The “Game of Thrones” is on in Australia as a spill motion to get rid of Prime Minister Tony Abbott is about to be voted on. After a disastrous knighthood incident involving Prince Phillip and rumors of unrest on the backbenches, the Liberal National Party (LNP) will finally vote on whether to keep their current leader. American observers may be a bit confused by all this since there is no comparable event in United States politics. With its parliamentary system, however, Australian politics allows parties to elect and dispose of their leaders, resulting in a change of prime minister in this case. But while this is a big story in the Land Down Under, there is little to draw the attention of American observers, except for one interesting question. What could the Tony Abbott PM spill in Australia mean for President Obama?
To understand this, one has to understand why Tony Abbott was elected. Despite the word “liberal” in the party name, the LNP is the Australian conservative party and shares many right wing hallmarks with American Republicans. Fiscal responsibility, a hard line on immigration, traditional family values and climate change skepticism are shared qualities between the two. After a Labor government which suffered from leadership chaos, the LNP ran on these values and on the promise to provide a more “adult” government, meaning one where leadership squabbles did not happen. The received political wisdom in Australia says that this last promise was what really tipped the scales in the LNP’s favor and got them them elected.
As the leader of the LNP, Tony Abbott became the prime minister, but only 17 months into his term, dissatisfaction has grown. Unlike the Labor leadership which was one person politically “assassinating” another, this is a case of backbench anger. The backbenchers (meaning those LNP members who do not have a cabinet position and, therefore, sit behind the front bench in Parliament) feel ignored, bossed around and generally dissatisfied with the direction Abbott is taking their party in. One of the key turning points has to have been Abbott’s “captain’s call” on giving a knighthood to the Queen’s husband. The fact that he announced this on Australia Day, a particularly patriotic national holiday, only made the absurdity of it worse.
More to the point of politics, however, Abbott has presided over some of the worst plummet in the polls ever. After a strong win in late 2013, the LNP expected to enjoy the approval of most of the Australian people for a long time. That has not happened. In fact, the polls for this week show the lowest approval rating for the LNP since they took office. In a poll about preferred party, the LNP racked up 43 percent of the people’s approval, while their Labor opponents stood up at 57 percent approval. This is the biggest gap between the two parties in the last 17 months. With only about half of their term in leadership gone, the backbench is starting to look ahead to the next election and the prospect seems grim. That means that the leadership spill vote happening on Monday in Australia has as much to do with the backbenches job security as it does with their opinion on Tony Abbott.
Abbott and his cabinet seem united in the face of this challenge, but no one can really predict how this vote will turn out. It will be a secret ballot, meaning that no one can really be pinned down on which way they will vote. At the moment, anything is possible. But any possible change in a country’s leadership will have ripple effects in the international community, meaning that word leaders will have to re-evaluate their relationship with Australia. President Obama, inasmuch as he might have an opinion on the matter, may have reason to feel positive about this leadership spill, especially regarding the issue of climate change.
Tony Abbott is a vocal climate change denier. He does not believe it is man-made or even happening out of any normal weather patters and he has put these beliefs at the center of his environmental policy. During the G20 , climate change almost did not make it to the agenda because he does not believe in it. During his speech, Obama made a point of speaking on the matter, much to the chagrin of Australian conservatives and the delight of their opponents. Nationally, Abbott made repealing the carbon tax on big business polluters a center of his campaign and then delivered on that particular promise. Overall, Abbott has proven that the president cannot depend on him to assist his international climate change agenda. One way to put it is that the situation really is bad when Obama can depend on more support from China than from “America’s best friend” down under.
Should Abbott be booted out, however, there may be a ray of hope. Malcolm Turnbull, a former LNP leader, is the current front runner for taking over the leadership. In the Australian “Game of Thrones,” he is the fan favorite. More voters want him to be the next prime minister than any other possible candidate, including the steely foreign minister Julie Bishop who has made a few headlines abroad herself. Turnbull is famous in Australia for his stance on climate change, which led him to cross party lines during a vote on the carbon pricing scheme the last government put through. He believes not only that climate change is happening and has man-made causes, but that government should do something to act on the matter.
He is also a stark contrast to Tony Abbott on the matter. Back in 2009, he called Abbott’s climate change policy “bulls–t.” Two years later, he defended the science on climate change in a speech, saying that it was “not a matter of ideology, let along belief.” This is in stark contrast to Abbott, who once called climate change science “crap.” Should Turnbull be voted to leadership, he will not be able to change the official party policy on climate change. That is just a feature of parliamentary politics and the state of opinion of the majority of LNP members. But there are a few ways he could act on climate change despite that. Vehicle fuel efficiency standards, national roll out of energy efficiency schemes and buying international carbon credits are all possibilities. More importantly for President Obama, he could be a strong ally in the president’s international climate change efforts, joining China as an ally on reducing greenhouse gasses.
While the spill motion is a matter of national politics and not of huge interest to international observers, it still may carry some far reaching effects. For President Obama, the Australian PM’s spill could mean an ally in Australia on climate change policy. The leading contender, Malcolm Turnbull, is Abbott’s opposite on the issue and could prove himself to be an invaluable friend on reducing global greenhouse emissions. For Obama, that is good news. For Australia, anyone but Abbott would be welcome news.
Opinion by Lydia Bradbury
Sydney Morning Herald 1
Wall Street Journal
Sydney Morning Herald 2
ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)
The West Australian 2
Image by US State Department – Flickr License