At the end of 2014, a little over a year after being elected to office, the Abbott Government was in deep trouble.
Despite the Government’s undoubted successes in implementing its key commitments of stopping people smugglers from Indonesia, and abolishing the carbon and mining taxes, its budget plan to get Australia back into surplus by a series of unpopular measures was blocked in the Senate in 2014.
These measures including cuts to outlays on pensions and family benefits, an ill-considered scheme in which all patients would pay to visit a doctor (the Medicare co-payment), cuts in the overseas aid budget and defence spending, increasing university fees, and abandoning the school funding model inherited from the previous government.
On all these measures Treasurer Joe Hockey succeeded in antagonising some of the most vocal constituencies in the country and many of the government’s own base of support, while being unable to get his program through a Senate controlled by an alliance of the ALP, Greens and independents.
Setbacks and gaffs
The situation for Prime Minister Tony Abbott was particularly bleak.
Although never personally very popular, his success had been based on the fact that he was a “conviction” politician who would end the chaos of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years, and the effective veto which the Greens had on government policy.
However, the Government’s budget defeats in 2014, coupled with a series of personal gaffs, the defeat of one-term Coalition state governments in Victoria and Queensland, relentless criticism in major media outlets (particularly the ABC and Fairfax Media), a resurgent Opposition led by Bill Shorten, and poor opinion polls stoked the embers of rebellion in government ranks.
Growing opposition to the Prime Minister from both backbenchers and Cabinet ministers came to a head at the start of February 2015, when a “spill motion” to declare open all leadership positions in the Liberal Party was moved.
Over a relatively short period, a huge grassroots campaign in defence of the Prime Minister took place, with MPs throughout the country receiving deputations and correspondence from constituents, warning of the dangers for the Government of a change of leadership.
When the vote was taken, the motion was defeated by 61 votes to 39, which Tony Abbott himself described as a “near death experience”.
Had ordinary Australians not made their position clear to the politicians, there is little doubt that Malcolm Turnbull or another leadership aspirant would now be prime minister.
If that had happened, it is uncertain that any of the defining positions taken by the Abbott Government in 2013-14, including his policy on same-sex marriage, would have survived.
What a difference five months makes! Tony Abbott promised change, and he has delivered.
Adopting a more consultative process, listening to his backbenchers, abandoning unpopular social and economic policies which were never going to be accepted by the Senate, and getting much of his 2015 budget through Parliament unscathed, the PM appears to have turned the corner.
The Government has been able to point to its economic successes in preventing a further budget blowout, cutting unemployment, reducing interest rates, and introducing strong fiscal incentives for small business.
Equally importantly, it blunted attempts by Islamist extremists to carry out terrorist acts within Australia, and promised to enforce Australian law against anyone who went overseas to fight for Islamic State or any other terrorist organisation, without alienating the overwhelming majority of law-abiding Muslims.
While the Government has got back on track, the Opposition faces growing internal divisions.
Wrong-footed by the success of the Abbott Government’s policy of boat turn-backs and mandatory offshore processing of asylum seekers, the Parliamentary Labor Party is deeply divided over whether to support or oppose these policies.
Labor is also in a quandary over whether to reimpose the carbon tax and the mining tax, abandoned by Labor’s successors. These issues have become more urgent in the run-up to the forthcoming UN Climate Summit in Paris in November-December 2015.
Labor is also divided on the plan, announced by Labor Deputy Leader Tanya Plibersek, to abolish the party’s conscience vote on same-sex marriage.
Added to all this, the Opposition Leader himself faces tough questions at the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption, arising from his period as Victorian and later Federal secretary of the Australian Workers Union.
Despite the common belief on the Labor side that the royal commission is a “witch-hunt”, it has documented widespread criminality by unions in the building industry, and put forward proposals to strengthen the law to deal with them.
Labor cannot afford to go soft on this issue, particularly after the damage done to the Labor brand by the actions of former MP Craig Thompson and officials of the Health Services Union, and the corruption charges against former NSW Labor ministers Eddie Obeid and Ian Macdonald.
Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.