16 Sep 2015

Why Australian politics is all at sea

11:52 am on 16 September 2015

What is this political turmoil of which you speak?

Welcome to Australia, land of sun, surf and blood-splattered party rooms. Tony Abbott, unseated by the mutinous Malcolm Turnbull, has become the shortest serving prime minister since Harold Holt in 1967, and Australia has its fourth prime minister in 27 months. It is more than a decade since they've seen a prime minister serve out a full first term.

Streuth. Who's this Turnbull bloke?

Until he launched the challenge alongside foreign minister and deputy PM Julie Bishop, Sydney MP Turnbull was the communications minister. He has long been regarded as hugely ambitious. He likes gadgets. And poetry.

His background? His politics?

A former journalist, barrister, merchant banker and businessman, the 29th Australian prime minister is a small-state pro-trade social liberal sort of thing, located at the centrist end of the Liberal Party.

Sounds a bit like John Key.

He even paid homage to Key in his Monday night victory speech - but more of that later.

Turnbull became leader of the Liberal Party in opposition in 2008, then faced a spill just over a year following infighting around the response to the Rudd government's proposed emissions trading scheme. He lost by one vote. To Tony Abbott.

A "spill"?

That's an Australianism denoting a vote for a party leadership (and sometimes, as in this case, the deputy leadership); some wag edited Wikipedia this week to designate the leadership spill as "Australia's national sport", which hasn't been far from the truth since the Labor Party's epic internecine battles between Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. The term neatly evokes thoughts of beans, milk and blood.


A land of snakes and poisonous spiders.

What did for Tony Abbott? Was it the bellicose "stop the boats" rhetoric, the recalcitrance on climate change, the resistance to marriage equality?

In part.

Was it the creepy winks about sex workers, the "shirtfronting" tough-guy act to Putin, the stereotyping of drunken Irish, the budgie-smuggler swimming togs?

None of those probably helped.

Was it biting into a raw onion in Tasmania?

Actually there were two onions.

Was it the ponytail-pulling?

That wasn't him.

What was it then?

Many commentators pinpoint the "captain's call" approach, typified by his executive decision to award Prince Philip a knighthood. Both in his sloganeering and team structure, Abbott was seen never to have shifted properly from opposition campaign to orderly government.

What ultimately did for him was the polls; almost 30 in a row had gone against him. With less than a year to the election, members' survival instincts kicked in.

And the economy, stupid?

The first budget delivered by his controversial treasurer Joe Hockey in 2014 was a litany of broken promises. Neither man ever fully recovered. Turnbull said Abbott had "not been capable of providing the economic leadership our nation needs". The Australian Financial Review this week agreed: "By failing to come to grips with the nation's public finances, Mr Abbott cut himself adrift from his government's reason for being."

But the spill still came out of nowhere?

Not quite. Rumours of a challenge had been circulating for days, and it wasn't the first, either. In February, a Liberal spill was triggered, and Abbott held on with 61 votes, with 39 voting against him despite there being no formal alternative.

Did the ejection of Abbott work?

For now, yes. A snap Roy Morgan poll gave Malcolm Turnbull a 70 percent preferred PM rating, against 24 percent for Labour leader Bill Shorten, who will now be fitting armour plating to his own back.

How did Abbott take it?

He fired a bitter parting shot at the home side for producing one-sided pitches.

Wasn't that outgoing Australian cricket captain Michael Clarke?

My mistake. Abbott promised there would be "no wrecking, no undermining, no sniping". Then he fired a bitter parting shot at a "febrile media culture ... that rewards treachery".

What awaits Abbott?

Many suggest he'll quit at the next election. There will be many opportunities before him. Including this:

And what challenges face Turnbull?

Among other things, mollifying coalition partner the Nationals, restoring economic confidence, keeping a lid on any appetite for vengeance from the Liberal right, and stymying the leaks that can form a flood and, in turn, a spill.

What does it mean for trans-Tasman relations?

Smooth sailing. Key and Turnbull have a whole heap in common. Abbott was all about being Key's "soulmate", but Turnbull is a true political sibling. Turnbull last year described Key as "the best leader of any English-speaking country, except for our own leader, of course".

And who was his own leader?

Tony Abbott.

A dancing onion (a reference to Tony Abbott's decision to sample a raw onion during a visit to an onion farm in Australia)

Give us the good oil in 25 words.

Turnbull just knifed Abbott, who'd knifed Turnbull before beating Rudd, who'd knifed Gillard, who'd knifed Rudd. The only real winners here are Canberra cutlery retailers.

And five words?

Swagmen camped by a spillabong.

Toby Toby stamp

*This column is part of a weekly series, which is published every Wednesday, by graphic artist Toby Morris and journalist Toby Manhire.