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Tuesday, 15 September 2015

#Libspill

It was efficient, almost bloodless. At around 4pm after having told the media that he was going to hold a press conference, the communications minister, Malcolm Turnbull, appeared before their cameras at Parliament House and announced that he would run for the Liberal Party leadership. He had spoken with the prime minister. Almost immediately, Twitter lit up like a barrage of fireworks being set off. Then the deputy party leader, Julie Bishop, announced via the media that she also had spoken with the prime minister, and had told him that she would be supporting Turnbull.

The #libspill hashtag on Twitter went into overdrive, spewing out tweets far faster than a fully-functional human could possibly read them. Another hashtag soon appeared, #libspill2 (to distinguish it from the aborted leadership challenge that took place in February, which functioned as a warning to the prime minister that the party did not have unlimited patience and that his performance would have to improve if he wanted to remain as leader). And then there was another, #putyouronionsout, which pointed back in time to a media appearance the prime minister had held earlier in his term eating a raw onion. Pictures appeared on Twitter of red string bags of onions hanging on doorknobs.

Over the next few hours the TV news took first position in the minds of the electorate. A series of Liberal Party elected representatives appeared on TV to discuss Turnbull's announcement, including the prime minister himself. Tony Abbott sounded angry, very angry. "We are not the Labor Party," he croaked out through clenched teeth, referring to the leadership challenges of the former government of Labor. In its two most recent terms, the Labor Party had changed leaders twice without a general election being held.

But Abbott still hasn't worked out how the electorate using social media has changed the very nature of the public sphere. Governments no longer have three years of "clean air" - that mythological desirable of all elected governments - in order to get through its platform of promised policies. They have much less than that. As we also saw in January with the demise after only one term of the Queensland state Liberal National government, you don't have any time to relax in office any more. How much time you actually do have is still being worked out, but the cold truth is that everything is different from how it was before. The electorate can make decisions about you faster than it has ever been able to, and you won't have any way to reverse its direction once it has made up its mind.

Soon the evening began to resolve itself into these sessions of talk on the TV news interspersed with suits appearing from time to time to discuss the contenders in the spill. Then it was announced that the ballot in the party room would take place at 9.15pm. A while later we started to see groups of politicians, and politicians alone, walking down the corridors of Parliament House toward the Party Room. Once they were all inside we waited. The talk on the TV became gradually more and more dislocated as the journalists talked through the obvious subjects and then searched around for things to say while in reality they were all waiting for the announcement of the result.

At about 9.40pm Scott Buchholz, the party room whip, emerged with a deputy and announced that Turnbull had won the ballot and would be the nation's next prime minister. Twitter started to spew out tweets on the #libspill hashtag even faster than it had done before as people congratulated each other on the favourable result. We didn't have to wait long before Turnbull appeared to talk with the media. He thanked the prime minister. He joked with assembled journalists. He turned on the charm. Then his newly-elected deputy, Julie Bishop, spoke. They went away. The TV news switched to a new program. People chatted away happily on Twitter and even on Facebook as the news filtered through the community.

By midnight the #libspill hashtag on Twitter had slowed to a comprehensible rate of display. The new prime minister would be sworn into office the following day. A change of leadership had been completed and everyone had watched. It is a kind of radical transparency which has worked its way into these events but also into the process of politics more generally. There is nowhere to hide anymore. You can't lie and endlessly manipulate messages as Abbott had done, and get away with it. People know. They are watching. You are under constant surveillance. Get used to it.

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