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Counting the political numbers

By Jo Coghlan - posted Friday, 13 February 2015

This week the Abbott Government looked exactly like the Rudd-Gillard Labor Government. Leadership issues overtook all other domestic and foreign policy problems. The leadership of Tony Abbott was left fatally wounded after months of poor polling on the back of poor policy. While federal Liberal Party MPs and Senators focused on the spill numbers – as did all of the Australian media – few would have paused to think about how poor public policy got them in this mess. The 'captain's pick' problems were not at the heart of the Abbott Government's problems. Instead it has been 500 days of poor policy and even poorer communication about major policy shifts occurring in Australia. So for the Liberal Party this week it was all about the numbers, for voters for the last 500 days it is all about policy. This is the fundamental disconnect that is occurring in Australia today.

There have been 13 instances when a Prime Minister of Opposition leader has faced leadership spill motions. If you include the state and territories there have been 63 leadership changes in 13 years. On the back of most leadership changes are poor polls, positing electoral doom for the current leader and in electing a new leader some sort of messianic change will occur in the party's electoral ratings. What this rationale misses is the reasons for poor polling. Poor polling reflects voter's dismay or angst with poor social, economic or public policy. A leader is only as good as the policy they advocate. Without good policy, what is left for a leader, or even for a political party? The 2015 Liberal Party leadership spill was not solely about backbench concern about the popularity of Tony Abbott it was about the future policy direction of the Abbott Government.

The number of concern for Tony Abbott and his hold on the Prime Ministership is 12. In the leadership spill motion that Abbott faced, 39 of his Liberal parliamentary colleagues voted for an opportunity to replace him as the parliamentary leader, in turn electing a new Prime Minister. Had another 12 Liberal Party MPs voted differently, Australia would have a new Prime Minister. Abbott held the leadership on the back of the myth of cabinet solidarity. There was no precedent for this. Abbott appeased South Australian Liberals with a $40 billion pork barrelling sell on submarine contracts that reversed his 2014 decision to procure the submarines from Japan.


Within 24 hours South Australian Liberal MPs have realised they were hoodwinked. Had the eleven South Australian Liberal Party MPs and Senators voted for the spill motion, Abbott would have only defeated the spill motion by one vote. In the Liberal Party leadership ballot in 2009, Abbott only won the position by one vote from Malcolm Turnbull in the second round of voting. Numbers for politicians matter.

In the leadership struggle between Prime Minister Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, Keating was initially defeated 66-44 votes. This week the leadership spill vote was 61-39. Keating went to the backbench and successfully ousted Hawke on his second try in December 1991 winning 56-51. A second leadership spill of the federal Liberal Party would likely see Abbott off, as it did with Hawke. As former Liberal Party leader John Hewson acknowledges, Hawke was still popular in the electorate but Tony Abbott has never be a popular leader: 'he'll never be popular, he never has been, he never will be.' This being the case, Abbott has always needed to be better at policy in order to sustain support in the electorate. And here is the core problem facing Tony Abbott.

Polls, whether politicians admit they put much stock in them or not, can't be easily dismissed especially when they keep saying the same thing. There have been already been 12 national two party preferred polls conducted in 2015, which average out to approximately 55%-45% support for the ALP. This can be interpreted two ways, 55% support a Shorten-led Labor Government or 55% don't want an Abbot-led Liberal National Party Government. Polling and elections are increasingly about who voters don't want rather than who they do want. This is likely the case in current polling.

Polling suggests that if the Liberal Party installed Malcolm Turnbull as Prime Minister, there would be a bump in the polls of about 7.5% and if Julie Bishop was installed the bump would be 5%. Neither change would close the 10% gap held by the ALP. Without a change of leader in Canberra this week, the question is how long does the Abbott Government have to turn around poor polling? Perhaps the better question is how long does Tony Abbott have as Prime Minister?

