The Revolving Door of Australian Prime Ministers


Scott J Davies

Scott Davies is a freelance writer and tutor. He is currently studying a Master of Education. He is interested in education, economics, geopolitics and history. He's on Twitter and has a Medium page.

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40 Responses

  1. I’m very glad to see Scott touching on Australian politics, and appreciate him breaking this down for us. I started following our Aussie friend’s politics more closely due to a good friend of mine who married an Australian, and was watching the political situation surrounding last years same sex marriage legalization. He subsequently immigrated there earlier this year as a result to live full time with his husband. For us American’s, I think it’s instructional to watch our friends and learn from them.Report

  2. Avatar Will Truman says:

    What’s really interesting to me is how it just turned on a dime. To go from Howard’s long service to this. Sounds like it’s not going to end any time soon as it seems more culture than structure. Unless the voters do revolt. Which, it seems like they’re divided themselves and that’s contributing to the situation. It’s a lot easier to make the case that you have to change party leadership when your majority is at risk.

    I hadn’t really thought about this playing a role, though I should have:

    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.

    The increased ability to be elected outside of a major party (IRV! IRV!) really can have a weakening effect that is positive in some respects though over time I could see creating more disunity inside of them.Report

    • Avatar Jesse says:

      Well, what’s weird is the initial ‘coup’ of Rudd made some sense – while Rudd was still popular with the voters, he absolutely could not work well within the party and it was basically Carter’s relationship with Congress x100, from everything I’ve read. The truly weird stuff has been after that, with Labour overreacting and bringing Rudd back, the coup of Abbott when he became mired behind Labour, and this recent coup.

      Also, the ‘STV’ system has been around since 1948 for the Senate and even putting that aside, the changes made to make it easier for minor parties to win were put in place in…1984. Also, in this past election, 65 of the 76 seats went to either Labour, the LNP, or the Greens.

      The big jump seems to have happened in 2013 when after election after election of one or two minor parties winning seats, there were six non-Big 4 parties winning seats, so they again made an adjustment to the STV system, which unfortunately only increased the number of minor parties.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        Yeah, the capacity for more parties has long been there, but with some of the other constraints (such as different systems for the different houses) there are more potential outcomes.

        With regard to the US system, I’ve long commented that if we had a system of proportional representation, we’d have… two parties there, for the most part. The presidential election process makes third parties very hard, and it wouldn’t work with the senate absent expansion. And so while it’s possible you’d see a few more Bernies and Kings in the House, for the most part you’re unlikely to have a completely different party structure in one area than in the other two.

        However, there could be enough Bernies and Kings to cause a lot of headaches.Report

        • Avatar dragonfrog says:

          Do you think PR would produce bigger effects in State legislatures?

          I understand municipal government is also generally linked to the two big parties in the US (municipal level political parties being something Canada has almost none of). At that level also, do you reckon PR would make a greater or lesser difference?Report

          • Avatar Will Truman says:

            I could see it having more of an effect on big cities (for example) because everybody is a Democrat. The temptation to splinter would be stronger. My knowledge here is unusually incomplete because I come from a state where city ballots are non-partisan.

            I would love for state legislatures to use their upper house, which don’t serve much purpose anyway, as a proportional representation experiment. My guess is that it’d still rotate around two parties with some outliers. Gubernatorial elections aren’t quite as third-party prohibitive as presidential ones, but they’re still an issue. Maybe if you threw in IRV or runoffs for governor, you might see more action.

            But our politics is, for the most part, pretty nationally oriented. I actually like that in Canada you have province-specific parties. I don’t see that happening in the US. The California system is actually ripe for such an experiment – it’s a one-party state that would deal with extra parties more efficiently than most – and we haven’t seen anything yet.

            So to answer your question, I’d expect it to have more difference the further down you go, but not as much anywhere as some models would suggest.Report

            • Avatar Jesse says:

              Part of the issue is you can have province-specific parties when it costs a couple of thousands dollars at most to run a province legislature race. When even state legislature races cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, that means you need access to a structured party with lots of institutional knowledge…or a crazy rich person and the crazy rich people are mainly largely happy with just taking over the GOP and getting giant tax cuts as a result.Report

              • Avatar Will Truman says:

                Good point.

