Australian PM Tony Abbott Toppled By His Own Former Communications Minister

Dr. Binoy Kampmark discusses the political situation that has led to the fourth prime minister of Australia since 2013

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

Tony Abbott, who was Australia’s prime minister until Monday, was ousted by Malcolm Turnbull and his own party members. Here’s what Abbott had to say on his departure.

TONY ABBOTT: The nature of politics has changed in the past decade. We have more polls and more commentary than ever before. Mostly sour, bitter, character assassination. Poll-driven panic has produced a revolving door prime ministership, which can’t be good for our country. And a febrile media culture has developed that rewards treachery.

PERIES: Mr. Abbott, who has been weathering a series of poor opinion polls, charged with mismanagement of the budget, received 44 votes in a leadership challenge by his former communications minister Turnbull, who got 54 of the votes. Upon taking office, this is what he had to say.

MALCOLM TURNBULL: The Australia of the future has to be a nation that is agile. That is innovative. That is creative.

PERIES: Under the Australian system, as in the UK, the prime minister is not directly elected by voters, but the party leader is selected by the party that commands most of the seats in parliament. Now joining me to tell us more about what’s happening is Dr. Binoy Kampmark. He’s a senior lecturer at the School of Global, Urban, and Social Studies at RMIT University in Melbourne. He ran on the senate ticket with Julian Assange for the WikiLeaks Party in the Australian federal election in 2013.

Binoy, good to have you with us at the Real News Network.

BINOY KAMPMARK: It’s a pleasure being with you.

PERIES: Binoy, give us a rundown on what’s going on in Australian politics, particularly with the Liberal party, in the recent weeks.

KAMPMARK: Well, I think for your listeners and your viewers, I think a very important thing to remember is that the Australian system is based on what is called the Westminster model. The Westminster model is a very strange one. It means that the leader of the country and the leader of the party is not directly elected by the people. So what effectively this means is that the prime minister in office can potentially be deposed. Can potentially be overturned, you name it, assassinated, whatever sort of exciting term you’d like to use there.

And interesting enough, in the caption that you mentioned there, Tony Abbott’s remarks, this is exactly what’s been happening in Australia since 2008. Prime ministers have been surprisingly mortal in their positions because of party opinion rather than public opinion because the party membership have gotten very worried about the elections, the result being that they get rid of the prime minister and they replace the prime minister with their favorite. And that’s what we’ve been seeing lately.

PERIES: And I understand that Turnbull is the fourth prime minister you’ve had since 2013.

KAMPMARK: Yes. It’s too many, as far as I’m concerned. They all, these characters who are filling the ledgers and filling the accounts. The reality of it is, and this is something that I’ve conversated about extensively and I’ve written about, the idea about having a prime minister through the revolving door, as Mr. Abbott himself said, irrespective of whatever political belief you might have, there is no fixed term in Australia. There is no fixed prime ministerial term. There is a flexibility there about calling elections and there is a flexibility there about leadership. And it may be also something to consider in a broader reform for the system. But that’s the nature of the Australian political system.

PERIES: Now, both of these men are part of a Liberal party that is actually far from liberal when it comes to issues such as gay marriage and addressing issues of climate change. And in this particular case Turnbull seems to be more on the right side, at least, of history moving forward.

KAMPMARK: Well, yes. Again, for those who are not familiar, the reality is that in Australia there is a term used, liberal. It is not the term, of course, that is accepted in the United States. The term liberal is associated usually with the progressive side of politics. Liberal in Australia has a specific classicist association with Sir Robert Menzies, who was the leader of the party from the ’40s, and was the leader of the party throughout the early stages of the cold war in Australia. So the reality is that we’re dealing with a conservative party with conservative values.

Now, historically, Malcolm Turnbull is not perceived to be that conservative, and that is one of the problems. He’s been accused by his own party members as being a progressive in some sort of clothing of another conservative variety. So the question is, will he be a true conservative member on the liberal side in the Australian context of politics, or will he actually do something different? And that is something that people are waiting for, and we’ll see what happens.

