The high cost of Australia's constant leadership battles

by Bernard Lagan / 09 September, 2018
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Photo/Getty Images

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Photo/Getty Images

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Less than 30% of Australians believe people in government could be trusted, and close to 75% thought they were there to look after themselves.

When Malcolm Turnbull was taken down by his own governing Liberal Party late last month, the nation chalked up its sixth prime minister in eight years. It’s just one short of the record churn of leaders set in the turbulent years of the modern nation’s beginnings, from 1901 to 1909.

It’s a record normally associated with a banana republic, rather than the world’s 12th-largest economy that is drowning in democracy – Australia has no fewer than nine national, state and territory parliaments. The old gag that Australia is the least stable country in the South Pacific can no longer be laughed off.

The churn rate of prime ministers has been largely caused by the eagerness of the two largest political parties – Labor and the centre-right Liberals – to cannibalise their leaders before their terms are up.

What’s the point? Australians’ trust in government has been plummeting since the first leadership coup in 2010, when Julia Gillard secured the backing of enough Labor MPs to oust Kevin Rudd.

By the last election in 2016, trust had hit an all-time low, according to the long-term Australian Election Study by the Australian National University in Canberra. Less than 30% of Australians believed people in government could be trusted, and close to 75% thought they were there to look after themselves.

There’s no evidence, either, that the public shares the views of politicians that dumping an unpopular leader ahead of an election lifts the party’s popularity. It does the opposite. Every time the Labor or Liberal parties have jettisoned a prime minister, they’ve had punishing losses at the next election. Labor lost its 18-seat parliamentary majority in the 2010 election, the first time the people voted after Kevin Rudd was ousted. When an avenging Rudd snatched back the prime ministership from Julia Gillard, he went on to lead Labor to a humiliating defeat by the Tony Abbott-led conservatives at the 2013 election.

The Abbott government came into power with a whopping majority, holding 90 of the 150 seats in Parliament. By then, we knew the script. In 2015, barely two years after his election victory, Abbott was rolled by rival Malcolm Turnbull.

At the 2016 election, Turnbull turned Abbott’s vast majority into a fragile, single-seat margin. Now Turnbull himself has gone.

Will Australia’s bloody cycle of decapitating its governments now end? Hopefully, with all of the recent assassins – Gillard, Rudd and Turnbull – out of politics, the need for revenge has been quelled.

But there are other pressures that contribute to the all-too-frequent disposal of leaders, especially the constant drip of shallow opinion polls that demand prime ministers and governments perform like actors in search of ratings.

More troubling than the polls is the rise of vitriolic conservative commentators who, on Sky News Australia, include Abbott’s former chief of staff, Peta Credlin, an intense disliker of Turnbull. Radio has the shrill, activist host Alan Jones, a former Wallabies coach, who made personal phone calls to MPs urging them to dump Turnbull. There are few politicians who won’t take a call from the 77-year-old king of breakfast radio.

If the history of prime ministerial dumpings is any guide, Turnbull’s replacement, Scott Morrison, will lose the next election, due by May 2019, to Bill Shorten’s Labor Party.

One man remains ready to take back the leadership of what will then be the routed Liberals. His name is Tony Abbott and he won’t rest until he is prime minister. Again.

New Zealander Bernard Lagan is the Australian correspondent for the Times, London.

This article was first published in the September 15, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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