                Structured parties can exist at the provincial or state level, but there is definitely some deadweight loss that’s more likely to be felt where running is expensive.Report

              • Avatar Will Truman says:

                Next thing I am going to think through: Whether the money that goes into primary races could offset that somewhat. Which is to say that the money DSA-types spend on their primary candidates could instead be used to fund a state party in a comfortably blue state.

                Even if so, you run into the problem I think of which is just a national orientation that’s really hard to shake. It’s just the nature of our character and while that *could* change (the same way it changed in Australia) I wouldn’t expect it to unless circumstances really intervened.Report

              • Avatar dragonfrog says:

                I suspect the “national orientation” would change quite quickly, as soon as a sensible proportional representation system were introduced.

                So many things go from being inconceivable for longer than living memory, to a weird new idea in the news lately, to something we can barely even remember thinking was odd in a year’s time.Report

              • Avatar Road Scholar says:

                I strongly suspect the only realistic path to PR in the US is multi-member districts in the House. Imagine a set-up where there are three or four Reps per district and each voter gets to vote for exactly one candidate with the top three or four vote-getters being seated. Game theorizing this out I think you would end up with something that looks a lot more like PR with a somewhat anti-majoritarian bias and a good, realistic chance for third/alternative parties to take a seat. It doesn’t do much for the Wyomings and Alaskas out there unless we also increase the size of the House substantially but both changes can be enacted (IANAL but I’m pretty sure this is true) with simple legislation. Making useful changes to the Senate and Presidency would require (really big and consequential) constitutional amendments which is a hell of a lift.Report

              • Avatar Jesse says:

                The other problem connected to campaign finance is let’s say you’re a moderate Republican type in a large city who wants a reasonable alternative to the Democrat’s, but know the GOP name is toxic.

                So, you create your Reform or Liberal Party or Generic Nice Things Party and even get a few op-eds in the local paper about how the GOP is extreme, but the DNC needs competition blah blah.

                However, because your a rich Republican, you’re also sending checks off to various Republican’s you support, some more conservative than your comfortable with, but hey, that’s what you’ve always done.

                Cut to, “supposed alternative to Democrats funding anti-choice, pro-Trump, pro-NRA candidates to the tune of $xxx,xxx dollars.” Then you’re dead in the water and the DNC wins 80% of the vote again.

                In short, to create this alternative party, you basically have to cut yourself completely off funding the national party your closer with and most people aren’t going to be able to do that or frankly, think that’s a positive for the issues they care about.Report

              • Avatar Will Truman says:

                Well, it depends on who the Democrats send up. If the other party sends up someone really far off to the left, then there is likely money to be raised outside of the GOP circles. Or the splinter could be a Democrat who doesn’t have enough support to win in the primaries but could win with some crossover support.

                But would anyone cross over? I don’t think it would happen naturally. That’s a big part what I mean when I talk about national orientation. It would take something to make it happen, like the Democrats screwing up pretty badly.

                All of the above assumes that the Democrats are sending up people with room in the center. I can come up with other scenarios where the splinter forms to the left.Report

              • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

                @jesse @will-truman

                This is getting into the OT but I do think that there are ways in which a center-right but sane and/or secular party could win big in cities and inner-ring suburbs. This includes the super-liberal Bay Area and San Francisco.

                As we have discussed a million times under by now, California is undergoing a housing affordability crisis where even people with solid-incomes find home ownership is out of reach. The politics of this is because of an unholy alliance between older NIMBYs and housing advocates.

                The increasing social conservatism of the GOP has made the Democratic Party home to everyone from working-class activists like Randy Bryce and AOC to top 10 percent Anywheres who are on partners with Boston Consulting Group or a big Venture Capitalist company in San Francisco.
                Or a big corporate defense law firm.

                This big tent can only stand for so long.

                So you have prosperous people who find that they can’t buy houses.

