The next Australian Prime Minister… Josh Frydenberg?

Update: Mr Frydenberg has backflipped clumsily on a carbon price.  Oops

The soap opera that is the Australian Prime Ministership goes on.  In the 32 years between December 1975 and November 2007 we had four prime ministers (Fraser, Hawke, Keating, Howard).  In the five years between June 2010 and September 2015 we had five (Rudd, Gillard, Rudd, Abbott, Turnbull).  And Turnbull’s position looks precarious.  So, here’s some idle speculation…

The tipping point for Kevin Rudd came in April 2010, when he almost casually mentioned that action on climate change, which he had proclaimed ‘the great moral challenge of our generation’ would be put off for at least 3 years.  Voters decided he didn’t actually believe in anything, and his personal approval ratings plummeted.   Malcolm Turnbull’s willingness to throw his own beliefs overboard is putting him in the same position (see Kristina Keneally (ex-NSW premier, Labor) and Katherine Murphy, an erstwhile pro-Turnbull journo).  Turnbull overthrew Tony Abbott on the basis of 30 bad-for-Abbot Newspolls (a fortnightly opinion poll).   Turnbull has had 5 in a row now himself, and the vultures seem to be circling.  Barring an odd (miraculous) improvement, I think that, by the middle of 2017 at the latest, with Turnbull’s standing within and without the Liberal party in tatters, there will be a spill (i.e. an internal challenge).

[This assumes of course that the Liberal National Coalition hangs on to its one seat majority in the lower house – that no death, incapacity, scandal forces a bye-election in a winnable for Labour in a LNP seat.]

While Tony Abbott and Andrew Bolt might want Abbott to ‘do a Rudd’ and return to the prime ministership, Tony Abbott is no Kevin Rudd.  Rudd had had very high popularity with the voters for a long time (but became loathed by his own party – see multiple accounts by former colleagues, Gillard, Swann, Garrett etc).  Abbott was never popular with the public, neither as Opposition Leader nor as Prime Minister for two action-packed years from September 2013 to 2015. (Nor was he popular with his party. He won the 2009 spill by a single vote. One person spoiled their ballot and someone else is reported to have said ‘what have we done?’ after he won that tussle).

Who else?  It’s hard to see Peter Dutton or Scott Morrison getting the tap on the shoulder from the ‘faceless men’ (actually, the Liberal Party doesn’t work quite like Labor).  Surely Dutton knows he is too loathed??   Greg Hunt may fancy his chances, who knows. Julie Bishop?  Well, she’s certainly been a survivor, and loyal, but if she wanted the top job, would she have not gone for it by now?  Perhaps she destined to do a Peter Costello, though the analogy is faulty – Costello was much more upfront about his ambitions while Treasurer under John Howard.


Which us brings us to… Josh Frydenberg, the member for Kooyong (see footnote).  Writing in the Guardian, Katherine Murphy (seen by some as Malcolm Turnbull fan) says , “Josh Frydenberg is one of the brightest people in the parliament.”

(though the commenters are less sure, and one argues – “if Frydenberg is the best and brightest they are in serious trouble!”

Another writes

“Freydenberg is not one of the brightest people in the parliament! He may be one of the brightest people in the government but after his ridiculous rant about the Hazelwood closure among other things this is debatable, but then Daffy Duck would easily rank as the brightest person in the government given the performances over the past 3 years.

The brightest people in the parliament sit on the Opposition benches where the depth of talent makes all in government look like the clueless, tantrum throwing, toddlers that they are.

Australia desperately needs the brightest people in parliament which is why the government has to go, and much sooner rather than later.”

If he does have leadership ambitions, then his attack on renewable energy during and after the SA blackout of 28 September 2016 begins to make more sense.  He was throwing some red meat to the lads on the ‘right’ whose votes he would need if there were indeed a leadership contest.  Katherine Murphy has a slightly different take, citing the then upcoming ratification of the Paris Agreement on emissions reductions

“Turnbull and Frydenberg, and the renewables bull horn do make a bit more sense if we tumble to the fact the government has not yet ratified the Paris deal, and doubtless wants to be able to ratify the Paris deal with only the mildest tut-tut from the Quadrant corner, rather than the whole process triggering yet another bout of internal cage fighting within the Coalition about climate change and whether it’s happening or not.” (Murphy, 2016)

So the major thing that Frydenberg has in his favour is he doesn’t yet have a staggeringly bad image with the population at large (Dutton, Morrison, Abbott).  His path would presumably involve the Finkel review – first report due in December, final one in March 2017 or so –  going ‘well’,  and Frydenberg managing to finesse the issue of what to do about the gold-plated electricity grid and the impending changes pushed by the plummeting cost of renewables (both small and large-scale).  If Frydenberg can keep enough people on the right happy, without painting himself as (yet another) denier/delayer to the public, which is becoming a bit more antsy on climate change, then he would be in a very very good position.  This would mean there’d have to be a move before the review of the current Direct Action policy, which Turnbull memorably described as ‘bullshit’ shortly after Abbott toppled him in December 2009 (I did say this was a soap opera)…

What stands in his way?  Well, Turnbull, Abbott, Dutton and Morrison probably all want the job, obviously.  I like to believe that his being Jewish is not a factor (though I am sadly probably wrong on this).  Is he too young? He’s 45 at present, but there have been younger Prime Ministers – Chris Watson was 37 when he became Australia’s third leader in 1904.  Stanley Bruce was 39 when he became PM in 1923.  To skip forward to (relatively!) recent history, Malcolm Fraser took power aged 45 at the end of 1975, and Paul Keating was 47 when he took over from Bob Hawke in December 1991.  Most PMs are in their late 40s to mid 50s when they (first) take charge. We don’t do gerontocrats in Australia…

Cartoonists may be sharpening their caricatures, though David Pope of the Canberra Times already has him nailed…  Watch this space…


Murphy, K. 2016. With opponents inside and out, there’s no plain sailing for Malcolm Turnbull. Guardian Australia, 5 November.

On Kooyong –

Kooyong is regarded as a Liberal “leadership seat.” The three men who held it before Georgiou all went on to lead the Liberals or their predecessors–Andrew Peacock (leader of the Liberal Party 1983–85 and 1989–90), Sir Robert Menzies (founder of the Liberal Party and Prime Minister 1939–41 and 1949–66), and Sir John Latham (leader of the Nationalist Party, a direct ancestor of the Liberals, 1929–31).

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