5 February 2015
The tsunami that washed away the Queensland government last weekend has unleashed a number of other massive waves of discontent, all aimed at Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott. No-one seems to quite know what will happen next, other than it is unlikely to be good in any way for Mr Abbott.
I served in a government that faced a similar implosion – the Fourth Labour Government after 1987 – so can offer a few insights.
Over time all governments become unpopular – often quite suddenly and unexpectedly. Churchill’s surprise defeat in 1945 is often cited as such a case (although the then rudimentary science of opinion polling had been pointing in that direction as early as 1944, and Britons had not had the chance to vote in an election since 1935.) Even John Key, despite his unique distinction of three resounding election victories by ever widening margins, knows too his day will inevitably come.
In the case of the Fourth Labour Government, that inevitable slide was aided by the aftermath of the 1987 sharemarket crash, but was primarily fuelled and accelerated by the government’s own kamikaze determination to self-immolate through inter-necine warfare. The Beehive was literally a floor-by-floor war zone – one floor was Lange loyalists, the one below was Douglas controlled, and so on. The Caucus was simply bewildered. When one backbencher tried to mediate between the factions Lange ridiculed him as needing a brain transplant, the only problem being they could not find a compatible hare.
The Opposition was irrelevant and ignored. The media thought they fulfilled that function anyway. And while the real Opposition was softly but surely sleepwalking to victory, the government was doing its own fair impression of a one party state, being both government and its own opposition at the same time. (There was even brawling between delegates at an Auckland regional conference.) It was all very insular as we got on with the job during 1988-90 of destroying the very government we claimed to be proud to represent.
Lange threw in the towel in 1989. Palmer tried bravely and vainly to right the ship over the next year. Then third officer Moore led a further mutiny of the nervous just eight weeks before the election to seal the government’s fate. And Jim Bolger won the biggest landslide of any New Zealand Prime Minister ever.
Tony Abbott’s behaviour over the last week brings all that back to mind. Telling his MPs they have no right to vote against him because he has been elected by the people, and then having MPs break ranks all sounds very familiar. If things run true to form, he may limp on, but even that now seems to be wishful thinking, as the polls deteriorate, the backbench becomes more spooked, and the likely contenders deny any interest in public, while doing their numbers in private. Either way, Abbott will go, either forced out by his Caucus, or because he has had enough of the infighting.
His successor will try to patch things up – and may even succeed for a while – but then things will start to slip again. It will be everyone else’s fault: a public that does not understand the government’s true message; a hostile media; or, both. The government will be too busy fighting itself to notice.
If I were Bill Shorten right now, I would be presenting a very relaxed and quietly assured air, trying not to look too earnest (difficult for him, I know), but knowing all good things invraibly come to those who wait.