Only four Liberal leaders have led the Coalition to victory from opposition: Robert Menzies in 1949, Malcolm Fraser in 1975, John Howard in 1996 and Abbott in 2013. Abbott was the only one not given the chance to lead the Liberals to the next election.
In announcing his leadership challenge on September 14, 2015, Turnbull declared the Abbott government had not been “successful in providing the economic leadership that we need”. Joe Hockey said at the time that Turnbull had never made this criticism in cabinet during the previous two years.
Soon after, the new Prime Minister made the sort of error most politicians try to avoid. He commented on the opinion polls, saying: “The one thing that is clear about our current situation is the trajectory: we have lost 30 Newspolls in a row; it is clear that the people have made up their minds about Mr Abbott’s leadership.”
It is not clear how Abbott would have gone had he led the Coalition to the election last year. As Prime Minister, Turnbull lost a net 13 seats (including one to the Nick Xenophon Team), with the Liberals losing significant support in Tasmania, western Sydney and Western Australia.
The Turnbull government survived primarily because the Nationals, under Barnaby Joyce, were able to hold off challenges in NSW by independents Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, both of whom had supported the Rudd and Gillard Labor governments. The Nationals lost no seats. And the Liberal Party in Victoria won a seat from Labor.
Last year’s election was a disappointment for Turnbull, who survived narrowly. Even so, senior government figures consider the political situation in the Senate to be better for the Coalition than it was before the election.
However, the combination of the changed Senate voting system and the double dissolution brought about a situation whereby Pauline Hanson’s One Nation has re-emerged as a political force. Under a normal election for the House of Representatives and half the Senate, Hanson would probably have won a Senate vacancy in Queensland. But she now leads a One Nation team of four senators.
The re-emergence of One Nation has put pressure on Liberal and Nationals members and senators in Queensland, NSW and WA. This has been compounded by South Australian senator Cory Bernardi’s decision to break away from the Liberals and set up the Australian Conservatives.
The evidence suggests that when Labor loses votes to the Greens, about 85 per cent of Greens voters preference Labor ahead of the Coalition. But when the Coalition loses votes to One Nation, a much smaller percentage of One Nation voters preference the Coalition ahead of Labor.
Despite the Prime Minister’s comments two years ago, the policies of the Turnbull government have broadly been consistent with those of the Abbott government. This is scarcely surprising, given the likes of Julie Bishop, Mathias Cormann, Scott Morrison, Josh Frydenberg and Michaelia Cash have held senior positions under both prime ministers.
There has been significant speculation about Turnbull’s political future as the trajectory of the Newspoll clock moves closer to 30 losses in a row. Yet there appears to be no great desire in the party to bring down another prime minister so soon after Abbott was dumped by a majority of his Liberal colleagues. This was only the second time the Liberals removed an incumbent prime minister. In March 1971, the party replaced John Gorton with William McMahon. Gorton had become prime minister in January 1968 after Harold Holt drowned, and won the 1969 election despite a large swing against the Coalition outside Victoria.
In 1969, the Gorton government was saved by the preferences of the anti-communist Democratic Labor Party. The DLP had also saved the Menzies government in 1961. As it turned out, McMahon led the Coalition to defeat in late 1972 when Labor’s Gough Whitlam became prime minister. After that, the Liberals changed leaders only when in opposition. In April 1982 Andrew Peacock unsuccessfully challenged Fraser, the incumbent prime minister.
In December 2009, Abbott replaced Turnbull as Liberal leader in opposition. After the Coalition’s narrow loss in 2010, Abbott appointed Turnbull to a senior position as communications spokesman. He held the same portfolio in the Abbott government until becoming prime minister two years ago. Despite receiving advice to the contrary, Turnbull did not return the favour after last year’s election and kept Abbott on the backbench.
This has caused problems, as Abbott is one of the best communicators in contemporary Australian politics and attracts considerable media attention. He has a strong body of support among the Liberal Party rank and file, along with social and political conservatives. His exclusion from the cabinet is a mistake but not one that is likely to be rectified. So the situation has developed whereby Abbott’s presence is not wanted even as Turnbull moves closer to some of Abbott’s policies.
Turnbull was always a supporter of border protection. However, in the past two years he has moved closer to Abbott’s tough line on national security.
And now the evidence suggests that the Prime Minister’s support for a renewable energy target is softening and he is moving closer to Abbott’s position on the need for baseload power, even to the extent of hinting that a Turnbull government has some sympathy for the construction of a high-efficiency coal-fired power station.
The increasing price and unreliability of power is probably the only area where Turnbull can put pressure on Labor leader Bill Shorten in the lead-up to the next election in about two years. It is here that the Prime Minister can demonstrate the economic leadership whose absence he bemoaned on September 14, 2015.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of the Sydney Institute. His Media Watch Dog blog can be found at theaustralian.com.au.