PERIES: And what are the opinion polls in Australia like in terms of some of the more liberal issues? What are the people thinking, in other words, about climate change and issues of gay marriage, for example?

KAMPMARK: Well, in terms of gay marriage the opinion polls suggest an overwhelming acceptance about the acceptability, as it were, of the institution. And that Australia has been lagging behind other countries, and that Australia effectively should, as it were, take a position on this more firmly and reform the law accordingly. That’s one thing.

It depends which issue, of course, we’re talking about. If we’re talking about, for example, refugees, the Australian electorate is rather conservative. The reason why, for example, the opposition leader of the Australian [inaud.] party and the, in fact, numerous parties with the exception perhaps of the Greens in Australia believe that refugees should be kept out of the country. Well, that’s something that we’ll have to see whether Mr. Turnbull changes it.

In terms of climate change, Mr. Turnbull has shown amenability towards changing that platform, and I think he’s going to budge on that. But when it comes to refugees and those broader issues, I’m not entirely sure whether he will change that.

PERIES: But at the same time, Abbott’s leadership came to a head, I think, particularly when he took such a harsh position, a reaction to the refugees and indicated that they’ve managed to stop boats from coming to Australia. Is that the political climate that he reflects?

KAMPMARK: Sadly I do think it is. You have to remember, if you look carefully at the speeches being given by the new Australian prime minister, he’s very careful not to mention the refugee situation too much. With the exception of this, that Mr. Abbott before he as deposed did make the concession that there would be the acceptance of 12,000 refugees from Syria.

But with the exception of that, the hardline is fundamental. The Australian body politic, as it were, the suspicion about people arriving on boats is a very strong one. I’m not suggesting that it’s a very good idea at all. I think in many ways it’s an absurd thing. But it has been built into the political culture which has made politicians constantly build their political careers on being strong on preventing people arriving on boats to Australia. And I am interested to see whether Mr. Turnbull will change this. My feeling is he’s not necessarily going to change this at all.

PERIES: And where is the Labour Party in all of this? We of course saw this week in the UK the Labour Party electing a much more radical leader, Jeremy Corbyn, to head the party. Is there any such possibility in Australia?

KAMPMARK: The individual who’s currently leading the Labour Party is what I would call a conventional technocrat. Tony Blair would be very proud of him. The old, of course, the former British prime minister who was speaking about stakeholder economies was talking about a labor movement, if you like, that was more connected to the market. This individual, namely Mr. Shorten, is not in the Corbyn mould. Corbyn is the exception to the rule.

I will tell you an example in terms of what happened recently in terms of Labour Party politics in Australia. At the Labour Party conference they accepted turn back the boats as a policy. They accepted that people should be detained in camps, and they accepted that there should be no resettlement in Australia for refugees. And if that’s not a defiance of traditional Labour Party principles in what we would think about that, I don’t know what is.

PERIES: And a very curious note on your bio was that you along with Julian Assange ran for the WikiLeaks party in Australia in federal election in 2013. Tell us a sense of where the WikiLeaks party is at and your role in Australian politics at the moment.

KAMPMARK: Well, my role in Australian politics is as an annoying scribbler, at the moment. I dabble and I engage in as many things as I can on the ground. In terms of the actual WikiLeaks experiment it is I suppose, to put it lightly, dormant at the moment. Julian Assange has many things to deal with in captivity, so to speak, pseudo-captivity in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, and I have various things I need to do in the context of broader political issues.

But when it comes down to it the ideas still prevail, but the political structure, of course, is something that’s become a bit hard to sustain. But that’s the nature of these things. It’s an incredible effort, as anyone who knows how to run a party knows. So when it comes down to it, happily engaged politically with pen, not perhaps so much with paper in the actual sense.

PERIES: Dr. Binoy Kampmark, I thank you so much for enlightening us with Australian politics today, and we hope to have you back very soon.

KAMPMARK: Anytime. It’s lovely speaking with you.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.

End

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