Last Friday, Australia was the centre of attention in Asia-Pacific markets when the ruling Liberal-National coalition ousted premier Malcolm Turnbull in a dramatic but altogether undignified manner.
Even Turnbull branded the circumstances “mad”. The change of guard denied Turnbull the longest-serving Prime Minister title since Julia Gillard in 2010-2013. Turnbull was just three weeks away from matching her three years in office.
Right-winger and cabinet minister Peter Dutton last Wednesday (local time) initiated a “spill” where the ruling Liberal Party convened to tell left-leaning Turnbull they had lost confidence in his leadership and wanted Dutton to challenge him.
That spill dramatically resulted in Dutton failing by 48 votes to 35. If this was British politics you might have expected Dutton to graciously bow out with his tail between his legs and return to the backbenches or plead for his ministerial job back.
Instead, Dutton protested it was a slim victory for Turnbull and he challenged him again just 48 hours later on Friday. This time Turnbull pledged that if the party was to convene for another spill he would not nominate himself for re-election and would instead bow out of politics.
It could be said that those who fight by the sword, die by the sword. A clever politician, Turnbull had challenged previous premier Tony Abbott in 2015 and ousted his predecessor. Abbott was instrumental in the plotting which resulted in Dutton’s challenge.
But the savvy Turnbull had the last laugh. A seasoned and highly affable politician he nominated his slightly centre-right treasurer Scott Morrison and Liberal Party deputy leader Julie Bishop to stand against Dutton. Bishop fell at the first round, but Morrison beat Dutton in the second by an even slimmer 45-40.
Dutton appears to have read the message and Morrison will now have the unenviable task of leading the unpopular coalition into the next national elections which must be held by May 2019.
Making matters harder, after the 2016 election when Turnbull’s coalition was re-elected with a single seat majority – the narrowest since 1961 – there is a risk that if Turnbull leaves politics immediately as he has vowed to do, the coalition faces a hung parliament and the risk of an election being forced on the government at any time.
That will be music to the ears of Labour, currently in opposition but ready to seize power under Bill Short.
No Australian prime minister has held on longer than three years since John Howard in 1996-2007. But while the rest of the world was gripped by the subprime mortgage credit crunch and the ensuing Eurozone sovereign debt crisis since 2007, Australia has been the “Lucky Economy” which has seen robust economic growth and the loss of political leaders a mere detail. But that said, many pundits criticise this assessment because the ask what might have been the economic growth in the event of greater political stability, helping businesses to invest? You only need to see the challenges posed to British and European nations dealing with the Brexit risks.
The politics of Australia are as tragic as those of Italy, but the economy has certainly had a happier decade. There are lessons for Europe to heed here too. But mostly this one’s Australia’s lesson: How to become a mature and stable political democracy?
Turnbull was unlucky to be a smart premier at the helm of a government with an unworkable majority and facing political loss inside one year. But he was also a personable leader and social reformer. He could not unite the warring factions of his coalition, but it is they, not him, who signed their political anhilation at the polls.
I wish him well.