After surviving a “spill motion” that could have seen disgruntled members of his own Liberal Party knock him out of his seat, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott lashed Labor as hard as he struck back at opponents within his own party, in an evidently successful bid to contrast himself with the chaos of Labor government.
Going into the vote, Abbott threw in a dash of pop-culture pizzazz by declaring, “This Game of Thrones circus, which the Labor Party gave us, is never going to be reproduced by this Coalition.” For the uninitiated, this is a reference to the popular American book and television series “Game of Thrones,” in which rival claims for an abruptly vacated throne plunge a fantasy kingdom into war and misery.
Abbott survived on a 61-39 vote, but there is still discontent within his party, which is seen as lagging behind the Labor Party by double digits in the polls. (In Australia, the Liberal Party is conservative, and the Labor Party is their liberal opposition.)
“This Coalition is not Labor,” Abbott continued. “We are determined to give you, the Australian people, the certainty and stability that you voted for. I am just getting on with government. The Deputy Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister, we are getting on with government. Australia has always been a stable country with stable government. There was this eruption of instability during the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years and the last thing that anyone wants is to see a government in this country turn into some sort of Game of Thrones.”
Abbott’s statement following his victory in the “spill motion” vote repeated this theme of stability and continuity: “As of 9.30 the important thing is to put the internals behind us and get on with being the government that we were elected to be – to clean up Labor’s mess and to deliver for the Australian people the economic security and the national security that they deserve. That means a focus on jobs, families and economic growth.”
What Abbott was facing, in the words of one Member of Parliament quoted by the Australian ABC news service, was “a genuine back bench revolution.” It came remarkably close to succeeding, even though no one stood forth as prospective replacements for Abbott and Bishop–hence Abbott’s portrayal of the movement to unseat him as a wanton, ill-considered bit of political mayhem that would have created a power vacuum.
ABC saw the primary aspirant to the Prime Minister’s position as Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull, but he did not formally announce a challenge before the motion to dump Abbott was voted on. As one of Turnbull’s supporters put it, “Malcolm did not instigate or encourage this, and he does not want this to be seen as Turnbull vs. Abbott.” However, the supporter went on to say that if Abbott was unseated, Turnbull would “be a complete arsehole if he didn’t run.”
The nominal instigator of the vote was a junior lawmaker named Luke Simpkins, from Western Australia, expressing what the New York Times summarizes as backbencher discontent with Abbott’s abrasiveness, economic woes including soft economic forecasts, and an interest-rate cut by the central bank, and frustration at Abbott’s inability to get major items from his agenda through the Senate. After retaining his office, Abbott expressed confidence that his vision for Australia would prevail. “In essence, we are a strong economy with so much creativity and dynamism, and the challenge for government is to work with you, not against you,” he said. “I love this country, and I will do my best to help our country to succeed.”
Not everything said during the debate over the spill motion was quite so upbeat. Confidence that Abbott would survive the vote increased as it drew nigh, but it was seen as a very dicey affair going into the weekend, with Abbott himself conceding that he might lose, after holding office for only 16 months. The UK Guardian described the battle as “hand to hand combat,” with Abbott “punching until the knuckles bleed.”
In the aftermath of the vote, the Sydney Morning Herald reported Abbott working the phones and pleading with backbenchers for “six months to turn around the fortunes of his embattled government.” He offered a combination of political and policy concessions, ranging from a new small-business tax cut and dumping plans for a change to Medicare co-payment policies, to promises that he would stop micro-managing the Prime Minister’s office, and a plea for Members of Parliament to cut back on politically-motivated leaks of damaging information to the media.
With all that on the table as Abbott’s side of the bargain for a mere six months of Liberal Party peace, he will need to generate some good news fast. Political professor John Wanna of the Australian National University described the vote as “a strong warning shot” to the New York Times, cautioning that Abbot will “have to remake himself quickly with this sort of dissent.” As they say in the books: When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.