Waleed Aly: Why This Brutal Leadership Spill Is Different And Makes No Sense

It doesn’t even get close to guaranteeing any benefit for the government.

I know it seems like you’ve seen all this leadership stuff before. By now we’re all so well-practised at this spill routine that it’s easy to conclude they’re all telling the same story, only the characters change. But this one is positively strange. Normal leadership spills – and how amazing they happen often enough to be “normal” now – have a kind of brutal, pragmatic logic about them. This time it’s just brutal.

The idea of changing leaders is to upgrade to a shinier, newer model. It’s easy to forget that when Julia Gillard rolled Kevin Rudd back in 2010 she was one of the most popular politicians in the country. If Tony Abbott had Kevin Rudd’s measure, no one thought he had Gillard’s. The Coalition would have despaired that Gillard’s ascension would annihilate them. And immediately upon her becoming Prime Minister, Labor’s polling numbers shot up, and stayed there for a month or so until Laurie Oakes asked that fatal question in which he detailed the sordid events of the night she took Rudd’s job.

By the time Rudd took back the throne, Gillard had become a shell of the charismatic politician the Coalition once feared. Rudd, meanwhile, had become a sympathetic, even nostalgic figure. The public had a sense that he’d been wronged, and forgot all the reasons they’d begun falling out of love with him in the first place. Rudd’s return also immediately resuscitated Labor’s fortunes, though only briefly.

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The Abbott to Turnbull transition tells a similar story. The Abbott government was unique in never really enjoying a honeymoon, and became terminal within nine months when Abbott delivered his catastrophic first budget. Malcolm Turnbull, having cultivated an image as Abbott’s opposite – urbane, modern, intellectual, socially liberal – was a popular figure at the time he seized the throne. That his appeal was broader and greater than Abbott’s was blindingly obvious and backed by polling. And again, the Coalition’s polling numbers in the aftermath reflected this.

Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey. Image: Getty.

All of these cases have two common features: a jaded, failing leader, and an obvious challenger who carries popular momentum. They were preceded by months of polling and focus groups demonstrating that the government’s share of the vote would rise dramatically. But when Peter Dutton finally decided to challenge Malcolm Turnbull this week, he broke this formula.

Turnbull is, to be sure, a jaded failing leader. But Dutton is the strangest of challengers: a figure of limited profile, almost no popular momentum, and diabolical polling. When voters are asked their preferred Liberal Party leaders, Dutton has always ranked massively below Turnbull, significantly below Julie Bishop, and comfortably below even Tony Abbott who sits consistently at around a lowly 10 percent. Dutton is stuck in middling single figures. An Essential poll in April had his support at four percent – among Coalition voters.

Put simply, this leadership challenge is remarkable because it doesn’t even get close to guaranteeing any benefit for the government. It’s brutality without pragmatism. And it rests on an act of faith Dutton is for some undemonstrated reason the man who can provide voters with whatever it is they feel this Coalition government is missing.

The main reason for this faith seems to lie in Queensland. Ultimately, Turnbull was fatally wounded by the Longman by-election on “Super Saturday” which saw the Liberal primary vote collapse into the 20s, with most of its deserters voting for One Nation instead. This invited an analysis that Malcolm Turnbull is unelectable in Queensland, and that if the Coalition wants to win back these voters, it needed to strike more One-Nation-style poses.  Dutton – a Queenslander – becomes the obvious man for that task.

You have my full support, until you don't. Image: Getty.

But, really? It’s true that the Liberal primary vote in Longman was diabolically low. And it’s true that One Nation profited from that. But it’s also true that in our preferential voting system, that doesn’t necessarily make much difference.

What ultimately matters is not which party you put first, but the order in which you put the major parties. You can put the Liberals second-last if you like, but if you put Labor last, that’s ultimately going to be a vote for the Coalition. And once you crunch the data from Longman, you find that the votes lost to One Nation came overwhelmingly back to the Liberals in the form of preferences. It’s possible – in fact probable – that Dutton could win back all these votes and not get the Liberals much closer to winning back a seat like Longman.

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And even that cannot very easily be said outside Queensland.  This week we’ve had Victorian Liberals concede that Dutton is “toxic” in that state. And while it’s true there are plenty of marginal seats in Queensland, Victoria has them as well. If you’re a Liberal politician in a marginal Victorian seat, there’s very little reason to believe that a Prime Minister Dutton makes your job of getting re-elected any easier. The big risk here is that whatever gains the Coalition makes in Queensland – which are not certain in any case – it will lose elsewhere.  And while it’s true that elections are often won in Queensland, that assumes you’ll hold your ground in the rest of the country.

I do not mean to say that Dutton could never win an election in the right circumstances. It’s true, for instance, that many people (including Liberals) considered Tony Abbott to be unelectable when he became Opposition leader, only to see him proceed to destroy Kevin Rudd, then Julia Gillard, and smash his way into the Lodge.

But Dutton’s circumstances are completely different. To become an unelected Prime Minister without popular sentiment behind you is not remotely like being a pugnacious Opposition leader. If he’s going to be a success, he’ll have to break all the conventional wisdoms of politics. He’ll have to grow into a very different figure on a national stage faster and more dramatically than we’ve ever seen before.