Australian politics has worked itself into a frenzy. Prime Minister Tony Abbott, after ridiculing the previous Labor government for its public infighting, faces a leadership challenge from inside his own Liberal Party. A third want a chance to vote him out, and frontbenchers are fending off questions of loyalty as the media hypes up — if not drives — developments.
Abbott went into 2013’s election promising a government of “no surprises,” luring voters tired of electing one Labor leader only to end up, ultimately, with another. The PM’s critics have had ample fodder to feed off recently, attacking his government’s backflips, gaffes and environmental record, but what finally united Australia’s political spectrum, left and right, against Abbott was his decision to make Britain’s Prince Phillip — the queen’s husband, no less — a Knight of the Australian Order without even bothering to consult his Cabinet.
As Abbott’s critics wait to see whether his Cabinet will vote to authorize a leadership challenge — known locally as a “spill motion” — on Monday, it is worth warning spillists that if this happens, Australian politics risks finding itself in a place Japan is barely crawling out of.
Since the end of Junichiro Koizumi’s two-term tenure in 2006, Japan has been chewing through prime ministers, with seven different PMs in nearly as many years and political progress stalled by repeated leadership spills and early polls. Only two months ago, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (a good friend of Abbott’s) won a snap election just two years into his first term — a poll he called ostensibly to seek a mandate for his “Abenomics” recipe for economic recovery, but one which also just so happened to catch the opposition in complete disarray. If Australia’s Liberals decide to vote Abbott out as leader, his replacement will be the sixth PM in eight years.
A survey of young Australian voters last year revealed that less than half had confidence in democracy as a system. Surely the uncertainty and hubbub these repeated challenges and snap elections generate do more harm than good?
In Japan, voters appear to be sick of politics — if they care at all. Voting isn’t compulsory here, so less than 53 percent bothered to vote in December’s general election, a record low and a far cry from the nearly 70 percent that trudged to the polls in 2005 and 2009. In a recent local election in rural Aichi Prefecture, barely 35 percent showed up.
While Australia, where voting is compulsory, has nothing to fear in this regard, informal votes — where ballots are filled out incorrectly — are rising, a trend many believe reflects growing voter dissatisfaction.
In Australia’s Liberal-held Northern Territory, the state’s chief minister barely fended off a leadership challenge recently, with his colleagues fearing Abbott’s unpopularity would prove contagious in the next state election. In Queensland, the Liberal premier brazenly called a snap election for Feb. 1 to seek a mandate from a public he thought had confidence in him. They didn’t.
Australia’s politicians may be picking up an unhealthy habit from their counterparts in Japan: Instead of changing policies, change the leader; instead of listening to the people, call snap elections to catch your opponent’s campaigners off guard.
It’s not that leadership challenges, short-term PMs or snap elections are bad things per se, but Australia and Japan’s growing familiarity with them has consequences. What does it mean for the economy? What does it mean for long-term planning? What does it mean for voter engagement? As soon as 2016, Japan may face a referendum on rewriting war-renouncing clauses in its Constitution, and if the only voters showing up are the elderly, rural, conservative backbone of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, how democratic a referendum will it really be?
Facing its own crisis of confidence in politics, Britain recently introduced the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, robbing the prime minister of the ability to call a snap election and mandating elections be held every five years. Perhaps Australia and Japan could both benefit from a similar electoral leveler to steady their political waters.
There’s no doubt Japan’s politics — whilst it has weathered worse — is in a precarious state, and Australians need to ask themselves how much they really want the vacuum Abbott’s ousting will create and the cycle it threatens to perpetuate.
Finbar O’Mallon is a freelance journalist based in Melbourne.
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