Malcolm Turnbull has become the fifth Australian prime minister in five years after emerging victorious from a sudden leadership spill against Tony Abbott that occurred as metropolitan editions approached deadlines.
All Australian national and metropolitan papers led on the change of prime minister despite the lateness of the vote – just before 10pm AEST. Mastheads prepared for an imminent spill after Mr Turnbull resigned as Communications Minister, following a 20-minute afternoon meeting with Mr Abbott after parliamentary question time.
Mr Turnbull told Mr Abbott that unless he stood aside, there would be a challenge. Prior to question time, Foreign Minister and Deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop had warned the Prime Minister had lost support of the backbench and the majority of the cabinet.
Mr Abbott then chose to bring on the spill motion that night, instead of waiting until the next morning, setting the scene for a race against time for editors and their staffs.
The Age editor-in-chief Andrew Holden said the paper adopted a standard ploy of preparing two front pages – an Abbott win and a Turnbull win – during the lead-up to the leadership ballot to ensure the outcome made its main editions.
“You might as well, because otherwise you’re sitting there twiddling your thumbs between 8 o’clock and 9:30,” Mr Holden said. “It’s like a grand final; there’s only going to be one of two winners. Everybody on grand final day prepares two different pages, depending on what their deadlines are, and you have them ready to go.
“So, in that respect, it sounds like a mass panic, but you’ve got plenty of time to prepare yourself for the two options.”
Mr Holden said The Age website’s live political blog had more a million different people read it throughout that day – an extraordinary number.
“We had a number of videos watched, particularly later in the evening. Normally you see your traffic drop out from 5 o’clock on as people start to go home; that’s normal for all websites. It basically stayed, in fact it kept going.”
Deputy editor of The Daily Telegraph Ben English said the spill created some logistical issues that needed immediate attention. These included extending the print run, examining deadline parameters and staff levels.
“We also wanted to ensure we had the right coverage from a digital perspective, to ensure we were owning the story on all our platforms,” he said.
“A lot of the stories were done, and they just needed to be tweaked at the end to reflect the outcome. So that was just a logistical, practical reality. You can’t just write everything from the start at the time the result is known.
“Remarkably, people were coming in, as always happens. People were coming in on their days off because they knew it was a massive event. It’s just in journalist blood, they just know… they want to be in on the action, so you had backbenchers, reporters, and all sorts of people coming in and helping out”
The change of leader ended months of agonising over the government’s failure to rebuild its political capital following a poorly received first budget, and consistently poor polling.
It also opened up the possibility of the government embracing media reform first proposed by Mr Turnbull last year, which had been put on hold by Mr Abbott because of a lack of consensus among stakeholders.
The changes involve the removal of both the reach rule, which would allow mergers between metropolitan and regional broadcasters, and the two-out-of-three rule that prevents any entity from controlling more than two out of three platforms in any one market: newspapers, free-to-air TV and radio.
Page one overage of the leadership change varied from criticism of Mr Turnbull’s open destabilisation of Mr Abbott, such as The Daily Telegraph’s “Smiling assassin” headline, to the more welcoming “Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull” in The Age.
Most papers carried editorials on the spill. The Australian said that although Mr Abbott had been rejected by his own party, his government was no disaster when compared with the administration under Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. “Team Abbott had its achievements, including the reassertion of border control and a clutch of free-trade agreements,” it said. It also offered criticism. “In its first year, it over-egged the budget crisis, alienating both voters and crossbenchers. It never really recovered. Its failure lay in its inability to learn from mistakes.”
The Sydney Morning Herald said Australia needed government from the centre. “Too often Mr Abbott played to the worst traits and the extremes. He saw reducing the age of entitlement as an excuse for being unfair to those least able to carry the load. Mr Turnbull will need to recognise the need for sacrifice, fairness and inclusion. He will also have to learn from the blunders of his brief foray as opposition leader before Mr Abbott toppled him in 2009.”