The most important date in the history of the Turnbull government was December 1, 2009. That was the day Tony Abbott defeated Malcolm Turnbull after a revolt by the right wing of the party defeated Turnbull’s support for an Emissions Trading Scheme to address global warming.
No one should doubt the trauma – the humiliation, the thwarted ambitions – that being deposed as leader by their colleagues has on the individual. It is no exaggeration to say that the centerpiece of all Turnbull’s decision-making as prime minister has been to forestall another attack on his leadership from the right, to avoid precisely what happened Tuesday.
Few leaders have had such a honeymoon when overthrowing their predecessor as Turnbull did when he replaced Abbott in September 2015. He initially enjoyed stratospheric approval ratings, partly a relief at the end of the constant combativeness of the Abbott years, partly someone who seemed a ‘modern’ Liberal leader, friendly to science and technology, with enlightened social views, and also someone with successful ‘real life’ experience.
In the years since, in the eyes of those on the centre and left of the political spectrum, he has shrunk in the job. The Turnbull those parts of the electorate thought they were getting has been in constant retreat.
The most constant retreats, however, have concerned climate change, with a series of fall-back schemes, the latest of which was the NEG, National Energy Guarantee. This climaxed with a spectacular series of retreats inside a week. These retreats energised rather than neutralized Turnbull’s opponents, even as he seemed to abandon what he used to proclaim as one of his core commitments, and created a sense of a government in chaos.
So, even as August bush fires raged in New South Wales, the climate change deniers in the Coalition showed again that they still hold veto power over any attempt to introduce anything related to reducing carbon emissions.
But part of Turnbull’s problem was that for one group, no concession would ever be sufficient. Just as all Turnbull’s future actions have been shaped by his losing the leadership, so have those of the man he defeated, for whom revenge has become a driving motive. Allies of Abbott – in the party and in the media – will never approve of Turnbull. It makes political management that much more difficult if there is an internal group ready to throw fuel on all the brushfires a government must face.
In leadership struggles such as this, a mutually reinforcing downward spiral grows between poor polling and internal discontent, so that many think the only way they can win the next election is by changing the leader. While history shows that a bit less than one in three leadership coups in opposition are followed by an election victory, electoral failure is the most common outcome in government.
In 17 leadership coups in government at state and federal level, there were only two cases where the new leader won a parliamentary majority at the next election. In twelve cases the government lost, and in three others (including Julia Gillard in 2010), they went from majority to minority government. The two who won were Paul Keating in 1993, who went on to a massive defeat in 1996, and Turnbull in 2016, who survived with a one seat majority.
One reason contributing to failure is that changing leaders in government seems to be cheating the public who had voted the leader in at the last election. Another is that it is a very public admission that their government is not working.
While much of the public focus is on the relative attributes of the two contenders, more basic in determining the political aftermath are process and relationships. Changing leaders in government is usually a bloody process that creates many resentments, which are likely to haunt the new leader.
An interesting sidelight on the current internal discontent with Turnbull is that vocal opinion is so out of touch with public opinion. It is driven by a group – among Murdoch tabloid columnists, commercial talk radio, and Sky News commentators – who command public attention. They may be close to the centre of political gravity inside the Coalition, but not to that in the electorate. Their internal success could well be a recipe for electoral failure.
Rodney Tiffen is emeritus professor in Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney. He is the author of Disposable Leaders. Media and Leadership Coups from Menzies to Abbott.