Australia is a tiny country at the bottom of the world, but its politics have been a scene of high drama for the last week as its prime minister, Tony Abbott, has got himself into a lot of hot water. The conservative leader is an avowed monarchist with a bad case of anglophilia, or love of England. That has already got him in trouble once when he re-instituted knights and dames for the nation, a move which he took without consulting his cabinet or the people of Australia. Once again, he made a “captain’s call” on Australia Day when he conferred on Prince Phillip, the Queen’s husband, a knighthood. After a state election in the usually conservative state of Queensland in which Abbott’s party got drubbed by its underdog opponent, Abbott’s leadership as prime minister is under attack, prompting people to pronounce his time in office as “terminal.”
Changes in leadership in the middle of a party’s time in government are relatively rare. The last government under Labor saw a change that brought low Kevin Rudd and lifted Julia Gillard to the top spot. Then another leadership change reversed that process and brought Rudd back just in time for the 2013 election. Labor’s loss at the polls was due in part to its unsteady leadership, something which Aussie voters saw as wishy-washy and irritating, to say the least. Tony Abbott was the man who capitalized on those feelings, promising to keep his word, to provide steady, unchanging leadership and to improve over the chaos of the previous administration. He and his party won in a landslide. Ever since then, Abbott has been in trouble.
Most of Abbott’s problems have been of his own making. He is known in Australia not so much for flip-flopping, but for apparently lying about what he would do in government. The ABC has a “promise tracker” in which they count the progress of the 12 promises Abbott made during his election campaign. His broken promises include spending a week in an indigenous community every year, making a cost-benefit analysis of infrastructure projects and not making any changes to superannuation. Some of his promises have stalled due to the process in the Senate and others are considered as “in progress.” Overall, his has a bad track record of actually doing what he said he would do.
But the biggest points of contention for many people are not his broken promises, but the decisions he has made on his own. Bringing back knights and dames to Australia and conferring a knighthood on Prince Phillip are two large issues that have landed Tony Abbott in hot water with the voters of Australia. It is viewed as overtly monarchist, un-Australian and silly. He has not taken back any of these decisions, instead doubling down on the concept, though he has apparently taken himself out of the process by promising that any further honors will be bestowed by the committee which oversees them.
Interestingly, Abbott’s stridently pro-monarchy stance was more popular before he took these actions. Australia voted on a referendum to become a republic in its own right separate from England in 1999 and the answer then was no. Since then, the republican movement has been slowly deflating and in 2014 had collapsed to a mere 39 percent support for the idea. But Abbott’s insistence on monarchist ideals has resurrected the argument. The impression of Abbott’s monarchical aspirations is apparently so negative that one Australian journalist felt confident in saying that he would be the “last monarchist PM” for the country.
The issue of monarchy versus republic is one which has contributed to Abbott’s plummeting approval rating. A Fairfax/Ipsos poll has the Labor opposition ahead of the current government in every possible area, including preferred two-party option and leaders’ performance. Abbott’s personal rating has his approval at only 29 percent, meaning that republicanism is more popular than he is.
The general lack of approval for Tony Abbott and its effect on his party was on full display on Saturday when the state of Queensland went to an election. Premier Campbell Newman and the LNP had risen to power in a landslide that broke every record for the state. On Saturday, they were on the wrong side of another record breaking vote where Labor won government. The drubbing Abbott’s party received in Queensland has already been labelled as a blow to the prime minister’s leadership and has brought up speculation that he will be ousted from his position.
His own party members have been the biggest source for such rumors, saying that such a discussion would have to be had in the party room. The overall impression from the “backbenchers” as they are called has been one of disaffection and frustration. Abbott is making them look bad, is the essential message and if his affect on the Queensland election is any indication, he could very well cost them the next election. The media, the electorate and and his own party have spoken loud and long enough about ousting him that he will have to address it in some way.
Abbott will have a chance to do just that today during a National Press Club Address, his first since last year when he was a newly elected prime minister. He will have to address not only the calls for his own demise, but the upcoming plans for 2015 and the trust deficit that exists between him and the Australian people. As an act of political theater, it is a good opportunity, but the performance required may be beyond anyone. Tony Abbott is drowning in hot water and most people in Australia view it as a situation of his own making. A serious change will be necessary if Abbott intends to see out his term in office and in the current climate, no one really seems to believe he can.
Opinion by Lydia Bradbury