Sam Dastyari: Like Everything Else, Today’s Failed Leadership Spill Is Tony Abbott’s Fault

Just when you thought NSW politics couldn’t be more pathetic...

Today we witnessed a leadership spill without a spill.

It was just an embarrassing press release, a small puff of sound and then the silence of humiliation.

The attempted removal of a popular Premier was shambolic, stupid and embarrassing. It was a bunch of unknowns doing nothing. It was champagne NSW politics. Had the dissidents thrown in a brown paper bag (perhaps even an Aldi one these days), it would have been very ‘on brand’ for Australia’s Premier State.

But here’s what you might have missed -- like all things inexplicable in modern politics, today’s shamozzle was completely and utterly Tony Abbott’s fault.

Without a doubt.

Why Tony Abbott, you might wonder?

Is it because he opposes the immensely popular legalisation of abortion bill that Gladys Berejiklian is supporting? A bill that has over 70% support and was the trigger for a handful of disgruntled (and unknown) Members of Parliament to launch a challenge?

Not at all.

Tony Abbott speaks during an anti-abortion rally in Hyde Park, Sydney on 15 September 2019. (Image: AAP)

Sure, Tony Abbott has campaigned against the bill, even spoke out against it at an event, but don’t be foolish. No one cares what an Ex-PM thinks about anything.

No, to understand why Tony Abbott is responsible for the NSW mess you have to go back to 2015 and the time that Tony Abbott was almost beaten in a leadership contest by an empty chair.

That’s right. That time when the Prime Minister was nearly defeated by, well, nothing. By a margin of 12 votes, the elected Prime Minister of Commonwealth of Australia beat an empty chair to retain the leadership of our nation.

It was the 9th of February 2015 and the catalyst for his final removal by Malcolm Turnbull seven months later.

You would be forgiven for forgetting about the empty chair incident. It was two Prime Ministers and three leadership spills ago. But it was a seminal moment in Australian politics.

In television, there is a phrase: 'jumping the shark'. It's a reference to the sitcom Happy Days, and a later episode when Fonzie jumps over a shark while water skiing. A desperate measure on a declining TV show.

In February 2015, Australian politics officially ‘jumped the shark’. Except it wasn’t happy days and Tony Abbott was not the Fonz. That was the day when all the rules relating to leadership spills were thrown out the door. Ultimately, that is how we got to today’s fiasco.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott (centre) and Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop (right) arrive for the Liberal party leadership spill on 9 February 2015. (Image: AAP)

See, there used some basic rules when you wanted to remove a leader. Three to be precise....

1. A sensible reason.

2. A candidate.

3. The votes to win.

I, stupidly, had a hand in removing two Prime Ministers (a mistake) and a few Premiers. Because, you know, Labor.

But back to the rules. Let’s break them down.

You needed ‘a sensible reason’ as your catalyst. Usually this was the electoral viability. That’s the reason given for removing Kevin Rudd by Julia Gillard and vice versa.

Secondly, you needed a candidate. Once a self evident truth.

Thirdly, you needed to have the votes required to win the position. There had been leadership attempts that had failed in the past, but the challengers always thought they either had the numbers or could get close to them.

Then there was the chair. An empty chair, to be exact.

When insurgents in 2015 came for Tony Abbott they didn’t have a candidate (rule. 2) or the votes (rule. 3). But they still were able to mortally wound him.

And that’s what brings us to today.

It was the natural progression of things. Not only did the NSW Liberal insurgents not have a candidate or the votes, they also didn’t really have a reason. What was the whole point of it? Were they upset at a free vote in the Parliament? A conscience vote on abortion?

Come off it. It failed. Which is a good thing. It will be interesting to see if it does any long term damage to Gladys. I hope it doesn’t.

But go ahead and add today to the budgie smugglers, knighting a prince and eating an onion as another great moment in the legacy of Australia’s 28th Prime Minister. The bloke that beat an empty chair... narrowly.