Even though he was far to the right of most political opinion and was thus unlikely to win the 1964 election, the US Republican Party chose Barry Goldwater as their Presidential nominee. Rather than winning an election within the parameters of the existing liberal consensus, they wanted to challenge the fundamentals of that consensus; they wanted to shift what was considered the political centre.
In 1961, John F Kennedy accepted the presidency declaring that he was a liberal. In 1992, Bill Clinton banned the use of the “L” word for fear it would cost him the election. The Republican Party lost that 1964 election but they began to win the argument as the political centre began to shift over time.
Australian politics has as many arguments as any other country, but the argument that ultimately led to Tony Abbott being replaced as Prime Minister wasn’t about politics, it was about winning. Most Liberal MPs thought that Malcolm Turnbull would have a better chance of winning next year’s election so he was in and Tony Abbott was out. This was just a few years after largely the same group of people had voted Turnbull out and Abbott in.
The little merry-go-round in the Liberal party followed similar changes in the Australian Labour Party which dumped Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister for Julia Gillard, who as poll numbers were dropping and an election nearing was dumped and replaced by…Kevin Rudd.
The key theme driving all of these changes was who would stand a better chance of winning an election, which may be one of the reasons that Australians appear to be unsure how excited to get about their new Prime Minister. There isn’t a sense of anticipation for Turnbull, just a sense of relief that Abbott has gone.
The overnight change in Prime Minister wasn’t mentioned once in my office until at 5pmish, I remarked that we had a new Prime Minister now and that generated about 2 minutes worth of conversation. A whole afternoon was spent with Australian neighbours a few days later and not once did the new Prime Minister come up.
Refuting the apparent lack of interest, one colleague said that the prime ministerial change was all his friends were talking about (on social media). However, this interest didn’t appear to be in what Turnbull thinks or would do. Their explanation for why Turnbull will be better, chiming with the media commentary, is that Turnbull is a better communicator, more cultured and open, and has had interests outside of politics. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation gave us 7 things that we need to know about Turnbull but none of these things told us about what he thought or would do but instead were as follows:
- He was a successful entrepreneur
- He was raised by his Dad
- He has lived in the same suburb his whole life
- He has led the Liberals before
- His wife is a former Lord Mayor of Sydney
- He has previously blogged on his website about his dog dying
- He was a barrister in the Spycatcher case
Looking at these, I began to understand why nobody was talking about the new Prime Minister.
Some people in Australia think that having a federal election every 3 years makes it difficult for politicians to think about anything other than winning the next election. But this can only be true if politicians are more concerned with winning than their beliefs.
The focus on winning rather than beliefs can cause people to switch off because they don’t care who wins. One comes in, one goes out, and the merry-go-round continues. The mandatory voting in Australia, with fines for those who don’t, makes it harder to measure disengagement leaving me with chat levels in my office. However, the good news for Turnbull is that one colleague has already said that he will now change his vote from Labour to Liberal. He never really liked the Labour leader (Bill Shorten) because he keeps on changing sides whichever way the wind is blowing.
Being better than Abbott is not good enough.