Karl Marx wrote that history repeats itself “once as grand tragedy and the second time as rotten farce.”
In Australian politics the farce came first, and now looks well along the way to repeating itself.
The recent Federal election was supposed to vindicate the Liberal-National Coalition government’s decision to dump former Prime Minister Tony Abbott in exchange for a softer, more centrist, more news-media-friendly Malcolm Turnbull.
Instead, Turnbull’s government barely won the election he himself called, with a gruelling week-and-a-half of counting required to determine the winner.
As of today, the government enjoys a narrow parliamentary majority of one, with one seat still in doubt. Yesterday it was expected to fall to the opposition, today to the government. The phrase “narrowest of margins” is beginning to feel more than a little cliché.
The circumstances of this election are eerily reminiscent of the farcical saga of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd Labor government that kept Australians on the edges of their seats from 2007 to 2013.
Having won a major victory in the 2007 election, then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was removed in 2010 on the strength of dismal polling and replaced (or “stabbed in the back”) by his erstwhile deputy Julia Gillard.
But Gillard failed to produce the hoped-for success in the 2010 election, and instead of an outright victory was forced to cobble together a minority government with the support of several idiosyncratic independents, and a deal with the Australian Greens.
Despite her best efforts to govern effectively through an unwieldy hung parliament, as the term of government neared its end Gillard’s own polls were worse than Rudd’s had been. Whatever her actual successes and failures, Gillard was dragged down by an indefatigable opposition who never really accepted the election result, and moreso by consistent and damaging internal leaks by supporters of the ousted Rudd.
Finally, in a move seemingly calculated to steal audiences away from daytime soap operas, Prime Minister Gillard was herself deposed in 2013 and replaced by her coldly triumphant, unnaturally self-contained, and perhaps a little pyrrhic predecessor-PM Rudd.
Rudd led his party of serial betrayers to a scathing defeat, but according to subsequent analysis his return did in fact boost Labor’s result more than his original removal in 2010.
Reactions to Rudd’s removal in 2010 were outraged and hyperbolic. The opposition seized upon it as an “assassination”, and commentators generally bemoaned this new low in Australian politics. Perhaps with the benefit of hindsight they will now be more circumspect?
The recent removal of Liberal Prime Minister Abbott in late 2015 showed that the new low has become the new normal. And though commentators and Liberal politicians alike insist that the 2016 election would have been an even greater rout with Abbott still at the helm, Abbott’s defenders point to his well-established skills as a disciplined campaigner (if not a popular ruler).
Turnbull’s legitimacy has now been undermined by the poor election result. As Gillard can attest: he who lives by the polls, dies by the polls.
Abbott’s supporters vehemently protested his removal in 2015 and have kept up an unwavering pro-Abbott campaign that seizes on the Liberal party’s internal divide between “small-l liberalism” and the social conservatives.
Some, like Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi, have made Australian Conservatism their raison d’être, with the Senator himself announcing the creation of a new cross-party political movement in the wake of the election, to champion conservative principles and unite conservatives across the political divides.
Conservatives in the media have likewise been unrelenting in their criticism of the Liberal party’s leadership change, and view the election result as a confirmation of their critiques. Prominent conservative columnist Andrew Bolt called for Turnbull’s resignation before election night was even over.
But even as they warned against adopting Labor’s “revolving door” approach to leadership, the critics are contributing precisely to that outcome. It’s like watching a very slow, very well-publicised train-wreck.
Turnbull’s saving grace is the single vote (two at most) that allows the Liberal-National Coalition to form government in their own right, avoiding a hung parliament.
But his curse is that unlike Rudd’s supporters, Abbott’s conservative backers can point to the rise of supposedly “conservative” or right-wing groups such as One Nation as evidence of disaffection within the Liberal base. As Bernardi himself put it:
“As of writing, over 1.7 million votes were cast for right-of-centre or conservative parties rather than the Liberal Party. From my perspective, that was the Liberal base expressing their unhappiness with past events.”
One has to wonder if the participants in this grand farce of Federal politics ever stop, stare at the heavens and ask themselves what immense and powerful forces are directing their movements. Because it seems too improbable that having lambasted Labor for its leadership woes, the Liberal party could unwittingly steer itself down the exact same course.
It remains to be seen if Abbott will reclaim the Liberal throne, but we can no longer say it is out of the question – no one in their right mind would have anticipated Rudd’s eventual return to power in the twilight of Labor’s last term. The old certainties of Australian politics are well and truly dead.
Unfortunately the “new normal” has a very simple, very credible explanation. There’s an old saying that the public vote with their hip-pocket – with their wallet. The same applies to politicians. At the climax of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd epic the point was made that despite having heaped political and personal scorn on their deposed leader Rudd, he was returned to power in the end because enough MPs looked at the polls and saw themselves out of a job.
No doubt there are still politicians with more noble intentions, but even the noblest intentions presuppose you can get elected in the first place. If politicians vote from their hip-pocket as well, how can revolving-door, poll-driven leadership ever come to an end?
Zac Alstin is associate editor of MercatorNet. He also blogs at zacalstin.com