Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Necessary politics in Australia

In a necessary political move, Australia’s conservative Liberal Party has dumped its leader, Prime Minster Tony Abbott, and selected Malcolm Turnbull as new Leader and Prime Minister. It was the only hope the party had for winning next year’s national election, but it reinforces Australia’s image as the “coup capital of the democratic world”.

Tony Abbott was desperately unpopular with Australian voters, and that was dragging down support for the Liberal-National Coalition now ruling the country. Clearly, getting rid of Abbott was the only hope that the Coalition had for winning the next Australian federal elections, expected next year.

While Turnbull is “moderate” for a Liberal Party MP, in most respects he’s a typical conservative Australian politician. On two issues, though, he’s quite different: He supports action on climate change and he supports marriage equality, which is great.

However, today Turnbull announced during Question Time (the video is on YouTube; link is queued to the start point of the question and answer) that he’ll continue Tony Abbott’s plan for a plebiscite to “allow all Australians to vote” on whether or not gay Australians are real citizens or not by deciding whether or not same-gender couples will be allowed to marry as they can in New Zealand and the USA, among many other countries. I’ve heard a lot of speculation that he promised to prevent marriage equality being approved in this parliament in order to get the support of rightwing MPs, and this seems probable. Only about a month ago, he expressed his opposition to a plebiscite, saying:
“The reason I haven’t advocated a plebiscite after the next election is that it would mean, it will mean, that this issue is a live issue all the way up to the next election and, indeed, at the next election and, if we are returned to office, it will be a very live issue in the lead-up to the plebiscite itself."
Australia has now had five Prime Ministers since John Howard was defeated in 2007, losing his own seat in Parliament. In fact, it’s had five prime ministers in five years! The Australian Labor Party won the 2007 election, and Kevin Rudd became Prime Minister, only to be rolled by Julia Gillard in 2010. Gillard then won an election, but was later rolled by Kevin Rudd. Rudd then lost the 2013 election to Abbott, who has now been rolled by Malcolm Turnbull. If this wasn’t outlandish enough already, before the last election, Turnbull was Leader of the Opposition, but was rolled by Tony Abbott. All of this makes Australia sound like some sort of fictional TV series—or maybe they’re the Italy of the South Pacific…

During the Rudd and Gillard years, the Liberal Party had three leaders (making them Leader of the Opposition) over five years. Since the election last year, the Australian Labor Party has had one leader (after the ALP’s election defeat, Chris Bowen was interim leader until the leadership election in which he did not stand; Bill Shorten won that contest and has been leader ever since).

New Zealand, in stark contrast, last saw a sitting Prime Minister rolled nearly 18 years ago—December 1997—when Jenny Shipley replaced Jim Bolger as leader of the National Party and Prime Minister. There’s often speculation that ambitious National Party MPs might roll John Key if his poll numbers ever drop, but if that does ever happen, he’s more likely to resign rather than be rolled. At the moment, it seems he’s more likely to retire than be rolled or defeated. Of course, a week is a long time in politics (and an eternity, it seems, in Australian politics…), so this could all change.

The Leaders of the Opposition in New Zealand have been more varied. During the Clark (Labour) years, there were four leaders of the National Party (who were, of course, also Leader of the Opposition) over those 9 years. During John Key’s time as Prime Minister, there have been four leaders of the Labour Party over 7 years.

Since 2007, the total time in office for prime ministers in the two countries is also telling. In Australia, Julia Gillard served the longest, 3 years, 3 days, Rudd was second at 2 years, 286 days, and Abbott was the least, at 1 year, 362 days. In that same time, New Zealand has had two prime ministers during that time, because the 2008 election changed governments. We’ve had the same Prime Minister since 2008.

A major strength of the Westminster-style parliamentary system is that it’s possible to change an unpopular head of government without changing the political agenda that voters chose in the previous election. A weakness of the system, however, is that this can happen many times between elections without voters having a say. Changing the prime minister twice is one of the reasons that the Australian Labor Party lost the election last year (though there were many other reasons, too, of course). The potential for voter backlash will be on Malcolm Turnbull’s mind, making him unlikely to do anything too terribly unpopular.

The fact that Malcolm Turnbull banished the desperately unpopular Tony Abbott will almost certainly lead to a rise in poll numbers for the Coalition. Whether that’s sustained or not will depend entirely on what Turnbull does next, and that may determine whether he’s also rolled.

Pop some popcorn: The “coup capital of the democratic world” isn’t necessarily done yet.

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