“Everyone right? Thank you for being here tonight.” With that curt statement, Australian Government Whip Scott Buchholz began a speech that lasted 52 terse seconds. It was 9:50 P.M. on Monday, September 14. In his speech, Buchholz announced that Tony Abbott had just lost the leadership of the Liberal Party, and along with it his position as Prime Minister of Australia.
Unlike American presidents, Australian prime ministers are chosen by the party or the coalition of parties that wins the majority in the lower house. By convention, the party leader is almost always chosen as the head of the government. However, party leaders can be re-elected or replaced at any time. Unfortunately for Tony Abbott, his floundering center-right Liberal Party finally turned against him when Communications Minister and former Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull successfully challenged for leadership last week.
Australian politics has been marred by instability and “revolving door” leadership changes for a while now. In the last five years the country has seen Prime Ministers Rudd, Gillard, Rudd again, Abbott, and now Turnbull. Only two of the five—Rudd in his first term and Abbott—reached office through an election.
Abbott owes much of his 2013 electoral success to his relentless and dogged criticism of the Labor Party government at the time. Ironically, opposition leader Abbott capitalized on Labor’s own leadership instability and won office not through the electorate’s positive acceptance of his own policies but by highlighting the incompetence and dysfunction of the incumbent government. Abbott painted himself as the antithesis to Labor’s Rudd and Gillard. Whereas the Labor leadership was petty and unstable, Abbott would lead a united government. Whereas the Labor Party had broken multiple election promises, Abbott would keep his word.
But instead of laying out a detailed policy base, Abbott resorted to vapid but powerful rhetoric to attack the government. Phrases like “Axe the tax,” “Stop the boats,” and “Debt and deficit disaster” were peddled out to the public to exaggerate the supposedly perilous state of issues like costly environmental taxes, Australia’s asylum policy, and the Australian economy.
Abbott’s sloganeering transformed these complex issues into simple binaries—binaries he could exploit through fear-mongering. In fact, Abbott was a startlingly effective opposition leader for this very reason. His talent in turning policy decisions into oversimplified us-or-them choices, and his ferocious ability to tear apart the decisions made by the Labor Party government thoroughly discredited the the Labor Party’s policy platform.
Abbott even successfully discredited Labor’s economic management, even though it was objectively one of the best responses to the Global Financial Crisis by a developed nation. Gross government debt stood at just 18.8 percent of GDP in December 2013. Australia had Triple A credit ratings from all major ratings firms. Unemployment was low at the time of the election as well, at only 5.8 percent. By all indications the Australian economy was not suffering from the debt bomb Abbott and his treasurer Joe Hockey claimed existed. Yet Abbott’s political narrative—one of choosing between a “jobs and growth” Abbott Government and a “debt and deficit disaster” Labor Government—persuaded voters to vote Liberal.
Abbott had been similarly successful in arguing that 20,000 asylum seekers per year arriving by boat constituted a “national emergency”. By comparison, 13,000 asylum seekers arrived in Germany in just one day last week.
Ultimately though, dumbing down politics to oversimplified dichotomies meant that Abbott underwrote his own demise. His form of political storytelling never reflected the true complexity of issues on the ground. Abbott never acknowledged the difficulties that the government faced when striving to produce desired results like a budget surplus or economic growth.
When Abbott took office, the very same rhetoric which supposedly exposed Labor’s failure also served to expose Abbott’s failures as well. Abbott’s “three word slogans” have become infamous for their shallowness. In general, there have been two ways in which Abbott’s slogans have translated into reality.
The first is failure to deliver. On the eve of the 2013 election, Abbott stared down the barrel of a camera and promised “no cuts to education, no cuts to health, no change to pensions, no change to the GST [the Goods and Services Tax] and no cuts to the ABC or SBS [Australia’s public broadcasters].” Over the course of the next year, Abbott introduced legislation to cut post-secondary education funding by 20 percent, cut hospital funding by $1.8 billion, abolished the senior supplement and cut down on pensioner entitlements to the tune of $1.3 billion, and cut the ABC and SBS budgets by $308 million. Abbott also failed to deliver on his promised “jobs and growth” economy. In fact, under Abbott unemployment grew from 5.8 percent to 6.3 percent, and growth fell from 2.5 percent to 2 percent.
The second way Abbott’s promises have evolved is into pyrrhic successes, touted ad nauseam in futile attempts to divert attention away from broken promises. Abbott’s successful, but internationally infamous migration policy has seen the indefinite detention of asylum seekers on Pacific islands, resettlement deals with Cambodia and Papua New Guinea, and reports that Abbott paid people smugglers to return to Indonesia. When ABC host Leigh Sales asked Abbott a hard hitting question about the economy, his knee-jerk response was to remind his audience that “the boats have stopped.”
Given Abbott’s inability to convincingly keep his pre-election commitments, it is no wonder that his popularity all but evaporated. His government trailed the opposition for 30 consecutive polls.
Malcolm Turnbull’s ascension to the prime ministership is a turning point in Australian politics. His attention to nuance and refusal to boil down complex policy issues into catch phrases marks a stark departure from Abbott’s terse rhetoric. Turnbull has said that he will embody “a style of leadership that respects the people’s intelligence [and] that explains … complex issues.” As a former lawyer, journalist, and banker Turnbull will need every ounce of his formidable intellect to reinvent the game of Australian politics. For if politicians are to win back the trust of the Australian people, they must abandon Abbott’s self-destructive sloganeering and find a new, nuanced, and credible way to sell their political narratives.
Image source: Nick D.//Wikimedia