The Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, was guilty of a bad case of wishful thinking when he declared the Liberal leadership issue "behind us" after surviving a party ballot yesterday. That is out of the question when opinion polls suggest the Labor Party is leading his Government by as much as 14 percentage points. And when the 61-39 vote in his favour indicated nearly 60 per cent of his backbenchers had deserted him. The failings that prompted this situation - Mr Abbott's poor judgment, failure to consult and disregarding of promises to the electorate - ensure that his leadership will continue to be called into question.
But in at least one aspect, Mr Abbott was right. As he suggested, no one likes or wants a Government that keeps changing its leader. Voters, with good reason, crave stability and customarily deliver harsh verdicts when it is not forthcoming. Mr Abbott, in seeking to put the Liberal Party leadership issue to bed, recalled the turmoil within the Labor Party during its two terms in power. After watching the struggle between Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, Australian voters were more than ready to conclude that Labor was incompetent.
That scenario is far from unique. This country has witnessed several examples of leadership change which had the opposite outcome to that intended. Take the Labour Government that attracted considerable popular support during David Lange's time as Prime Minister only to be cast into purgatory after it replaced Mr Lange with Geoffrey Palmer and Sir Geoffrey with Mike Moore in a forlorn bid to retain power. Or the subsequent unseating of a National Party Prime Minister, Jim Bolger, by Jenny Shipley, the prelude to defeat in the 1999 general election. Even when such a change seemed initially to have worked, as when John Major ousted Margaret Thatcher, it has had severe long-term consequences. Tony Blair was to lead the Labour Party to three consecutive victories.
Australia had more to consider than just voter negativity as Mr Abbott faced a leadership spill after just 18 months in power. There was its image on the world stage. Following hard on the heel of Labor's ructions, Mr Abbott's woes smacked of a country with something more in common with Italy than just high sunshine hours. There was the spectacle of politicians whose lust for power had sponsored a dictatorial bent and failure to acknowledge the wishes of either voters or members of their own parties. Lost also was the resolve and long-term perspective normally associated with stable government.
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Polls indicate how much Australians want matters to change. So does the level of support for some minor parties. Whether Mr Abbott is able to change, or even given the chance, is a moot point. The outcome of yesterday's ballot was a deeply divided party and a leader shorn of much of his authority. There will be no further chances for him. But it is essential that either he or his successor sets about repairing Australia's political culture. Constant infighting is the worst of prescriptions when it comes to tackling the country's economic and social challenges.