Is Turnbull about to be fired?

Yesterday, Malcolm Turnbull lost his 30th Newspoll. If you listen to most media, you would think that this might be enough to see him lose the Prime Ministership.

There’s currently no concrete evidence to suggest a leadership spill will happen. But then, such matters are designed to be as secret as possible.

This is a story that’s been covered a lot by other news outlets, but if you weren’t paying attention in 2015 when Abbott got the boot, or are still confused by how the whole Rudd/Gillard/Rudd mess happened, it’s a good time to get caught up.

What happened in 2015?

In September of 2015, Malcolm Turnbull replaced Tony Abbott as Prime Minister of Australia. He did this through a leadership spill – which we’ll get into in a minute. At the time, he gave many reasons for why the country needed a new leader but there was one very specific reason that would bite him in the bum: Abbott had lost 30 Newspolls in a row.

So we’re now exactly at the point where Abbott was back in 2015, and the sharks are circling.

What’s a Newspoll anyway?

Newspoll is a big poll run and owned by The Australian. You can find their archives, and a whole lot of pretty, interactive graphs here. Like any poll, there’s a fair bit of debate around just how accurate or important they are. As you might expect, politicians tend to think Newspoll is important when it’s going their way, and bloody useless when it’s not.

Regardless, since Turnbull opened his gob in 2015, he made Newspoll important enough to topple Prime Ministers and shape the country’s leadership. Given that a media poll is now potentially just as powerful as constitutionally prescribed democratic elections, it’s probably worth knowing how it works.

Newspoll operates through an online panel (a big survey that participants are invited to donate their time to), and through robopolling (phone calls) to landlines, not mobiles. They usually get around 1,800 participants and the polls happen roughly once a fortnight.

Importantly, Newspoll only started online polling in mid-2015, just a few weeks before Abbott got the boot. Turnbull’s numbers are, and have always been, based on the new online plus phoning system.

There are criticisms of any poll, but Newspoll’s continued resistance to mobile phones, plus the fact The Australian’s audience naturally skews to an older demogrpahic, probably means that not a lot of young people are being captured in the poll.

What’s a leadership spill?

So. You’re in a political party but your leader is no longer flavour of the month. And besides, you reckon you’d do a better job anyway. You don’t want to wait until the next election and lose against the other team to trigger a leadership change. How do you chuck your current captain out, even when they think they’re doing just fine thank you very much? 

First step, you attempt to find out who would vote for you in a leadership challenge. You want to do this very quietly, without alerting those who support the current captain. Things get complicated and awkward. But politics is a blood sport.

The current leader may get a whiff that something fishy is going on. They might try to head things off at the pass by calling for a vote of confidence. This is what happened in early 2015, when Abbott was under threat from Turnbull. At that vote, no one, including Turnbull, put their hand up to challenge. Turnbull obviously didn’t have the votes to push him over the top…yet.

Confident that you’ve got the numbers, you call for a challenge. As soon as humanly possible, the party assembles and vote. It’s a secret ballot. It’s a shitty reality show. You write the name on a slip of paper. Even though you may have promised someone you would vote for them, you could lie. Then the votes are counted. Whoever has the majority of votes, wins.

Leadership spills tend to happen more when a party is in opposition rather than government. Spills have become more common in Federal and State parliament as time has gone on. There were none in the 60’s, ten in the 70’s, eighteen in the 80’s, thirteen in the 90’s, and since 2000 there have been….thirty-one. This  insane number is enough to have the BBC label Australia as the “coup capital of the democratic world.”

What are the big spills in Aussie history?

In 1983, Bob Hawke kicked out Bill Hayden as leader of the Labor Party and leader of the opposition. On the same day, Prime Minister Malcom Fraser called a snap election, hoping to capitalise on the Labor Party’s instability. He was wrong. Hawke won the election in a landslide.

In 1991, Hawke was kicked out by Paul Keating. Keating had to call two spills to eventually get his numbers, but he won, and would stick around as Prime Minister until 1996.

In 2010, Julia Gillard managed a quick spill against Kevin Rudd. Internally regarded as a control freak and a bully, Rudd had decent numbers in the polls. But the second he dipped a little bit, Gillard swooped in. Bill Shorten, the current leader of the Labor Party, was instrumental in the spill’s effectiveness. Rudd never really went away, proving a thorn in the side for the Gillard government. He tried a spill in 2012, then won in 2013 in a desperate attempt for the Labor Party to win the next federal election. It didn’t work. A couple of months after he took the throne back, the Labor Party lost to Tony Abbott.

What happens now?

Liberal Party elder and long-time Prime Minister (he was in charge for eleven years) John Howard took to the 7.30 Report on Friday and told the Liberal Party to calm down and stick behind their leader. The previous week had been troublesome for Turnbull, as a faction of his party, calling themselves ‘The Monash Forum’, publicly declared their support for the coal industry, and labelled Turnbull’s current energy policy unsatisfactory.

Gossip, of course, abounds. There’s some false news floating around. Turnbull’s leadership has received public calls of support from the big players: Treasurer Scott Morrison, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. Social media exploded over a completely fake report that Peter Dutton would be challenging Turnbull. Still, Dutton gave an interview over the weekend where he talked vaguely about  the challenges of political leadership and his desire to be Prime Minister one day.

Apart from that, there’s no evidence – fake or otherwise – that a spill is going to happen anytime soon. There’s few in the Liberal Party who would be any more popular than Turnbull. Turnbull’s been clear that he regrets using the 30 Newspoll mark as a reason to oust Abbott. Acting now would set a dangerous precedent that such a metric carries more weight than it reasonably should.

But…you never know. Stranger things have happened. In the past, John Howard has returned from dips like these poll numbers, but he never had as big a negative streak as Turnbull or Abbott. There’s no doubt that the pressure against Turnbull is immense as we move deeper into 2018. A lot will rest on the budget in May.

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Photo at the top courtesy of The Guardian.

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