                The problem though is that the libertarian and Republican parties have gone so batshit insane on certain other issues that these people vote Democratic. They are center-right on certain economic issues but not completely hating of regulations. They also believe that climate change is real, they don’t have preoccupations about sex including premarital sex, etc.

                I think it would be something like Bloomberg or a center-right European Party.Report

              • Avatar Jesse says:

                I get your larger point, but the issue in Cali is basically, the “sane” center-right people are all homeowners who don’t wan their home values to drop.

                The only people who want to actually make massive changes are basically libertarians and left-leaning tech workers in places like San Francisco and Los Angeles, but they’ve run into problems making a cross ideological alliance.

                For example, Ed Glaeser, a libertarian leaning YIMBY was invited to be the main speaker at YIMBYtown, an upcoming YIMBY event in Boston. All seemed fine, until it turned out that Glaeser positively referenced various articles by Charles Murray.

                That’s led to a blowup on twitter between libertarian leaning YIMBY’s (mostly white dudes) and left-leaning YIMBY’s (far more POC and women) about whether Glaeser should stay invited.Report

              • Avatar dragonfrog says:

                So out of curiosity I downloaded the financial disclosure data from the three leading parties in the 2015 Alberta general election.

                The New Democratic Party (provincial counterpart to the perpetual also-ran federal NDP):
                54 seats, total campaign contributions of just under $1 million.

                The Wildrose Party (provincially specific ‘the Progressive Conservatives aren’t conservative enough for us’ party):
                21 seats, $2.2 million in contributions

                The Progressive Conservative party (provincial counterpart to the federal Conservative party, though maybe more accurately mapped to the old federal Progressive Conservatives when that was a thing):
                10 seats, $5.5 million in contributions

                Maybe I should have formed my own party at the last minute – I’d have gotten far less money than even the NDP, which clearly means I’d have won a landslide.

                Regardless of the apparent ineffectuality of the money spent, that’s a total of around $8 million on 85 seats across the three parties that mattered, $100,000-ish per seat or $33,000-ish per seat per party)Report

              • Avatar Will Truman says:

                Cool. Thanks for looking this up!Report

              • Avatar Jesse says:

                Just as a comparison, I looked up some of the numbers for some random states. I used 2016 because that’s the last ‘full’ election.


                2016 – Michigan – 21.5 Million / 115 Seats / 484 Candidates – Now there were 484 candidates, but the vast majority of those candidates spent a 1000 bucks or even less to lose in the primary.

                2016 – Idaho – 2.9 Million / 70 Seats / 159 Candidates

                2016 – Oklahoma – 10.8 Million / 101 Seats / 268 Candidates

                2016 – Tennessee – 11.5 Million / 99 Seats / 239 Candidates

                2016 – North Dakota – 776k / 24 Seats / 96 Candidates

                2016 – Oregon – 20.9 Million / 60 Races / 149 Candidates

                2016 – Kentucky – 12.7 Million / 104 Races / 214 Candidates

                Now, that North Dakota number looks good until you remember North Dakota has 20% of the population of Alberta. The closest state on the my list above is Oregon and KentuckyReport

              • Avatar Will Truman says:

                And this doesn’t include some outside spending. That doesn’t happen as much for lege election, but it does happen some.

                That said, if states were multiparty an awful lot of that primary money would actually go to the splinter parties. That’s candidate-loyalty spending rather than party-loyalty spending.Report

              • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

                @jesse @will-truman

                For even more of a campaign nutness, I saw an an add today urging people to call their Senators to support Judge Kavanaugh for Supreme Court Justice.

                Dark Money is strong in this countryReport

              • Avatar dragonfrog says:

                Those numbers don’t look all that far off then – more money per seat, but not by an order of magnitude.

                I don’t think there is much of an equivalent to costly primary contests in Canadian politics, for people just looking to run for a seat.

                Federal party leadership campaigns cost real money – like, a couple million “real” not the hundreds of millions it takes to get a presidential nomination in the US…Report

        • Avatar Stillwater says:

          The weird thing is that democracy is *supposed* to be messy, but after X amount of election cycles people start wanting clarity, and that means dominance. (That’s politics.)

