The Revolving Door of Australian Prime Ministers
In an extraordinary week in Australian politics, yet another incumbent Prime Minister has been removed by their own party. Australia now has its seventh Prime Minister in just over a decade, as Scott Morrison became Australia’s 30th Prime Minister. It follows a week where multiple leadership spill motions were carried by the ruling Liberal Party against former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. The leadership spill motions occurred as a result of the former leader losing the support of the Liberal party room, as well as consistent poor opinion polling over an extended period of time. Once again, Australian politics has gained the world’s attention – for all the wrong reasons. Why, then, is Australia experiencing yet more political instability, despite being among the world’s most successful and prosperous nations by almost every measure?
How did this happen yet again?
In order to explain how Australia has yet another new Prime Minister, it is worth pointing out a few things about Australia’s political system and culture. Firstly, and most importantly, Australia uses the Westminster system of democracy. In this system, Australians vote for a political party, not a leader, come election time. This is in contrast to other systems around the world, including the American system, where the electorate directly votes in the head of state. The Prime Minister, in the Australian system, is the leader of the party or coalition of parties which has a majority in the House of Representatives. These parties can change leader at any time they wish, without input from the voting public. Leadership changes used to be a relatively rare thing in Australian politics. Following the removal of first-term Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2010, Australia’s federal politics quickly developed a culture that is far more permissive of such changes. The parties and the factions within them have become increasingly polarised and partisan, creating a more acrimonious and divisive form of politics.
As is the case around the world, Australian politics has become increasingly fragmented. While there are still two dominant parties, the centre-left Labor Party and the centre-right Liberal/National Coalition, these parties do not boast the same support from the electorate as they once did. In recent election cycles, minor parties such as the left-wing Greens party, as well as several minor parties and independent Senators from across the political spectrum have emerged onto the federal political scene.
Without the same level of bipartisanship and consensus that was previously a factor in Australian politics, major political reforms have proven hard to come by. The company tax cuts, a cornerstone of the Turnbull government’s economic agenda, was shelved for the upcoming election cycle. Citing an inability to gain support from key crossbench senators, Turnbull has instead changed tack, to providing tax breaks for small and medium-sized businesses. The overall corporate tax rate will remain unchanged for the time being, leaving it still among the highest in the developed world. This follows a humiliating stepdown on another signature policy, the renewable energy target, just days earlier. The failure to implement key policies such as these contributed to the Liberal Party deciding that Turnbull must go.
The latest leadership tensions within the Coalition highlight a more fundamental problem within the party. The broad-based tent of the Coalition, which includes centrists, classical liberals and social conservatives is now fracturing. Increasingly, these groups within the party are working against, rather than with each other. The current tensions go back several years, to 2015, when Malcolm Turnbull engineered a similar ouster of then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott, a prominent member of the party’s conservative faction. Since then, Turnbull had increasingly come under attack by this faction, who, as well as being aggrieved by Abbott losing his position as Prime Minister, felt that Turnbull was pursuing a policy agenda that was too far to the left of where the Coalition should be.
The election of Scott Morrison, who is considered a moderate who works with both the centrist and conservative factions of the party, represents a compromise within the party. By contrast, Peter Dutton, the man who led the motion for a leadership change, represents the conservative faction of the party.
How will Morrison govern?
Morrison’s extensive career in politics and on the frontbench for several previous Liberal Prime Ministers and Opposition leaders gives us some clues as to how he will govern. He has worked in several portfolios, including as Treasurer, Minister for Social Services, and Minister for Immigration and Border Protection. Having experience in three of the most important portfolios will be an advantage for Morrison and will likely make the transition into the role of Prime Minister a little easier than it otherwise would have been.
As previously mentioned, Morrison does not neatly fit into either the centrist or conservative factions of the Liberal party, having policy preferences and core beliefs which fit into both these categories. He will likely govern in a more conservative fashion than Turnbull, particularly on social issues. Turnbull was notably more moderate on social issues than the majority of his party – one of the main reasons for his ultimate demise as Prime Minister.
Morrison’s pragmatic style of governance will be reflected in his frontbench ministry. There will be some continuity with the Turnbull government. One key member of Turnbull’s frontbench, former Energy minister Josh Frydenberg, has been promoted to Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party. Other influential members, such as former Foreign Affairs minister Julie Bishop, have been relegated to the backbench. Peter Dutton, the man who instigated the spill motion against Turnbull, has somewhat surprisingly kept his position as Home Affairs Minister. Overall, the frontbench has a significantly different look than what it did under Malcolm Turnbull – a sign of both a change in the policy agenda and a necessary step to quell some of the inevitable in-fighting after a divisive leadership change.
What are the chances of an election victory for the Coalition?
The events of the last week have undoubtedly significantly diminished the re-election prospects of the Coalition. Leadership spills, especially those conducted in the manner which deposed Malcolm Turnbull, do not sit well with the Australian electorate. Though Australian political parties are perfectly able to do this, the perception among the vast majority of the Australian electorate is, rightly, that the voters should decide the leader. As many political commentators have pointed out, the transaction costs of changing leaders during a term in government is extremely high. The manner of the latest change, where only 45 members of the Liberal party room actually voted for a leadership spill, and 40 voted against, effectively endorsing Malcolm Turnbull to remain as leader, exacerbate this. In previous leadership spills, an overwhelming majority of the party room vote for a leadership change, such as when Malcolm Turnbull ousted former Liberal leader Tony Abbott in 2015.
Having said this, an election does not have to be called until May of next year, nine months from now. This is a long time in politics, especially in Australia. The opposition Labor party, while disciplined and united, are far from an unbeatable political force. Their leader, Bill Shorten, is not a particularly popular figure, at least given opinion polling. Labor are also not without their own history of changing leadership abruptly, a point which the Coalition government are only too happy to remind the electorate of. As a result, Labor will not be able to score as many political points attacking the Coalition.
Conservative columnist Chris Kenny, writing for The Australian, makes some salient points about the political landscape at present. He rightly notes that, for all the chaos of the last week for the Coalition, the leadership coup will likely fade from the memories of most voters in the not-too-distant future. A fresh start and a renewed policy agenda under Morrison, taking into account the Liberal Party’s disaffected Conservative faction, could conceivably reinvigorate the party heading into an election.
Despite this, there is essentially no margin for error for Morrison and the Coalition from now until the election. Any sign of disunity or of policy inertia will be seized upon by an energised Labor opposition and will be viewed unfavourably by the broader electorate, with whom the Coalition have squandered any remaining goodwill. Scott Morrison and the Liberal Party will have to hit the ground running to have any chance of success at the upcoming federal election.