The revolving door of Australian politics

The revolving door of Australian politics

In a surprise move, the Liberal Party of Australia voted out unpopular PM Tony Abbott and replaced him with former Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull who has the potential to reignite the political debate and change the discourse in Australian politics. 

Australia has seen four Prime Ministers in the last eight years with each successive PM failing to serve a full term. While this stems in part from the Westminster system adopted through historical ties with Britain, the lack of stable political leadership has caused increasing discontent from the Australian public.

The start of turbulent leadership goes back to 2010 when a continuing lack of cohesion within the Australian Labor Party (ALP) gave a major boost to the Liberal National Party coalition (LNP) in the 2013 elections.

Once elected The LNP promised an end to the ‘House of Cards’ leadership that had plagued the political system since 2010. As of September 14th, however, the Machiavellian workings within the LNP came to a boiling point. A leadership ballot was called when Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull challenged Prime Minister Tony Abbott. When the votes were counted, Turnbull had beaten Abbott by 54-44 votes.

The dueling history between these two domineering political figures is not a new phenomenon. Abbott won the leadership contest back in 2009 by one vote against Turnbull.

The fall of Abbott is not just due to political machinations, however. It stems in large part from the fact that his brand of extreme conservatism and its policies were extremely unpopular with the Australian Public. The Abbott government’s stalling of a vote on same –sex marriage and its attempts to shut down Australia’s renewable energy sector saw it go head to head with public opinion. A continuing number of political mishaps including re-introducing the British honour systems of dames and nights and politically damaging gaffes led to a continuing bad showing in the polls.

Furthermore, the Abbott government failed to get many of its major reform initiatives through the Senate, due to constant barriers and clashes with independents who held the balance of power. A lack of coherent economic policy with two unpopular budgets, a failure to sack his longtime political ally over an expense scandal, and the falling Australia dollar also contributed to a huge decline in the polls ratings.

Abbott had been a tough opposition leader but could not form himself into a formidable prime minister. He has decided to remain in the backbenches for the time being but his political future is unknown.

New leadership and challenges ahead

Turnbull is a former journalist, barrister, and a self-made millionaire through his investments in the telecommunications industry. His popularity stems from his portrayal as a renaissance man who, unlike his counterparts, is not a professional politician.

Turnbull brings with him a more centered approach to the political discourse. Many commentators depict him as a small ‘l’ liberal with socially progressive views that have made him very popular within the media. His tenure as opposition leader in 2009 saw a near split in the LNP over his policy adopting an emission-trading scheme for carbon pricing. This led to his eventual demotion, in which he nearly gave up politics. After much discussion with former PM John Howard, he decided to remain within the LNP as Communications Minister in the Abbott government.

With the announcement of his new ministerial cabinet, Turnbull has put a new face on a deeply unpopular party. It is apparent that he has rewarded those who helped with his rise to the position and has shifted those loyal to Tony Abbott to the back benches or out of parliament altogether.

However, while bold, Turnbull will need to remain cautious by listening to both the more moderate and conservative sides within his political party. Although the conservative faction within the Liberals has threatened to break into a new party, Turnbull has cemented his legitimacy through a successful win in the Canning by-election and a responsive Senate. It appears he has learnt his lesson from his previous tenure as leader of the party.

What lies ahead?

It is too early to tell what direction Turnbull and his new cabinet will go in regards to policy. Domestically, Turnbull has stated that he will continue the Abbott Government’s Direct Action Scheme and renewable energy policy to combat climate change. He will also hold a plebiscite in the next election term for same-sex marriage.

Overall, markets and the Australian dollar have responded well to Turnbull’s rise as political leader. However, whether he can help lead the Australian economy away from danger with a collapse in commodity prices is another question altogether.

The international community has responded well to Turnbull’s election as PM and in the eyes of world leaders he is seen as more of a liberal internationalist than his former predecessor, who is willing to tackle problems like climate change and the growing global refugee problem.

However, while he has remained committed to bombing raids in Syria, Turnbull’s foreign policy will most likely move away from Australia’s involvement in the Middle East to repairing the fraught relationship with Australia’s Asian neighbors.

Overall, Turnbull’s rise illustrates a long and endemic issue with the Australian political system. The constant change of political leaders plaguing the political system has caused a deep lack of trust in Australian politicians. Yet, if Malcolm Turnbull can implement a strong economic and social mandate before the next election cycle, the revolving door of the Australian leadership may finally come to a close.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Politics

About Author

Iain MacGillivray

Iain MacGillivray is a GRI Commissioning Editor and an Independent Political Risk Analyst who focuses on Australian, European, and Middle Eastern Politics. He has worked as a Senior Academic Tutor in Middle Eastern Politics at the University of Melbourne and has been a freelance journalist for many years. Iain currently holds a Masters of International Relations from the Melbourne School of Government, University of Melbourne and is currently undertaking a Masters of Middle East Studies at Middle East Technical University (ODTÜ) in Ankara, Turkey.