Cloak and dagger drama in Australia for the top job

Australia got a new prime minister on August 24, 2018. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull lost his job to Scott Morrison in a mutiny for leadership within the Liberal Party. Morrison is the sixth prime minister since 2007. None of the five previous prime ministers have been able to complete their full three-year term in office in the last 11 years.

Australia basically has a two-party political system. The centre-right conservative Liberal Party has been leading the government since 2013 after forming a coalition with the National Party of Australia and the Liberal National Party. The federal election held in 2016 gave the Liberal Coalition 76 seats—i.e. one seat majority. The centre-left Australian Labor Party, with 69 seats, currently sits on the opposition benches in the 150-seat House of Representatives.

Interestingly in June 2010 Kevin Rudd the 26th prime minister  from the Labor Party was challenged by his deputy Julia Gillard for the leadership of the party. Knowing that he would be defeated, Rudd decided not to contest. He resigned and Julia Gillard became prime minister. After the August 2010 election Gillard remained prime minister  at the head of a minority government. However the rumbles within the party over Gillard's leadership continued. In June 2013 Julia Gillard's leadership of the party was challenged—Kevin Rudd took his revenge and become prime minister  once again. After that defeat Julia Gillard quit politics.

Rudd's Labor Party lost the election held in September 2013. Tony Abbott became prime minister  leading the Liberal Party Coalition. But his tenure was cut short when Malcolm Turnbull challenged his leadership in September 2015. After initial uncertainties about the results of the July 2016 election Turnbull retained his prime minister ship with paper-thin majority. Now as the next election is due sometime before May 2019, Turnbull's leadership of the Liberal Party came under challenge.

What is noteworthy over past several years is that challenges to party leadership have come up just a few months before the elections. Australian House of Representatives has a tenure of three years—which is rather short compared to other similar parliaments. Experts say the short tenure gives the electorate more control over the government—keeping the Members of Parliament and government ministers on the hop.

This time the farcical revolt within the Liberal camp was reportedly engineered by former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who was shown the door by Turnbull. Abbott prompted Peter Dutton, an ex-policeman and Minister for Home Affairs to challenge Malcolm Turnbull believing that he will get the numbers. Dutton accused Turnbull for failing to lift the Liberal Party's image in the by-elections that were held in 2017 and 2018. Liberals did not win any by-election seat during the period. The other contender for the top job was Julie Bishop, the Foreign Minister.

The key issues dividing the Liberals are climate change and immigration. News Corp persistently reported that the Liberal Coalition was losing its popularity. Dutton attempted to turn the centre-right moderates into hard-right conservatives.

On August 21 Turnbull called a snap ballot of the leadership of the party following several days of bickering. Dutton formally put forward his candidature little realising that he did not have the numbers. Dutton got 35 votes out of 85—7 short of a majority. Turnbull got 48 and retained his prime minister ship. Disenchanted, Dutton resigned from the Ministry, though Turnbull asked him to continue. Julie Bishop also resigned.

But that spill motion did not end there as four ministers submitted their resignations. Again on August 24 a second ballot was called where Dutton managed only 40 votes against 45 for Scott Morison, Treasurer of Australia (Finance Minister). Thus Peter Dutton not only lost the party leadership but also his Home portfolio—he will now be a backbencher.

Surprisingly Turnbull got 48 votes in the first round, yet he withdrew and did not contest the second voting as most of the 85 MPs in the caucus said they would not support him. Turnbull blamed his demise on "vengeance, personal ambition and factional feuding" in the Liberal camp led by the hard conservatives including Tony Abbott. He said he would quit politics "not before too long". If he actually resigns Liberal majority in the House will be in jeopardy.

After winning the spill Morrison (moderate) distanced himself from the turmoil saying he was not a part of the revolt led by Peter Dutton. After being sworn-in Morrison said he wanted a "generational change" and to bring the party back together, which has been bruised and battered. "The new generation of Liberal leadership is on your side", he said.  He vowed a period of stability saying, "The work of government continues. I want to assure all Australians that those normal wheels are turning".

Frequent changes in the leadership of the ruling party is widely disliked by Australians as it has been an embarrassment for Australia, which prides itself on being a safe and stable democracy. Backstabbing of party leaders by colleagues has no doubt damaged the credibility of the Liberals. One wonders whether the Liberal Party will return to power in the next election. The next election must be held by May 18, 2019 for half of the Senators and before November 2, 2019 for the House of Representative.

What is revealing is that Australia is among the 10 top democracies despite party quarrels for the top job. Leadership challenges may be good for intra-party democracy, but its fallout on the government is certainly detrimental. Frequent revolts against incumbent prime ministers make them non-functional and is a recipe for instability.

For the sixth time in just over 11 years Australia has a new prime minister. It seems there are too many contenders for the top party position—particularly when the party is in power. One wonders whether these cloak and dagger dramas that their party leaders enact before elections will stop after the next election.

Mahmood Hasan is a former ambassador and secretary.

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