Australia has a new prime minister — its fifth in just eight years. No Australian prime minister has served a full electoral term since 2007, and there have been four incumbents in the last 27 months alone.
In June 2013, Labour prime minister Julia Gillard was defeated in a party-room vote by Kevin Rudd, who lost the post in the general election later that year to the conservative coalition’s Tony Abbott, who has now in turn been defeated in a party-room coup by Malcolm Turnbull.
This latest turn in the prime ministerial carousel has left Australians trying, yet again, to explain to bemused colleagues around the world how the stable bastion of Western democracy, and the world’s twelfth- largest economy, could be engaged in such a pantomime.
There seem to be three different dimensions to the explanation.
One is simply the local impact of the impatience that is becoming increasingly obvious in the world’s established democracies.
The endless 24/7 media cycle and omnipresent social media are generating a taste for celebrity and an almost pathological preoccupation with current opinion polls, rather than serious political debate.
Traditional parties and processes are finding it harder and harder to satisfy the demand for instant gratification.
A second dimension is Australia- specific: The tension created by peculiarities of the country’s political system.
A ludicrous three-year electoral cycle, shorter than almost anywhere else in the world, makes it almost impossible to govern in a campaign-free atmosphere. And party rules have allowed for leaders — including serving prime ministers — to be torn down overnight by their parliamentary colleagues (although this has now changed for Labour).
The remaining part of the explanation is undoubtedly local and personal: The character quirks that have contributed to each leader’s dramatic rise and spectacular fall.
Gillard proved herself to be a highly competent transactional politician: ruthless in grabbing the ascendancy when Rudd seemed to be faltering in the polls; highly effective in negotiating with cross-benchers to keep her minority government alive; and successful in gaining huge local and international attention for her passionate parliamentary assault on her opponents’ perceived misogyny.
But on almost every major policy issue, she was tone-deaf in sensing the popular mood, and seemed to have no guiding principles attractive to either her party or the wider public.
Rudd, who wrestled the leadership back from her, is intellectually brilliant and, when on his game, a great campaigner who succeeded in minimising the scale of Labour’s loss in the 2013 election.
But the wide respect he garnered internationally for his role in crafting the G20 response to the global financial crisis did not help with his local colleagues, who saw him as too often incommunicative, obsessive, and lacking judgement in setting policy priorities.
While the now-deposed
Abbott was a spectacularly effective opposition leader as the Labour government unravelled, he proved himself utterly unable to manage his transition to prime minister, and was trailing badly in the opinion polls when he was ousted. Abbott presided with slogans, rather than coherent policy, over a rapidly deteriorating economy.
He was hyper-partisan, ran against public sentiment on issues like gay marriage and restoring knighthoods, and constantly alienated his ministerial colleagues with solo “captain’s picks” in support of unpopular people and policies.
Abbott’s nemesis, Turnbull, now prime minister, stands in sharp contrast: sophisticated, highly successful in his past lives as a journalist, lawyer, and investment banker, and very popular — across party lines — with the electorate. He is a superbly articulate communicator, a past leader of the anti-monarchist republican movement, and as liberal in his political instincts as Abbott was conservative.
Nonetheless, he was a flop in his brief earlier incarnation as opposition leader in 2008-2009, widely seen as arrogant, non-consultative, and prone to spectacular errors of judgment. But Labour’s hopes that Turnbull will fail to learn from his earlier mistakes — and that the prime ministerial door will continue to revolve — seem likely to be disappointed, at least in the short term.
Turnbull knows the great majority of his governing coalition does not share his liberal instincts, and that he will have to tread cautiously and collegially on policy change. But he is also smart and articulate enough to know that if he maintains self-discipline, and argues rather than asserts his case, he can change the paradigms.
The hope for Australia is that this is a watershed moment, with both government and opposition realising that dumbed-down sloganeering and races to the populist bottom may win short-term advantage, but are ultimately counterproductive.
Gareth Evans, now chancellor of the Australian National University, was a cabinet minister throughout the Hawke-Keating Labour governments of 1983-1996. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015