Another Round in Australia’s Political Churn

Malcolm Turnbull, left, was replaced as prime minister this week by Scott Morrison, right.CreditCreditLukas Coch/EPA, via Shutterstock
Malcolm Turnbull, left, was replaced as prime minister this week by Scott Morrison, right. Credit Lukas Coch/EPA, via Shutterstock

Another Australian leader has been brought down by his own party, bringing the total number of prime ministers since 2010 to six, one short of the record of seven between 1901 and 1909, in the first decade of federation.

This particular coup came with a Machiavellian twist. The fallen prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, thwarted his conservative rival Peter Dutton on Friday by transferring his support to another candidate, Scott Morrison, who was then elected prime minister by 45 votes to 40. It left the government divided between its hard-right and moderate factions, and the public bewildered by the weeklong conservative tantrum.

There is a warning for all advanced democracies in Australia’s political impatience: The churn in leaders doesn’t appease voters. It only increases their disillusionment with democracy.

The short story of Australia’s descent to international ridicule begins with the refusal of the main parties to adapt to challenges of the 21st century. They have borrowed the worst of United States presidential politics, with its obsessive focus on the leader, and grafted it onto a Westminster system of parliamentary government that was designed for collaboration and compromise.

The prime minister is not even mentioned in the Australian Constitution, yet the office has evolved into a paradoxical position of supreme authority and permanent vulnerability. The government becomes synonymous with the leader, and while the leader is riding high in the opinion polls, the job is safe, and the leader’s agenda can be turned into legislation.

But the prime minister serves at the whim of the party in control of Parliament, and both sides have acquired an impatience with leaders who fall behind in the polls. And so they keep sacking their leader, repeating the mistake of seeking salvation in the next messiah.

The public’s anger can be measured in many ways. Trust in government has been in free fall since the first leadership coup in 2010, when Kevin Rudd of the Labor Party was replaced by Julia Gillard. By the last election in 2016, trust was at an all-time low, according to the Australian Election Study. And in that election, radical parties to the left and right garnered their highest combined vote since the 1930s.

There is no proof that changing an unpopular leader ultimately helps a political party. On the contrary, each party that swapped prime ministers between elections suffered heavy losses in the next election.

Labor lost its majority after Mr. Rudd was toppled. And when he reclaimed the prime ministership from Ms. Gillard in 2013, he led Labor to a landslide defeat. The conservatives, similarly, had their majority reduced to a single seat after Tony Abbott was replaced by Malcolm Turnbull before the last election.

The Labor experience should have discouraged the conservatives from indulging in back-to-back coups. But even this recent memory did not deter the government’s right-wing members from initiating their assault on Mr. Turnbull this week.

The turmoil on the conservative side is more ideological than the personality clash between Mr. Rudd and Ms. Gillard. Labor has, in fact, been relatively stable since its two fallen prime ministers left the Parliament.

But there is no sign that the eventual departure of Mr. Turnbull and Mr. Abbott, who represent the moderate and right wings of the conservative Liberal Party, would bring an end to the conservative culture war. What will gall the Australian public is the inability of the system to correct for the leadership instability of the past decade.

To be fair, the Labor party has made it harder to remove a future prime minister on its side with changes to its rules, requiring the party leader be elected by a combined vote of the parliamentary party and grass-roots members. But the conservatives reserve the right to eat their own.

The deeper crisis is one of relevance. Parliament remains woefully removed from the people it serves, being less diverse and more masculine than the population at large.

In previous eras of leadership chaos, most notably in the 1970s, the parties were still able to govern effectively, for example by securing historic reforms across the spectrum, from the removal of the White Australia Policy and the introduction of Indigenous land rights to the expansion of the social safety net and the first tentative steps toward economic deregulation. By the turn of the 21st century, Australia had added a world-class universal health care system and gun restrictions to its social and economic model.

But Parliament has been a broken record of gridlock since 2009, when Labor and the conservatives failed to reach an agreement on climate change policy. The hard right of the Liberal Party and its coalition partner, the Nationals, have run a successful decade-long campaign of obstruction, refusing to even concede the need for action on climate change. It was Mr. Turnbull’s proposal to honor Australia’s commitment to reduce emissions under the Paris agreement that triggered this week’s uprising. He surrendered to internal pressure and withdrew his plan, but they came for his job anyway.

The upshot is that the conservatives, once the great pragmatists of Australian politics, no longer value bipartisanship. This winner-take-all approach is shared by Labor and has reinforced the policy paralysis. Both sides have taken office over the past decade with a backward-looking agenda, devoted to repealing the signature legislation of their predecessors.

The real tragedy for Australia is that democracy may seem even less relevant to the people in the coming decade.

George Megalogenis is an author and commentator. His latest book is The Football Solution.

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