Scott Morrison, formerly Treasurer, is Australia’s new Prime Minister after a week of high political drama which saw the governing Australian Liberal Party tear itself apart.
It’s difficult to know where to start – even Siri’s confused (see left). On Tuesday 21 August, Home Affairs minister Peter Dutton challenged sitting Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in a so-called ‘leadership spill’. Turnbull actually called the spill himself as an effective ‘put up or shut up’ move. Following the threat of a hard-right faction rebellion, Turnbull the day before caved in to party pressure and scrapped legislating for an Australian emissions reduction target within the Liberal-National coalition government’s proposed National Energy Guarantee policy. It wasn’t the first time that an Australian Prime Minister or Turnbull himself had their leadership undermined over climate change and energy policy.
Dutton has forged a reputation as an authoritarian minister on the hard right-wing conservative section of the party. As Minister for Immigration from 2014-’17, he presided over increased turmoil within Australia’s offshore detention centres for so-called ‘boat people’ – those who make the perilous crossing across the Timor and Arafura Seas to seek asylum in Australia. Even if the asylum seekers are deemed as refugees, they’re not allowed to settle in Australia. He also opposed gay marriage. Such is his hard-line reputation that in announcing his leadership bid, Dutton (below) commented: ‘So nice to be in front of the cameras, where I can smile…’.
Dutton lost on Tuesday by 48-35 votes of Liberal Party MPs, close enough for him and his allies to continue plotting. By Wednesday night, a petition was gaining signatures from Liberal Party representatives for another leadership spill, while 10 members of the Australian cabinet offered to resign.
By Thursday 23rd August, Turnbull decided to go down fighting and stated he’d call a leadership spill for the next day at midday, provided 43 Liberal Party MPs called for a spill. He also expressed his desire for the names of the signatures to be publicised too. He stated he was awaiting Australia’s Solicitor-General to judge by the next day whether Dutton was ineligible to be an MP due to potentially breaching Australia’s constitution. Section 44(v) states that an individual can’t be an MP if they have ‘direct or indirect interest in an agreement’ with the Commonwealth. On Monday 20th August Ten News had reported that Dutton benefitted from a trust operating child centres which receive federal funding. The Solicitor-General later produced a cautious verdict in Dutton’s favour.
Most astonishingly, Turnbull vowed to resign his seat if he lost the spill. With the Liberal-National coalition government holding a wafer-thin one seat majority in the lower House of Representatives, Turnbull’s resignation threat amounted to an act of potentially epic political sabotage against his own party.
By Friday, it was clear that Turnbull was on his way out and attention shifted to who’d succeed him. Both Treasurer Scott Morrison and Liberal Party Deputy-Leader and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop threw their hats into the ring against Dutton. In the ensuing leadership spill, Dutton won the first round with 38 votes to Morrison’s 36, while Bishop was evicted with 11. However, Bishop’s supporters split 9-2 in favour of Morrison in the run-off round, meaning Morrison became Australia’s 30th Prime Minister.
Turnbull (above) was on the party’s moderate wing, supporting gay marriage and measures to tackle climate change. Morrison is a Christian conservative and didn’t support gay marriage, while he also once infamously held up a piece of coal in parliament. However, while socially conservative, he has moderate-appealing credentials via his economic policy as Treasurer and loyally stuck with Turnbull until his premiership was clearly concluding. Consequently, although the party’s leadership has shifted to the right, the hard-right faction of the Liberal Party failed to install one of its own as the leader.
‘In the holy name of Australian politics, we’ve invoked the spirit of the revolving door’ was how comedienne Greta Lee Jackson opened an edition of the Australian satirical comedy show Tonightly with Tom Ballard last week, trying to keep up with the political drama. The spirit of the revolving door has been very much active in Australian politics for the last 9 years as both main parties, Labor and Liberal, have torn themselves apart with factional infighting and leadership spills.
This was Turnbull’s second stint as Liberal Party leader, for example. He was previously the leader in 2008-’09 before Tony Abbott ousted him in a leadership spill coup, caused by Turnbull’s willingness to support the then-Labor government’s emission trading scheme bill. Turnbull returned in 2015, ousting Abbott as sitting Prime Minister. Citing as a key reason for removing Abbott, Turnbull (below) noted he’d lost 30 straight NewsPolls.
While bizarre by British standards, where the governing party of the day regularly trails the opposition outside of election campaign periods, Turnbull’s pronouncement merely reflects what many consider a key explanation for the increasing dysfunctionality of Australian politics: general elections in Australian must take place every three years. This makes opinion polls all the more scrutinised as MPs constantly have one eye on the electoral horizon.
Turnbull’s 30 Newspoll quote came back to haunt him as the Liberal-National coalition government which he leads achieved the same 30 straight defeats this spring. Meanwhile, Abbott never forgot Turnbull’s betrayal and has been undoubtedly a thorn in Turnbull’s side ever since.
Prime Minister Morrison has promised to bring the bruised and battered’ Liberal Party back together. It remains to be seen whether he’ll manage to achieve this, but the voters of Australia will have their say by May 2019 at the latest.