Scott Morrison is now Australia’s fifth prime minister in the last decade and the country could very soon have yet a sixth leader as new elections must be called in 2019.
As expected, incumbent Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull fell from power today in an internal Liberal party power struggle of the sort that has become all too familiar in the nation’s topsy-turvy and inherently unstable politics.
Morrison’s surprise party room victory over conservative challenger and ex-policeman Peter Dutton on August 24 will probably be short-lived. The next general election is due by May next year and Prime Minister Morrison may choose to go early.
Either way, the Liberal-National Coalition which has governed Australia since 2012 is likely to be obliterated at the poll whenever it is held. The odds are clearly stacked in favor of Labor Party leader Bill Shorten winning the polls, recent opinion polls show.
So how has a developed and prosperous nation with a well performing economy reached this chaotic tipping point?
Politicians in Canberra have become so dysfunctional and disconnected from the rest of the nation that everyone, from average voters in the suburbs to the chief executives of Australia’s largest companies, are pleading that enough is enough.
The political dysfunction can be attributed in part to the big divide on the conservative side of politics which today tumbled Turnbull, a small “l” liberal-moderate whose personal popularity had regularly outpolled that of his Labor rival Bill Shorten.
Turnbull’s moderate stance was so despised by conservative elements within his own party that they were prepared to destroy any hope of winning the next election, as long as they succeeded in their aim of bringing him down. As one media commentator put it this week: “The government is killing itself.”
Turnbull, an urbane former merchant banker and multi-millionaire, represented so much of what the conservatives in his midst most loathed.
Turnbull believes in climate change and that something should be done about it, is in favor of Australia becoming a republic, and publicly supported the issue of same-sex marriage in last year’s divisive plebiscite.
Turnbull managed to placate his Liberal Party’s right-wing for a spell because they believed he could deliver electoral victory in 2019. But his compromises created disillusionment in the electorate and his opponents inside the party ran out of patience.
Instead of being the “broad church” which has historically tolerated a range of opinions, the Liberal Party is being pushed further to the right by a group best represented by ex-cop Peter Dutton and former prime minister Tony Abbott.
This group are strongly motivated by hardline conservative ideology. With a strong contingent of climate change deniers, they are anti-renewable energy and have overseen a decade of policy inaction in the energy industry.
They angled for a plebiscite on same-sex marriage, believing that the tactic would divide the electorate and the proposal would never win. When more than six in ten Australians voted in favor, they became embittered, and many blamed Turnbull even though he simply implemented their tactic.
Turnbull’s centrist position in the middle of these culture wars saw a leakage of Liberal Party support to more right wing parties, including Pauline Hanson’s xenophobic One Nation and even more extreme elements represented by independent Senator Fraser Anning, who gave a highly controversial anti-Muslim and anti-immigration speech earlier this month.
It was this so-called “traditional base” which Dutton was seeking to recapture in his bid to become prime minister and steer the government to the right, even though recent polls show his support is in the single digits and his electoral annihilation at the next polls was almost a certainty.
The reality is that with the unprecedented events of this week the Liberal Party’s “broad church” project could be over, and the conservative and small ‘l’ liberal forces in Australia could be headed for a divorce.
How that plays out in party terms remains to be seen. Without Turnbull the parliamentary moderates lack leadership, but in electoral terms it will mean that moderate Australian voters will turn away from the Liberals in droves.
Beyond the current imbroglio, questions will also be asked about Australia’s political system and the constitution itself, which has clearly failed in the 21st century to deliver stable and competent government.
Labor’s Shorten has said that if his party wins government then it is likely to launch a new plebiscite on the question of whether Australia should become a republic. The nation, comprised of six states and several territories, is currently governed as a federal parliamentary constitutional monarchy.
Putting aside the whole question of Australia’s historic links to the United Kingdom and the British monarchy, who are still constitutional monarchs in Australia, the current political crisis presents an opportunity to look at the issue of executive government.
Much of the republic discussion revolves around the powers of the president and whether that person should be elected or appointed.In the minimal model, Australia cuts ties with the monarchy and the current governor general – the Queen’s representative – is known as president and is appointed by parliament.
A much bigger change would be to move to a presidential model, based not so much on the UK but on a country like France, where there is both a powerful executive arm and a legislature headed by a prime minister. Political institutions elsewhere evolve; France, for instance, is on its Fifth Republic and second since World War II.
Given the dysfunctional mess the current parliamentary system has created in Australia, it might be time for a naturally cautious nation to embrace more sweeping political changes.
Australians are traditionally slow to embrace change, but the current level of disgust and outrage at the behavior of their elected representatives could give popular support for a structural political transformation.
Ironically, if Australia had a presidential system the most likely victor in any election would be Malcolm Turnbull, whose incumbency this week was killed off by an increasingly dysfunctional and self-serving parliament.