To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, losing two prime ministers within a span of five years may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose three looks like carelessness.
Australia came precipitously close to carelessness this week as Tony Abbott, less than 18 months into his prime ministership, survived a revolt within his Liberal Party. Almost nobody believes, though, that this will be the end of the matter.
In the run-up to Monday’s crucial party room meeting of Liberal members of parliament, Abbott repeatedly spouted the line that he had been elected by the voters, so only they should have the right to dispense with his services.
Although it’s generally true that electoral contests in several Western parliamentary democracies have acquired a presidential flavour, in Australia’s case a not insubstantial proportion of the electorate voted Liberal in September 2013 despite, rather than because of, the prospect of Abbott taking charge at the helm.
He has never been a particularly popular figure, and his personal ratings, which weren’t terribly complimentary, to start with, began trending southwards shortly after he was ensconced as head of government. This week they stood at a record low of 24 per cent.
Barring a dramatic reversal of fortune, further attempts to dislodge Abbott can more or less be guaranteed ahead of next year’s election — not least in view of opinion polls suggesting that substantially more voters would be inclined to endorse a Liberal Party led by Malcolm Turnbull or Julie Bishop, respectively the current communications and foreign ministers.
Turnbull was also a former head of the Australian Republican Movement, an organisation dedicated to formally severing the umbilical cord that constitutionally links Australia to Britain. That makes it particularly ironic that speculation about Abbott’s impending downfall went viral shortly after his bizarre decision last month to include in the usually uncontroversial Australia Day honours a knighthood for Prince Philip, the British monarch’s consort.
Rather than the beginning of his troubles, this was in effect the proverbial last straw — and it has inevitably been dubbed Abbott’s ‘knightmare’. The prime minister presumably realised that his choice would be ridiculed by the Left side of politics. The vehemence of the reaction from the Right may have taken him by surprise.
A key factor in the barrage of criticism that pushed Abbott to the brink of dis-endorsement by his own party was an eviscerating tweet from Rupert Murdoch, the US-based media tycoon who owns the vast majority of Australia’s daily newspapers. It was the cue for his minions, most of whom had hitherto been broadly supportive of the deeply reactionary prime minister, to go into critical overdrive.
Murdoch’s Twitter-attack didn’t stop with a relatively reasonable diatribe against the Anglo-Australian honours system, wherein the anachronistic concept of knights and dames in the Australian context was revived by Abbott shortly after assuming power. He went on to demand that the prime minister’s chief of staff, Peta Credlin, should quit in the national interest.
Abbott reputedly refers to Credlin as “the chief”, but, unlike before, she has been conspicuously absent from his public appearances of late. A firing or even a voluntary resignation would be seen now as transparently taking dictation from Murdoch, which wouldn’t do the prime minister’s reputation much good. On the other hand, the prospect of being savaged every day by Murdoch’s attack dogs, as Abbott’s Labour predecessors Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard would readily testify, is hardly a pleasant prospect either.
There is strong possibility an Australia without Abbott at the helm would be a less uncongenial place, but in order to grasp that one must look beyond the Philip absurdity to a whole raft of retrogressive policies and broken promises. Apart from matters such as raising the cost of “free” medical care and permitting universities to extract whatever fees whatever they choose from students — policies that have been stranded in a Senate that Abbott does not control — the outstanding sore on Australia’s face is a policy towards refugees that strikingly inhumane even by general western standards.
Unfortunately, there are few credible policy alternatives on offer from the opposition Labour Party, which is counting on the unpopularity of the Abbott Liberals to pave its path back to power next year, after dispensing with two prime ministers during its 2007-13 span in power. Largely trapped within the miasma of neoliberal imperatives, it seems incapable of setting its sights on a distinctive course that would more than vaguely resonate with its relatively progressive past.
Abbott’s fate may be sealed within months, if not sooner. His trajectory, though, could be symptomatic of crucial ruptures in the post-Cold War Western mode of governance. It would be a mistake to underestimate the resilience of capitalist power structures, but the road ahead could turn out to be very rocky indeed.
Mahir Ali is a journalist based in Sydney
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