With the ouster of Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Australia’s ruling Liberal Party is now experiencing the revolving door leadership struggles that bedeviled its predecessor, the Labor Party. Monday morning, Malcolm Turnbull dispatched Abbott in a secret party vote that reflected growing concern within the party about Abbott’s plunging popularity and his ability to lead the Liberals in national elections. There was also a dose of revenge for Turnbull, whom Abbott had ousted as party head in 2009.
Abbott became prime minister when the Liberals routed Labor in national elections in 2013. That ballot turned on concerns about Australia’ economy, limits on carbon emissions and worries about securing the country’s borders amidst a rising tide of immigrants. Compounding those policy questions were rising doubts about the Labor Party, which had been consumed by leadership fights, with Julia Gillard besting Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and then being ousted in return by Rudd when voters appeared to lose confidence in Gillard.
While there were doubts about Abbott — he was considerably more conservative than his party, had a history of gaffes, especially sexist remarks about women, and was thought to be an imperious leader — voters gave him and his party the mandate to govern. The party quickly squandered it. First, after criticizing Labor’s record on the economy, Abbott has been unable to sustain growth. That is not his fault since Australia is heavily reliant on China — responsible for about 80 percent of the value of the country’s export growth since 2013 — and that economy is slowing. Still, decisions in the Labor Party’s first budget — such as the creation of a fee for visiting doctors — undermined the image of a competent and capable party of economic managers. Second, while Australians worry about an influx of immigrants, the government’s policies — reportedly including the paying off of crews on boats bringing refugees — raised questions about legality and morality.
Third, there was Abbott’s personal opposition to same-sex marriage, a view that is considerably more conservative than that of the country. That combined with a larger sense that Abbott was an imperious leader who did not consider the views of his colleagues. The prime minister was fond of “captain’s calls,” decisions he made without any consultation. The awarding of a knighthood to Britain’s Prince Philip in January 2015 triggered criticism both across the aisle and within his own party. But as Turnbull explained after winning Monday’s vote, “The prime minister of Australia is not a president. The prime minister is the first among equals.”
Those concerns prompted a leadership test earlier this year, but Abbott survived that vote of no confidence. This time, however, an upcoming by-election in the state of Western Australia that threatened to become a referendum on the government itself sparked a genuine revolt.
The defeat apparently took Abbott by surprise, even though polls had consistently shown Turnbull to be more popular with the voting public. Turnbull is a lawyer turned technology entrepreneur — founder of Australia’s largest Internet service provider — turned politician who is much more liberal than Abbott. After prevailing in Monday’s vote, Turnbull said he would create “a thoroughly liberal government committed to freedom, the individual and the market.”
It is not clear whether Turnbull can reverse his party’s fortunes. He has not committed to holding a referendum on same-sex marriage — a pledge made by Abbott — and he has said he supports the emissions target set by his predecessor. If the Liberals take a beating in this weekend’s election, the party could again shift course. But the backroom machinations will have exposed as hollow one of the Liberals’ chief complaints against Labor — namely that it could not provide stability for the country.
With his ouster, Abbott now is on record with the shortest reign of any first-time prime minister. That is an embarrassment, of course, but the more important numbers are these: five prime ministers in eight years. Japan knows well the impact of that sort of revolving door in the prime minister’s office. It is difficult for diplomatic partners to take seriously a country that changes the head of its government with such regularity. Counterparts will not invest the time to get to know a leader if he or she may be gone soon and with prime ministers go Cabinets: The corrosive effects of turnover seep through the entire diplomatic engagement process.
Instability in Australia is especially important to Japan. Our two countries have long had a deeply intertwined economic relationship. Over the last decade, however, Tokyo and Canberra have forged an increasingly close foreign and security policy relationship, working together and with the United States. Given the strong bilateral support this relationship enjoys in both capitals, it is very likely to continue no matter who occupies the prime minister’s office in Australia. Nevertheless, Australia and the region are best served by stable and enduring leadership in Canberra.