Australia’s fast moving premiers

In Focus: Australia

Australia has just sworn in its fourth prime minister in just over two years, thanks to a trend in the two main parties of its biggest personalities launching leadership challenges at the first sign of the party leader slipping in the polls

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In most stable democracies, heads of government don’t generally need to fear for their jobs until a general election is called. But Australian prime ministers must always be looking over their shoulders in case a leadership challenge comes their way from their own party.

These challenges have become such a regular feature of the country’s political landscape that they have prevented any of the three previous premiers from completing a full term. Tony Abbott is the latest Australian PM to be toppled, after a leadership challenge from former Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull in September saw Turnbull re-take the party leadership and, consequently, take over as Prime Minister. Turnbull is the country’s fourth prime minister in less than three years.

He has already surpassed the premiership of Australia’s shortest serving Prime Minister – Frank Forde managed just seven days in 1945 before succumbing to a leadership challenge. But Turnbull may struggle to match the tenure of Robert Menzies who racked up 18 years in total as his country’s Prime Minister, including one unbroken stint of more than 16 years. The newest PM will, however, want to avoid the fate of his predecessors John Curtin and Harold Holt, both of whom died in office.

The most recent leadership challenge was sparked by Abbott’s low ratings in opinion polls, caused partly by low economic growth. Some Liberals also believed that the electorate saw Abbott as out of touch, particularly after he decided to knight Prince Phillip, which was always going to be controversial in a country with a strong republican movement. Turnbull accused Abbott of not providing economic leadership, promising a “new style of leadership that respects the people’s intelligence” and winning with 61 votes to 39.

Sydney-based political commentator Kylie Field says: “The feeling among the majority of Australians is surprise and dismay every time there is a change in leadership. There is a general feeling in the community that Canberra has become a bastion of instability and a revolving door of party leaders. The recent change in leadership came about supposedly due to poor economic management by Tony Abbott and the Treasurer Joe Hockey, but is more to do with opinion polls and infighting by the party-room favourites, although Abbott had a reputation for poor economic management. Australia is a country obsessed with its economic performance on a local and global scale. Our mainstream media outlets report on the monthly meeting of the Reserve Bank and discussions about property prices are a daily news feature.”

The Liberal–National coalition led by Tony Abbott had come to power in the September 2013 general election, when the coalition secured 90 seats to Labor’s 55 and brought an end to Labor Party rule. Just three months earlier, when polls had suggested the Labor Party would lose the September election, Prime Minister Julia Gillard had been ousted by Kevin Rudd in a snap leadership election. Gillard herself – Australia’s first female Prime Minister – had come to power in June 2010 after a dramatic fall in the popularity of then-Prime Minister Rudd. As Deputy Prime Minister, Gillard successfully challenged Rudd for the Labor Party leadership. She managed to hang onto power in the general election of August 2010, when neither Labor (winning 72 out of 150 seats in the lower house) nor the Liberal–National coalition led by Tony Abbott (73 seats) were able to secure a parliamentary majority. After several weeks of negotiations, Gillard was successful in winning the support of the Green Party and three of the independents, giving the Labor party a narrow overall majority.

Malcolm Turnbull had a previous stint at party leadership, when he was head of the Liberals for a year from 2008-09, serving as the Leader of the Opposition before being defeated by Tony Abbott in a leadership bid, by just one vote.

A lawyer and banker before entering politics, 61-year-old Turnbull, has been welcomed by the world of commerce. Business leaders are likely to see him as more economically savvy than Abbott, whose first budget was not well received. One-time managing director of Goldman Sachs Australia, Turnbull is a millionaire, thanks to a string of businesses including a law firm and an investment banking outfit. He was listed in the BRW Rich 200 list in 2010 as having an estimated worth of AUS$186 million.

“Turnbull is not as conservative as Abbott and has always been viewed as being ‘soft’ right,” says Field. “He is more aware of climate change and agrees with same sex marriage. He has an enormous personal wealth, so he wasn’t interested in the job for financial gain which makes him an interesting politician. He has been a journalist, lawyer and businessman and is regarded quite highly among the general population.”

Turnbull first came to the public’s attention in 1986 when, as a young lawyer, he successfully defended Peter Wright, the British former MI5 agent who authored the book Spycatcher, blocking the UK government’s bid to stop the book’s publication.

Annabel Crabb, Turnbull biographer and Sydney Morning Herald columnist, describes the new Prime Minister as “a man whose curiosity, ambition and avarice for experience has taken him from litigation against Margaret Thatcher’s administration to prospecting for gold in Siberia, and from near-banishment by his own party six years ago to his extraordinary reinstatement”.

Turnbull’s cabinet reshuffle, completed a couple of weeks after his election, seems to have won public approval, with 69 per cent of Sydney Morning Herald readers agreeing that the new cabinet “refreshes and renews the government”. He has increased the number of women in his cabinet to five, which still sees them woefully under represented. However, Julie Bishop and Marise Payne have been appointed to two of the most senior cabinet positions – that of foreign minister and defence minister. Some older frontbenchers who date back to the Howard government have also been swept aside in favour of younger newcomers.

In terms of policy direction, it is early days for the Turnbull government. At the time of writing the only new policy announcement had been that of the decision to scrap the higher education bill, which would have allowed universities to set their own fee structures. The controversial legislation had been unpopular, with fears spreading about the ‘$100,000 degree’.

“From both sides of the political fence there appears to be little policy making and more lamenting the poor performance of the previous government. And with so many changes in leadership, implementing policy has taken a backseat,” says Field.

“Abbott did little in his short term, other than breach Australia’s UNHCR agreement with a draconian, inhumane policy against refugees under the banner of ‘Stop the boats’.”

Kylie Field believes that Turnbull will have to look carefully at the country’s policy on asylum seekers, which has proved to be a divisive issue for the country. Large numbers of asylum seekers frequently arrive by boat on Australia’s shores each year, hoping to gain refugee status and start a new life. But they are immediately transferred to offshore processing centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea, where camp conditions are very basic.

“There is a ground swell in Australia about the treatment of asylum seekers, especially when it comes to children being held in detention. Turnbull has, in the past, voiced his opposition to the Abbott government’s strict enforcement of detention for those seeking asylum.

“It’s early days and with most leaders in Australia there are enormous expectations on them to deliver and deliver quickly. With elections held every three years, and compulsory voting, expectations are high. I wouldn’t be surprised if a general election is called by the end of the year.”

First published as ‘One in one out’.

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