has taken pains to appear more moderate than Abbott, a better communicator than his belligerent predecessor. Though from a humble background, he is a self-made millionaire, having made a fortune as an investment banker and high-profile lawyer before entering Parliament. Throughout Abbott’s tenure as Prime Minister, polls often rated Communications Minister Turnbull more highly than his boss. While Abbott floundered after frequent gaffes, Turnbull looked like the smooth operator the Liberals needed.
Abbott was never able to make the transition from party chieftain to national leader. That he was out-rated by Labor Party leader Bill Shorten, widely seen as colorless and overly close to militant unions, was a damning indictment. In his second chance as party leader and first as Prime Minister, can Turnbull do any better?
Turnbull has led the Liberals before, when the party was in opposition during the tenure of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. (Tony Abbott later defeated Turnbull in a party-room challenge.) At the time, Turnbull had a reputation for autocracy and interventionism, and made several serious misjudgments during his reign. He had disastrously low poll ratings when Abbott overthrew him, leading many to judge him unable to recover.
On top of his previous lackluster performance, Turnbull has often associated himself with causes not in keeping with mainstream opinion within his party. He came to prominence as the leader of the push to make Australia a constitutional republic, severing the last symbolic links with the British crown. Most of the Liberal Party supports the status quo, however. Voters defeated a referendum on the issue in a landslide in 1999, but Turnbull—and many in the Labor Party—have continued to support it. When asked about it after becoming Prime Minister, Turnbull responded that he still supported the change but now considered it a low-level issue.
Turnbull also supports the legalization of same-sex marriage, which many in the Liberal Party oppose. Next year’s party plebiscite on the issue will probably coincide with the general election, and could well turn into a showdown. Some charge that Abbott accepted the idea of the plebiscite reluctantly in order to neutralize the issue; Turnbull, however, might use it to push openly for liberalization. Though a few years older than Abbott, he portrays himself as more attuned to social media, changing patterns of work, and evolving social mores. He sometimes points out that he made part of his fortune by investing in Net-based companies and, as Communications Minister, rolled out the National Broadband Network. Not a natural leader for a party more conservative than he is, Turnbull hopes to shore up his position with the approval of young voters.
Meanwhile, the conservative wing of the Liberal Party has largely adopted a “wait and see” attitude regarding the new Prime Minister. Hundreds of conservative rank-and-file members have reportedly resigned from the party in protest, but that’s about the extent of the damage. While some conservative commentators have come out publicly against him, most have taken the view that Abbott’s time in office was an experiment that failed. The elevation of Turnbull has, at least, given the Liberals a good chance at retaining office. The question is whether the positive poll numbers merely reflect the “honeymoon” usually given to new leaders or represent a structural shift.
Turnbull has promised grander changes than a reversal of fortune for his party—including an end to the mayhem. Many people in the broad electorate want to see stability return to the leadership selection process. Tired of the frequent coups, they miss the sleepiness of the process that kept Liberal Party Prime Minister John Howard in office so long, from 1996 to 2007. In addition, Turnbull has called for a general lowering of the temperature in political life. Under Abbott—and also under Rudd and Gillard—the focus had increasingly shifted to personal attacks rather than policy debate. Turnbull noted that the mainstream media have often allowed themselves to be led by rumors and anonymous opinions on social media. The tendency to describe any government re-consideration of a position as a backdown or a betrayal makes policy development difficult. Many Australians would probably agree: the past few years have seen the emergence of a spectrum of groups whose sole purpose, apparently, is to attack anything the government does or even proposes.
Abbott’s confrontational approach tended to exacerbate this pattern, and Turnbull appears determined to blunt the edge of attack politics. The danger of this approach is that painful reforms will not be implemented, and that debate will continue endlessly without resolution. This will be the key test of Turnbull’s political and negotiating skills.
Another test will be whether he can bring a steady hand to Australia’s politics while the world grows less stable around it. Crucially, he has kept Abbott’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Julie Bishop, in her portfolio. This means that, on critical issues such as Australia’s military contribution in the fight against the Islamic State, policy probably will not change. On the politically sensitive issue of control of Australia’s maritime borders, the Turnbull government will also follow Abbott’s lead, and continue turning back or interning illegal immigrants. Significantly, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, who favors a hard line, kept his portfolio. However, Turnbull re-affirmed Abbott’s move to accept thousands of Syrian refugees in addition to the already high humanitarian intake. Most analysts also expect him to support Bishop in her attempt to repair relations with Indonesia, which deteriorated badly earlier this year after the execution of two Australian drug traffickers.
China’s recent slowdown has sent worrying ripples through the Australian economy, which Turnbull used as a lever in his campaign for productivity reforms to overcome the country’s sluggish growth. The Trade Minister, Andrew Robb, has remained in his portfolio, and will continue to push for the implementation of a free trade agreement with China, which the Labor Party leader and some militant unions oppose. The agreement, if passed into legislation, will open the Chinese market for Australian services, including education, breaking the dependence on iron ore, coal, and other resources. Overall, Turnbull will probably follow the Abbott approach of improving trade links while remaining critical of China’s strategic ambitions. Australia’s naval build-up will continue under Turnbull and new Defense Minister Marisa Payne.
The next election is officially set for September 2016, but could occur earlier, especially if next May’s budget earns a good reception. In Australian politics, much can change in the space of a year. The general feeling, however, is that Turnbull has made a good start.