Malcolm Turnbull and Kevin Rudd are crowding out more likely leadership challengers like Joe Hockey
So often in politics the leader is not the most popular member within the party but the most tolerable. Time after time we see leadership candidates withdraw to support a more moderate candidate in order to prevent their arch rival winning the ballot. The most notable example of this was in 2006 where Julia Gillard and her supporters had to grudgingly concede that they did not have the numbers to beat Kim Beazley in a ballot so instead threw their support behind Kevin Rudd with whom they were on reasonable terms. Three years earlier team Gillard again withdrew their candidate (Simon Crean) from the ballot in order to thwart Kim Beazley, this time by rallying behind Mark Latham. On the other side of politics Andrew Peacock twice declined to contest the leadership against his old foe, John Howard, instead coordinating support for compromise candidates like John Hewson and Alexander Downer. In the UK Margaret Thatcher reluctantly withdrew from a ballot against Michael Hestletine to throw her support behind John Major.
It is arguable that this is how leadership disputes should be resolved. Rather than two acrimonious foes polarizing the party to the state of dysfunction, you get someone that everyone can work with and tolerate. This system is of course dependent on one candidate making the selfless decision to withdraw themselves from the fight and rally behind someone else, and the reason we have this current deadlock in the Australian parliament is two former leaders refusing to do just that.
Anyone who denies a quick leadership challenge could deliver either party a commanding victory at the next election is either a liar or a fool. They are respectively the most unpopular Prime Minister and the most unpopular opposition leader in history, deadlocked by their pathetic inability to capitalize on the others ineptitude. The problem is that two former leaders who were deposed because of their polarizing nature have successfully courted public sympathy and neatly framed themselves as the alternative leader of the party. In doing so they are crowding out the ability of more palatable candidates to mount a campaign.
This is particularly clear in the Liberal Party where the universally loved Joe Hockey was knocked out in the first ballot when he ran against Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott in 2009. Hockey is a party moderate but unlike Turnbull he didn’t treat conservative liberals with contempt and as such has infinitely more appeal to those MP’s who sit somewhere in the middle of the party. But when he ran for the leadership, Turnbull swept the parties progressive vote which Hockey so needed to galvanize and Hockey went into the ballot with no base, just a handful of moderates. The combined sum of Turnbull and Hockey’s supporters were 49 whereas Abbott had only 35. Given that Turnbull ran from the left of Hockey it is safe to assume if Turnbull had withdrawn most of his votes would have flown through to Hockey who would have won comfortably over Abbott. But instead Hockey got knocked out and his supporters divided between Abbott and Turnbull, giving Abbott a slender majority of one.
The same thing that happened in 2009 is still happening today as Turnbull continues to crowd out Hockey’s challenge to the leadership. Whether Hockey would still have the numbers that he and Turnbull had in 2009 is of course speculative but given the opposition leaders diabolical approval ratings I think it is safe to assume that a fair chunk of the Liberal party are dissatisfied with the current leader.
In the Labor party the situation is more complicated but ultimately the same. Julia Gillard is horrendously unpopular, Stephen Smith and Bill Shorten are reasonably tolerated by the electorate and the party but Kevin Rudd, who divides and polarizes the party continues to occupy the lion’s share of the “anti Gillard” bloc of the party.
Supporters of Gillard and Abbott tell us that the reason leadership dominates the headlines is because Rudd is white anting Gillard and Turnbull is undermining Abbott. In both cases with is father of the thought, when you have such unpopular leaders a significant block of the party will start agitating for change and would still be doing so if Rudd and Turnbull weren’t in town. The crucial difference is that were it not for Rudd and Turnbull becoming vehicles for the push for a leadership change, one of the parties would have had a different leader by now.