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

RelatedArticlesModule - Australia leadership battles

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.

Latest

Top investigator urges police to speak up about wrongful convictions
108539 2019-07-19 00:00:00Z Crime

Top investigator urges police to speak up about wr…

by Mike White

Mike White talks to investigator Tim McKinnel, who says police often turn a blind eye to possible corruption out of a misplaced sense of loyalty.

Read more
Jacinda Ardern to focus on Australia deportations in talks with Scott Morrison
108570 2019-07-19 00:00:00Z Politics

Jacinda Ardern to focus on Australia deportations…

by Craig McCulloch

PM Jacinda Ardern has doubled down on her criticism of Australia's deportation policy as "corrosive", ahead of her meeting with Scott Morrison.

Read more
How closed adoption robbed Māori children of their identity
108572 2019-07-19 00:00:00Z Social issues

How closed adoption robbed Māori children of their…

by Te Aniwa Hurihanganui

Te Aniwa Hurihanganui looks at the outdated Adoption Act and its impact on Māori who grew up desperate to reconnect.

Read more
The new robotic surgery aiding vaginal mesh removal
108377 2019-07-19 00:00:00Z Health

The new robotic surgery aiding vaginal mesh remova…

by Ruth Nichol

Women with complications caused by deeply embedded vaginal mesh are being helped by a pioneering surgical technique.

Read more
A beautiful mind: What people with Alzheimer's can teach us
108544 2019-07-19 00:00:00Z Health

A beautiful mind: What people with Alzheimer's can…

by Fergus Riley

North Auckland farmer Fergus Riley has uncovered many important lessons in caring for his father Peter, who has Alzheimer’s.

Read more
Instagram's trial to hide the number of 'likes' could save users' self-esteem
108617 2019-07-19 00:00:00Z Psychology

Instagram's trial to hide the number of 'likes' co…

by Joanne Orlando

Instagram is running a social media experiment to see what happens when it hides the number of likes on photos and other posts.

Read more
The Hawke's Bay farm producing meat of uncommon quality
108594 2019-07-19 00:00:00Z Food

The Hawke's Bay farm producing meat of uncommon qu…

by Simon Farrell-Green

Duncan Smith and Annabel Tapley-Smith weren’t satisfied with producing meat of uncommon quality. So they bought a butchery.

Read more
When biodegradable plastic is not actually biodegradable
108562 2019-07-19 00:00:00Z Planet

When biodegradable plastic is not actually biodegr…

by Isabel Thomlinson

A study on biodegradable plastic bags found they were still intact after three years spent either at sea or buried underground.

Read more