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24 August 2018

Why Australia burns through so many prime ministers

Scott Morrison replaced Malcom Turnbull who replaced Tony Abbott who replaced Kevin Rudd who replaced Julia Gillard. 

By John McTernan

Australia has a new prime minister. If you have been following Australian politics you will know that this is the fifth such new prime minister in as many years. Scott Morrison replaced Malcom Turnbull who replaced Tony Abbott who replaced Kevin Rudd who replaced Julia Gillard. A very Aussie inversion of those Old Testament lists of who begat whom. Some of you may shrug and decline to learn Mr Morrison’s name, let alone his nickname, ScoMo – the Australian habit of shortening every word and replacing the ending with an “o” stretches even to politics.

But there is something interesting going on in Australian politics, which has wider meaning for us than simply a chance to chuckle at apparently rational politicians acting utterly irrationally. And that, in a way is the first connection. Let’s take the beam from our own eye – Brexit is the number one global case study in apparently rational politicians objectively acting counter to the national interest. Just as I feel honour bound to explain to people in the UK why politics Down Under makes sense, so, too, when I travel anywhere abroad do I only receive one question from political advisers, journalists and politicians – can you explain Brexit? Spoiler: I can’t.

I can, though, explain why Australian political parties constantly sack – or in the Australian parlance “roll” – their leaders. It’s because they can. And the incentives all align in one direction.

Federal parliamentary terms are three-years long. As soon as you have completed your first year, you hit mid-term and have to start election planning. In reality, you have a culture of constant campaigning. To throw fuel on the fire, there are fortnightly polls published by News International in the Australian. It becomes a drum beat – who’s up, who’s down – and even though the changes are almost always within the margin of error, they are written about, speculated upon and whispered about.

The final factor is that until recently both main parties selected their leaders with a simple vote of members of parliament. A challenge can be launched on a Monday, a vote held on a Tuesday, and a new PM by Wednesday. That is why Kevin Rudd was rolled by Julia Gillard, who was then in her turn rolled by the return of Rudd.

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Labor’s rules were then rapidly changed so that all members chose the leader but only after a high threshold of MPs calling for a spill is met. It is such a lengthy process that Labor leaders are secure – the current incumbent Bill Shorten has been in post for nearly five years, the longest serving Labor leader for two decades. Not so the ruling Liberals, they still elect and, more importantly, depose their leaders in Canberra. Hence this messy week. But hence, too, a new Liberal leader and prime minister within a week.

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Does new PM Scott Morrison have a chance of pulling his party out from the jaws of defeat? For that was really the question that the Federal Liberal parliamentary party was asking itself this week. The party has been trailing Labor in the polls for nearly 18 months – and the next election is in less than a year. (See what I mean by the pressure of short parliamentary terms?)

He has a lot in his favour. Turnbull was, at his core, a moderate Liberal politician – that’s why he ushered through equal marriage. But as such, he was unable to placate the conservative faction within his party. Turnbull never stamped his authority on a party that doubted he was truly one of them. Morrison has no such problems. His personal background and his actions as a minister – particularly as the immigration minister who “stopped the boats” – reassures conservative critics of his predecessor. For the moderate MPs who simply want a chance of a fair fight at the next election, it’s probably enough if the internal sniping stops and Morrison gets clear air to set out a Liberal agenda for the future.

What will that be? The Liberal party narrowly rejected the full on populist politics of race and immigration offered by failed challenger Peter Dutton – his attempt last summer to stoke a racist panic about Sudanese young people was not so much dog-whistle as megaphone. But race, identity and migration will be front and centre in Australian politics – not least because the Liberal party are under assault from a populist politician of the right, Pauline Hanson and her One Nation party. But expect the debate to be couched in terms of pressure on infrastructure and rising housing costs – in other words, back to the dog-whistle. And some of Labor’s clothes will be stolen too. As a former Goldman Sachs partner, Malcolm Turnbull was never a credible critic of the cartel that is Australian banking. Morrison has no such baggage, and he took aim at the banks immediately. He has come to the job of prime minister from the post of Treasurer, so he knows in detail the costs and benefits of policies across the board. And he has a stack of cash to spend – a proposed cut in business taxes has been abandoned, so expect vote buying on a heroic scale.

I would say that Australian politics just got interesting. But, in truth, it’s never been boring.

John McTernan is senior vice president at PSB. He was formerly political secretary for Tony Blair and communications director for Julia Gillard.