Even for a politician used to knife-edge contests it was a close-run thing. Barely 17 months after his election as Australian prime minister Tony Abbott faced the indignity on Monday of a party vote of confidence that saw 40 per cent of his colleagues vote against him — even though there was no declared challenger. If a dozen MPs in his centre-right Liberal party had voted the other way, the one time student boxer would now be moving his belongings out of the prime minister’s residence on Sydney Harbour.
While Mr Abbott now gets to fight another day, Australians have been left wondering whether this week’s events are further proof of a crisis in the country’s politics. Australian politicians seem more skilled at opposing and criticising than they are at governing.
Part of the explanation for Mr Abbott’s transition from exceptional opposition leader to beleaguered prime minister lies in his own political frailties. He has struggled as prime minister. As one Liberal MP, in a reference to Winston Churchill or perhaps the Godfather, put it, Mr Abbott had been “a great wartime leader” but the government now needs “a great peacetime leader”.
Mr Abbott’s management of the domestic political agenda has been unimpressive. Important budget measures have failed to pass the parliament. Policies on health, education and parental leave remain unresolved. And having last year reintroduced Australian knighthoods and damehoods, Mr Abbott attracted ridicule this year by bestowing one on Prince Philip. (Pity the duke who needs a knighthood.) All this has crowded out the news of a healthy economy and a good record on foreign policy.
But there is also something more fundamental at work. Mr Abbott is a victim of — as well as a contributor to — Australia’s dysfunctional politics. In the past eight years, the country has had five prime ministers. With each leadership change, government policies have lurched from one pole to another. Few reforms have been enacted; and most of those that were have subsequently been torn down. Meanwhile, populist minor parties have brought something of a circus feel to the national debate.
The result is a culture of internal coups and one-term governments at both state and federal levels. Mr Abbott — a relentless opposition leader — is now reaping what he sowed.
It was not always this way. Between 1983 and 2007 Australia enjoyed a quarter-century of stable, effective government. Labor administrations under Bob Hawke in the 1980s and his successor Paul Keating in the 1990s remade the economy, developed innovative social policy and managed to win five elections at a time when conservative political parties governed most of the developed world. A stream of social democrats — including a young Tony Blair and Gordon Brown — made the pilgrimage to Canberra to look and learn.
The coalition government of John Howard (1996-2007) ran up four election victories. Tory leaders William Hague and David Cameron were admirers of Mr Howard’s deft political management and his record of capable economic stewardship. Australians will now watch closely to see whether Mr Abbott can emulate his mentor Mr Howard and pick up his game.
But the larger questions relate to Australia’s future, not that of Mr Abbott. As global wealth and power shift in our direction, can our political leaders get their act together to deal with an increasingly challenging neighbourhood? How can we make Australian politics a robust battle of ideas, rather than a dispiriting conflict of personalities?
Politics is usually about the future. But the goal here should be to go back in time — to a period when our public life was serious, and our country was an object of respect and admiration from international observers, rather than a curious spectacle.
The writer is the executive director of the Lowy Institute in Sydney