New Liberal party leadership fails to resonate with the public
A week of leadership turmoil within the Liberal party has left voters dissatisfied, with the latest Newspoll showing Labor ahead 56% to 44%. This is the lowest the Liberal party has polled in a decade.
The Liberal party’s primary vote is down from 39% to 35%, and for the first time in three years, opposition leader Bill Shorten is now the preferred Prime Minister ahead of Scott Morrison, 39% to 33%.
The extraordinary leadership showdown culminated in former treasurer Scott Morrison edging out Peter Dutton and the public’s favourite Julie Bishop, to become Australia’s 30th Prime Minister; our seventh since 2007. It is a reflection on Australia’s political system that no Prime Minister has lasted a full term since John Howard lost the election in 2007.
Internal divisions within the Liberal party and rumours about Dutton seeking to challenge for the top job came to a head last Tuesday, when former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull unexpectedly requested a party room leadership spill. Despite a narrow win in round one of the leadership ballot 48 to 35, Turnbull’s position looked untenable and it seemed certain that Dutton would request a second spill.
He did just that on Thursday, but Turnbull refused to call the spill until he saw a petition organised by Dutton’s camp, with the names of 43 Liberal MPs who asked for a new leader.
It was delivered personally to Turnbull by Dutton Friday morning, but Turnbull again delayed calling the meeting, requesting that the whips verify all 43 signatures. This was symbolic of the level of Liberal’s distrust for each other and broader party disunity.
A second leadership spill was called which proved more shambolic than the first, resulting in Turnbull losing and Scott Morrison emerging as the new Prime Minister.
Addressing the media following his loss, a “very proud” and “optimistic” Turnbull, along with his wife Lucy and two grandchildren, announced he will be leaving Parliament “not before too long.”
The ABC has now confirmed Turnbull will stick to his word and resign on Friday, triggering a by-election in Wentworth.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Morrison has had a ministerial reshuffle which endeavours to find a balance between loyal Turnbull supporters, and placating concerns from members of the conservative right-wing.
Australia’s former Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop was knocked out in the first round of the ballot, receiving only 11 votes despite being overwhelmingly popular with voters.
As Australia’s first female Foreign Affairs Minister, Bishop served under three Liberal leaders: Brendan Nelson, Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull.
She subsequently resigned as Foreign Affairs Minister, but will remain on the back bench as the member for Curtin.
She says she is considering whether to return to a senior position on the front bench in the future.
Morrison also accepted Bishop’s request to have defence minister Marise Payne replace her as Foreign Affairs Minister.
In a show of unity, Dutton has been returned to the Home Affairs portfolio, however immigration has been separated from Dutton’s responsibilities, given instead to Liberal MP David Coleman.
Strategically, Morrison has split the energy and environment portfolios, appointing Angus Taylor as Minister for Energy, or as Morrison describes it, “the Minister for reducing electricity prices,” presumably to lessen the focus on the link between reduced electricity prices and emission targets.
Although Tony Abbott has not been given a ministerial position, Morrison has offered to make him a special envoy for Indigenous Affairs, an area which Abbott is passionate about. He is currently considering the merits of the offer, by sounding out Indigenous leaders and seeking clarification about the role. This includes potential duplication of the role of the Minister for Indigenous Affairs held by Nigel Scullion.
As new Prime Minister, Morrison faces a number of pressing challenges.
Firstly, there is the immediate issue of fighting a by-election in Turnbull’s seat of Wentworth and holding onto the balance of power in the House of Representatives.
Morrison cites the drought as his number one priority and has spent week one of his leadership touring drought-impacted regions of Queensland.
As part of a fresh approach, Morrison must decide which Turnbull policies to get rid of, as well as finding a way to manage likely ongoing internal divisions within the fractured party.
Time will tell whether Morrison has the capacity to placate members of the conservative right of the party. In order to respond to conservatives, Morrison will need to establish a clear government position on the sensitive issues of whether to honour Australia’s commitments to the Paris climate agreement, the status of the National Energy Guarantee and immigration, and over-population concerns.
Disunity is death in politics and last week’s leadership spill seems to be an inevitable consequence of a Liberal Party in crisis, unsure of what its core values and philosophies are.
Last week was unedifying for Australian politics. The big losers of all this leadership instability is the Australian public, who rightly think the government should be focused on addressing real bread and butter issues.
It is understandable why the average citizen in the street is questioning why we have a new Prime Minister, in the absence of reasons why.
Liberal’s fear was always that Turnbull, with his progressive agenda, was more suited to the Labor party. Ironically, if Morrison does not successfully revitalise the Liberal party, it seems inevitable that is exactly what they will now get.