There are 18 months to the next election. There are six weeks to the NSW state election. There are 12 weeks till the next federal Budget is to be bought down. There are $28 billion of the 2014 federal Budget measures sitting in the Senate. Australia has a deficit, with no realistic chance of returning to surplus within at least a decade and probably longer. Unemployment and underemployment, even with the best spin, is in double figures. The latter are the numbers that the federal government should be focused on because these are the numbers that posit the policy problems facing Australia.

The Abbott Government instead is focused on a different set of numbers. The loss of first term state Liberal governments in Victoria in 2014 and in Queensland in 2015 will bring more scrutiny on the 28 March 2015 NSW state election result. Elected leader in 2014, NSW Mike Baird is considered a popular leader, unlike Campbell Newman. Both Newman and Baird however support the leasing of public assets: a core policy issues for voters. For the Opposition leaders, Annastacia Palaszczuk in Queensland and Luke Foley in NSW, both began an election campaign relatively unknown. The issue of corruption will be a factor in the NSW state election, and so will the 'Abbott factor'. Should the NSW result be seen as a referendum on the Abbott government policy performance, the result will have a direct and immediate effect on the federal Liberal Party and will trigger a second spill motion.


Leadership changes, spill motions, polling and election results hinge on policy. Policies announced in an election campaign not only deliver a mandate but an expectation that they will be delivered. The Abbott Government has delivered some of its election promises: removal of the mining tax and the carbon tax. But they were policies about undoing legislation. A close look at the Abbott 2013 election strategy shows it offered little in terms of what it would legislate. One promise made was the Paid Parental Leave Scheme, and that is now a broken promise. No cuts to public broadcasting, changes to Medicare, education, and pensions are similarly broken promises. Hints of policy changes including GST increases or a new industrial relations framework unnerve voters because they have a real and direct impact on household spending and earning. This is especially the case when there is no public debate or political explanation for the changes and there lacks a narrative about how the change will shape a better Australian future.

Voters can accept that policy announced in Opposition and policy changes in Government may be different. But only if the changes are explained in an intelligent and coherent way. A GP co-payment, a significant policy change to Australia's universal health system, can't simply be explained as a result of the 'crisis in Medicare'. Similarly 'Budget savings' to cut public broadcasting lacks explanations voters need in order to at least understand the reason for the changes. University de-regulation similarly needs to be better explained in terms of more equitable access and support for first in generation university students, rather than sold to voters as a consequence of Labor's deficit legacy.

Leadership instability and changes will continue in Australia, until politicians understand the need to engage in intelligent policy debates. The work of Opposition is to develop policy. The work of Government is to deliver policy. Policy developed as an election strategy and continued into government are policies that are looking backwards not looking forwards. Election developed policy will always focus on tearing down the policies of the past government and rarely result in policies for the future. In the 500 days of the Abbott government, the policy agenda has been one of dismantling Labor introduced legislation. There has been little in the way of legislation that focuses on the future.

Even new policies, many of which are locked in the 2014 Budget, are framed in terms of responding to the 'debt and deficit' left by the Labor Party. More looking backwards. Policies that directly impact on families, household budgets and the conditions of work demand all politicians and political leaders not only explain the changes, but listen to the voter's concerns. More so, changes to social policy – health, education, housing, welfare and so on - are not accepted by the Australian public if they are overly punitive. Regardless that egalitarianism may be a myth, Australians still see the nation as a welfare state: a state that helps rather than a state that alienates and punishes.

Policy can't continue to be developed for electoral needs and in electoral cycles. Policy can't be enacted with the aim of political point scoring. Policy changes can't be introduced unless a political leader can explain it coherently and intelligently in terms of national interests. Changes in government policy can't be explained within the prism of the 'mess' left by previous governments. Campbell Newman found out the political reality of looking backward, so too will Tony Abbott.

Government, for voters, did not start this week, it started 500 days ago. In 500 days, voters are still seeing an Abbott government looking backward instead of planning policy for Australia's future. Tony Abbott may not have 500 days left. Whoever leads Australia after the next federal election will face leadership instability unless fair and forward looking policy is re-introduced into Australian politics as its core business.

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About the Author

Jo Coghlan is a lecturer in the School of Arts and Social Sciences at Southern Cross University.

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