'Junkyard Dog' demise paves way for Australia policy collaboration

Former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, the self-described "junkyard dog" of Australian politics, lost his seat in Sydney.
Former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, the self-described "junkyard dog" of Australian politics, lost his seat in Sydney.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SYDNEY (BLOOMBERG) - Australia's bare-knuckle parliamentary struggles of the past 10 years could give way to a more conciliatory era as Prime Minister Scott Morrison's shock win delivers him unprecedented authority within his party.

The demise of his colleague Tony Abbott, the self-described "junkyard dog" of Australian politics, should help defuse the ideological struggle and boost the chances to work together on issues like energy and climate change.

Mr Abbott helped set the tone, acknowledging defeat with a gracious speech in which he described Mr Morrison as entering "the Liberal pantheon forever".

He was followed by shattered Labor leader Bill Shorten, who underlined Mr Morrison's successful re-election as he sought to head off a renewed effort to characterise a government with a slender majority as illegitimate.

"I wished Scott Morrison good fortune and good courage in the service of our great nation," Mr Shorten told supporters in his concession speech, recounting his phone call with the Prime Minister.

Mr Morrison picked up Mr Shorten's tone in his address and responded similarly warmly, in an otherwise rollicking celebration that resembled a football premiership win.

NASTY DECADE

Such goodwill is obviously a regular occurrence on election nights, but Mr Shorten's conciliatory message was telling.

The government's relentless attacks on Labor's progressive platform, while offering little substantive policy itself, left the door open for him to urge supporters to maintain the rage. It has happened before.

 

While it's difficult to discern change in Australia's parliamentary system, which is designed to be confrontational and probing, there was a noticeable shift once Mr Abbott took the Coalition's leadership in 2009.

From that moment, he ran a determined and relentless campaign of negativity and personal attacks that sought to portray Prime Minister Julia Gillard's post-2010 Labor minority government as illegitimate.

Labor returned the favour when Mr Abbott won office in 2013. And when the coalition was returned under Mr Malcolm Turnbull in 2016 with a slim majority, and then slipped into minority as lawmakers quit and Mr Morrison took over, Labor intensified its fire.

Mr Abbott's exit from Parliament now provides a potential bookend to the decade of divisions and the possibility of a reset.

There's a degree of self-interest in both sides lifting their performance in Parliament, which has descended into the juvenile as lawmakers invoked ideological divisions that most thought died with the Cold War, as it turned off the electorate.

'REACH OUT'

A potential pointer to the future came from coalition Senator Arthur Sinodinos, a quietly spoken former chief adviser to Mr John Howard, the second-longest serving prime minister in Australia.

As it became clear the coalition would be returned by a slim margin, Mr Sinodinos urged Mr Morrison to follow in the footsteps of Mr Robert Menzies, the nation's longest leader, who almost lost in 1961.

Mr Menzies, Mr Sinodinos said, looked to the opposition for policy inspiration after that close election "because he recognised you have to reach out to the people who didn't vote for you and find out why and ameliorate those concerns".

 

There's also self-interest in Mr Morrison reaching out. His singular focus on Labor's tax changes and their associated risks left his incoming government bereft of an agenda.

Energy and climate policy could be fertile ground for bipartisanship. These former policy lightning rods within the Liberal party are likely to now bend to Mr Morrison's will given the authority he's accumulated from winning an unwinnable election.

Not everyone agrees.

Dr Jill Sheppard, a political analyst at the Australian National University, said time would tell how long Mr Morrison's "sheen within the Liberal party lasts".

"I don't know that they are quite as united as they appeared on Saturday night," she said in an interview with Bloomberg TV.

"This isn't a team that is very strongly united on policies generally or on political strategy either," she said.

"He will face huge problems once this gloss wears off."