          The other weird thing, in our system anyway, is that over time the degree of oscillation between each party’s control of gummint tends to destabilize democratic foundations, leading people to, well, want clarity and dominance. (That’s policy.)

          {{Another weird thing is how anti-Democratic the Senate is, but wevs. We’ll leave that for another day.}}Report

  3. Avatar Jaybird says:

    One of the things I’m currently wondering is if this isn’t yet another post-Maslow thing.

    It’s not about having needs met. Our needs are met.

    It’s about having our positional goods met. Those will always be precarious.Report

    • Avatar Blomster says:

      This. Absolutely this.

      Speaking to family that had emigrated to Australia ten years ago, they were complaining bitterly about the useless politicians they are stuck with, politicians that spend their time nitpicking about nonsense issues.

      I was rather amused with the scenario of an ex-South African in Australian complaining to those back home about the ineptitude of Australian politicians – especially given the political drama that South Africa has been through in the last 12 months (I wouldn’t expect Americans be aware of our dramas, but I do expect ex-South Africans to have a least a clue).

      So in answer I commented that politicians that nitpick about inanities is a sign of a country well-run; all the important issues are sorted, so they have to distinguish themselves by making a fuss of little things in order to gain attention.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        Positional goods = privilege, yeah?

        Maslow didn’t include them but they’ve always been there. That’s what the first and enduring theories of politics and power were constructed upon. This isn’t post-Maslow. Maslow (or people who overextend his theory) got it wrong.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird says:

          No, positional goods =/= privilege.

          I’d be more inclined to say that privilege = social capital. (Though, as we’ve argued several times, there seems to be a number of different things that we talk about when we talk about “privilege” to the point where using the word isn’t that useful.)

          I’d say that if we are talking about Maslow, we’re talking about needs that can be met. If you need food, you can eat. If you need a job, you can get a job, if you need someone to give you a squeeze and keep you warm at night, you can find someone to give you a squeeze and keep you warm at night.

          It’s when you want to be in the top 10%, only 10% of people can be in the top 10%. Maybe there are narratives that can make people *FEEL* like they’re in the top 10% even when they’re not, but that means that there are narratives that can make even people in the top 10% feel like they’re not.

          But, all that to say, positional goods and privilege don’t have an interesting correlation.Report

  4. Avatar Jesse says:

    One thing Scott didn’t point out, not out of malice or anything, is that even despite being reasonably moderate and such, because of the actions of Abbott as PM before him and some missteps on policy thanks to this split between the conservative and moderate wings, Liberal has been consistently behind Labour for a while now, so while dumping Turnbull might’ve been dumb, it’s not quite as dumb as dumping the guy whose given you a lead.

    Speaking from what I’ve read and seen from my left-leaning Australian folks I know, there seems to be a negative feedback loop where the largely right-wing newspaper press owned by Murdoch and friends pushes populist right-wing stories, those stories light up the rural and exurban base, some LNP members respond to them, despite polling showing that focusing on such things actually hurt their overall standing, and around and around they go.

    It’s not like these folks are saying Aussies are secret leftists or anything, they make the point that if the LNP let Turnbull govern as Turnbull, instead of being hemmed in by what conservative activists on TV and conservative columnists from the various newspapers want from their blinkered viewpoint, the Liberals could easily win and be dominant, like they were under Howard.Report

    • Avatar Stillwater says:

      there seems to be a negative feedback loop where the largely right-wing newspaper press owned by Murdoch and friends pushes populist right-wing stories, those stories light up the rural and exurban base, some LNP members respond to them, despite polling showing that focusing on such things actually hurt their overall standing, and around and around they go.

      This is a tactic. Granted, to implement it one side needs a big megaphone and those aren’t just laying around or anything. But it’s a tactic nevertheless. I don’t view this as a right v left issue, but a right v common-sense and decency issue. (But that’s how I roll.)

      Needless to say I have no idea how to combat this.Report

  5. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    I marvel at the ability of parliamentary systems to allow parties to gut unpopular leaders and replace them. When Thatcher became an albatross, the Conservatives could abandon her and replace her with the more popular John Major. This allowed them keep on governing Britain for seven years. They were aided by the still ongoing civil war in the Labour Party though. In our system, your stuck with leaders until the next election whether a party or the public wants it or not. It adds stability but can also increase the pain time for everybody.

