In another turn of the country’s ‘revolving door’ politics, Malcolm Turnbull was deposed as Australia’s leader in a toxic Liberal party coup that ended with Scott Morrison becoming the seventh prime minister in the past decade. Turnbull won the first Liberal caucus vote – or ‘spill’ as they are known in Australia – by 48 to 35 for his challenger, Peter Dutton, who then quit as home affairs minister to rally the rebels. But having forced a second spill, Dutton, the apparent instigator of the putsch, could command the loyalty of only 40 of his fellow MPs, while 45 went for Morrison, who was seen as the compromise candidate.
The tenor of political debate in Australia has been veering to the right in recent years, with the outgoing race discrimination commissioner recently lamenting the ‘resurgence of far-right politics’ (shortly before a Queensland senator proved his point by calling in parliament for a ‘final solution’ to immigration by those who weren’t ‘European Christian’). Many of the Liberal party’s MPs calculated that Morrison, the man in charge of the country’s finances since 2015, was most likely to narrow the Labor party’s lead in the opinion polls. Before he become a tax-cutting treasurer, ‘ScoMo’ was the immigration minister who intensified the policy of ‘stopping the boats’ and processing refugees offshore, winning him kudos on the right of the party led by Dutton. He is also a socially conservative pentecostalist who opposes gay marriage, attracting votes from the Christian right.
Tony Abbott, a senior Liberal party figure, said: ‘Poll-driven panic has produced a revolving-door prime ministership which can’t be good for our country. And a febrile media culture has developed that rewards treachery.’ But this comment was made in 2015, just after Abbott had been deposed in the spill that made Turnbull prime minister. His rise to power as a successful rebel failed to stop Turnbull marvelling at his own overthrow. ‘Australians will be just dumbstruck and so appalled by the conduct of the past week. To imagine that a government would be rocked by this sort of disloyalty and deliberate insurgency,’ he said. ‘That’s why this week has been so dispiriting: it’s been vengeance, personal ambition and factional feuding.’ Pushing this view, and challenging the narrative that Morrison had ‘clean hands’ and was a compromise ‘stop Dutton’ candidate, the Liberal senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells told ABC that she believed Morrison’s backers had been actively working for his ‘carefully planned’ election as leader. But the new PM dismissed the claims, saying that if that were true, Elvis could also be found living in a small New South Wales town.
The country has become used to power changing hands in backrooms: no Australian prime minister has served a full term since John Howard, who left office 11 years ago. After 24 years in which Australia had only three prime ministers, there have now been six defenestrations of the country’s leader – by both the Liberals and Labor – in the past five years. It has left many Australians angry at such party machinations and demanding an early election. An ABC ‘vox pop’ elicited some caustic remarks from the public, one of whom compared the politicians to ‘a pack of short-sighted and power-hungry toddlers’. Elsewhere, Alana C told ABC: ‘Call an election and let’s be done with the bullshit. Australians really don’t care about your squabbles, we want you to do your damn job.’ Donna C said it was the saddest day for Australian politics: ‘The Liberals have just lost my vote. The demeaning of the office of PM has to stop. If your own party cannot respect the office, then how do you expect the Australian people to respect it?’
The Economist predicted Australia’s electorate would not easily forgive the politicians’ opaque manoeuvres and horse-trading. It argued that Australian prime ministers were so regularly ousted because of the corrosive effect that three-year government terms had on party loyalty (and noted that the Labor party was no different while in office, with Julia Gillard pushing Kevin Rudd out in 2010 and being ousted by him in return three years later). But the magazine pointed out: ‘In previous spills, unpopular leaders have always been replaced by ones with higher approval ratings among voters (even if the new leaders never did very well in the subsequent elections). But Mr Morrison is less liked by voters than Mr Turnbull was.’
An opinion poll taken after the Liberal civil war appeared to have been won supports this observation, with Labor doubling its lead from 52% to 48% in mid-August, before Turnbull was deposed, to 55%–45%. Turnbull was comfortably ahead of his Liberal rivals in late July, with 28% thinking he was best to lead the party (Morrison was on a paltry 2%). A month later, despite the advantage of his incumbency, Morrison was still only on 10%, behind Turnbull on 15% and the former foreign minister Julie Bishop on 23%. Morrison’s advantage over the Labor leader, Bill Shorten, as preferred PM, had also narrowed, from 17 percentage points to 10. Most ominously for the Liberals, when asked about which statements best fitted the party, the poll found the four most nominated attributes were ‘division’ (79%), ‘out of touch with ordinary people’ (69%), ‘will promise anything to win votes’ (68%), and ‘too close to big corporate and financial interests’ (67%).
But those with a longer perspective on Australian politics argue that true to the country’s violent past, parliamentary politics have long been the scene of ‘high bastardry’, such as Billy Hughes, the former prime minister who switched parties five times but nevertheless told one of his predecessors in 1909 that ‘at least Judas had the decency to hang himself’, which caused the speaker of the house, Sir Frederick Holder, to exclaim ‘dreadful! dreadful!’, collapse and die.