Prime Minister Tony Abbott won the election easily last year, but many are keenly aware that a mere single vote, just the one, sealed his fate as Australia's political leader. That Liberal party caucus in 2009 sealed ours too.
Funnily, it's the only vote that seems to matter for those decrying the gaffes and less than stellar global reputation of our current leader. (Election, what election?) In that same vicious way rumours of a spill constantly echoed in the ALP during the Rudd/Gillard era, the potential of leadership troubles was put to the prime minister on Sunday. An acid mix of polls, speculation, paranoia and some measure of misplaced hope have some nudging Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull in the direction of the throne.
Emerging from the unlikeliest of places, conservative commentator Andrew Bolt quizzed Abbott about Turnbull's dinner outing with Senate bloc puppeteer Clive Palmer on his program. Bolt parried: "it looks like he's got his eye on your job". Abbott dismissed the suggestion that Turnbull was power-mongering for anything but getting the Budget reforms through the Senate. Turnbull stridently denied the suggestion and commented that Bolt's argument "borders on the demented".
As is the norm, these words springing from the lips of politicians have been ignored quite spectacularly. #Libspill and #returnbull are trending on Twitter – the increasingly disenchanted are eager for the suave, silver-haired, charming and often leather-jacketed Malcolm Turnbull to take the reins from a leader dying a slow demagogic death. To add to the current frenzy, history provides an unrelenting, haunting spectre. Don't become the modern-day Peter Costello, political junkies taunt wickedly.
But can a different leader, albeit one culled from the same pack, effectively sell the same set of widely criticised policies? Turnbull is after all responsible for spruiking the Coalition's NBN and has not publicly doubted the measures outlined in the budget. Others argue his appointment would be more proactive: he represents an opportunity, one unencumbered by Abbott's promises and commitments, to negotiate around the budget.
In the minds of Abbott's worst critics, Turnbull represents a moderate panacea to the problem of popular and palatable governance. When in Opposition, Turnbull regularly entered appearances on ABC's Q&A and it seemed not an episode went by without some well-placed questioner encouraging Turnbull to start his own party or admitting that they would vote Liberal on the simple condition that he take over the leadership. Ego well-stroked, Turnbull would demurely accept the compliment in dulcet tones but reassert his loyalty to Abbott.
Pitting the two against each other in polls has been a longstanding trend, and Turnbull has regularly emerged the victor. Before the 2013 election, voters had again expressed a preference for Turnbull to return as Liberal leader. More recently, polling figures from February this year placed Turnbull well ahead of Abbott in the popularity stakes – by a whole 20 percentage points in fact. Even the Treasurer, Joe Hockey, fared better than the prime minister. In other surveys, the yearning for Turnbull was expectedly much greater among Labor voters.
A poll conducted by the Sydney Morning Herald amassed more than 46,000 votes from readers. 75 per cent backed Turnbull for the leadership. 13 per cent would prefer "someone else" to lead the party and only 8 per cent supported the prime minister.
Source: Sydney Morning Herald
The leadership circus, whether real or imagined, that Australians had purportedly grown so weary of seems to be returning. It's tiresome and titillating at the same time.
While Australia has never really suffered from the same degree of obsession with personality that plagues the more sparkly, glamorous presidential system in the USA, the problem here is a clear symptom of broader dissatisfaction with leadership and perceived policy failures.
Regardless of what officials do to dispel rumours and furtively ignore polls, it's fed by precedent alive in public memory that makes the temporary euphoria of toppling leaders more possible and apparently much easier than toppling policies. In a democracy, there's something fundamentally disquieting about this equation. After all, it only takes a single vote.
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