    As people noted, impeachment is a political tool masquerading as a criminal justice tool. Democracies seem to need an ability to replace leaders fast if necessary. They also need an ability to call special elections on occasion rather than having to wait until the next regularly scheduled election. This increases my support of the parliamentary system as superior to our system.Report

    • Avatar James K says:


      I believe its an important strength of The Westminster System that the head of government is ultimately subordinate to the legislature, rather than superior to it, as the US President is.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq says:

        Theoretically, the President, Congress, and the Federal Judiciary are supposed to be co-equal branches of government. That turned out not to work in practice. The President is treated as superior to Congress, especially if his party is in control of both the Senate and the House. They just follow along. Real parliamentary system get the working mechanism better.Report

        • Avatar James K says:


          Indeed, over time the Presidency has come to eclipse the other branches. I think there are several factors have driven this:
          1) Co-equal branches doesn’t really work, someone’s going to win the power struggle. Parliamentary systems make sure the winner is the legislature.
          2) The rise of the administrative state has expended the role of the executive considerably. If the President just ran the Post Office and negotiated treaties, they wouldn’t have the outside role they do today.
          3) The President has several natural advantages is power contests with the legislature. The legislature is split into two houses, and is further divided by geographic and partisan interests. By contrast, the presidency is concentrated into a single person and therefore is much better coordinated. Also the President is the only nationally-elected politicians and is therefore able to leverage the legitimisation myth of democracy more easily than legislators can.Report

          • Avatar Road Scholar says:

            Also the President is the only nationally-elected politicians and is therefore able to leverage the legitimisation myth of democracy more easily than legislators can.

            I find your use of the word myth here interesting. To my mind, political/authoritarian legitimacy is conferred by adherence to a previously established and agreed upon process. Democratic processes are but one choice, albeit the contemporary standard. It’s not a myth; it’s a choice, an option, but one with which you may personally disagree.Report

            • Avatar James K says:


              By myth, I’m not referring to something false, but rather a story we tell ourselves about the world. In this case, I mean that a person elected by the wheel, country can bill themselves as “more democratic” than some elected by only part of it. This gives the President a psychological advantage in power struggles with the legislature.Report

    • Avatar Michael Cain says:

      I suspect that some of that ability is due to how closed the system is. Certainly the two biggest parties in the UK are. The MPs from the party winnow the choices down to two, then the party members select from those. (Sometimes the MPs narrow the choice to one, in which case the party members don’t even vote.) And so few party members: in a country of 65M, the Conservative Party has 124,000 members.Report

      • Avatar James K says:


        That’s also part of it. It’s really strange to me how common party membership seems to be in the US, and how weak your parties actually are.Report

  6. Avatar James K says:

    Thanks for posting this Scott, its good to get an Australian perspective on what is going on with your country’s politicians.

    From this side of the Tasman, the whole thing seems really bizarre. We occasionally get bouts of instability like this within parties in New Zealand, but it’s always parties in opposition that are performing poorly in the polls. Maybe New Zealand voters are unwilling to tolerate instability in their governments and our politicians know that.Report

    • Avatar Jesse says:

      You’re just all secretly afraid of the Sheep Revolution if you guys get too wobbly, James. Plus, your government has so little going on your PM can have a baby and still be in charge with almost no problems.Report

    • The whole situation seems bizarre even for us here in Australia too. We’ve had leadership spills in recent years, sure, but the previous ones had more of a logical justification from an electoral perspective. This one, on the other hand, seems especially hard to make sense of. At the time, the Coalition and Labor were basically even in terms of the polls. The Liberal party room hadn’t settled on an alternative Prime Minister. Even in the final vote, Scott Morrison only defeated Peter Dutton by a few votes – a sign of a divided party room if there ever was one. In previous leadership spills, the preferred candidate usually won with 2/3 of the vote or something similar. Hard to fathom the electoral logic behind this latest spill.Report