Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has been ousted by a revolt within his ruling center-right Liberal Party. He was replaced by Treasurer Scott Morrison. Morrison is Australia’s fifth prime minister in five years — the fourth rejected by his own party — and his prospects are uncertain. Instability now appears to be a feature of Australia’s top leadership, and politicians’ failure to put national interests above their personal interest will likely intensify voter concerns, accelerate the rejection of established parties and encourage still more uncertainty.
Turnbull had a good run as prime minister. While a conservative, he governed from the center during his 35 months in power. The economy was stable under his watch — expected from a former Goldman Sachs banker — with growth this year projected at 3.1 percent, marking 27 years without a recession. One million jobs have been created over the last five years, the economy is approaching “full employment” and companies enjoy steady profits. After a rocky start, Turnbull forged a strong relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump — as in Japan, ensuring good relations with Washington is a critical part of the prime minister’s portfolio — and he continued to build strong relations with other Asian nations, including Japan.
Those successes were not enough to stave off a leadership challenge by disgruntled members of the conservative wing of his party, however. The ostensible cause of the revolt was energy policy. Australia is one of the world’s leading energy producers — it is the No. 1 coal exporter — but climate change policies threaten that role. Turnbull sought to put into law a plan to limit Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions that would be consistent with its Paris climate accord commitments, but it would also raise energy prices at home. That upset party members like Morrison (he once brought a lump of coal to Parliament and told fellow legislators: “Do not be scared. Do not be scared. It will not hurt you”) who used the bill to launch a revolt.
In truth, the policy dispute was a pretext. The real source of conservative anger was a sense of betrayal that has festered since Turnbull’s revolt against his Liberal Party predecessor, Tony Abbott, whom he ousted in 2015. That grievance was fostered by a right-wing media campaign against the prime minister and culminated in a challenge by archconservative legislator Peter Dutton last week. Dutton lost that vote, but it was enough of a near miss to push three Cabinet ministers to resign and force a second leadership vote, one in which Turnbull did not participate. Morrison won that ballot, “sneaking through the middle” between the two wings of the party.
Morrison will not have an easier time, however. He is a conservative who has served in Parliament for over a decade. He oversaw Australia’s harsh and controversial policy of stopping asylum-seekers from entering the country and detaining thousands of them at government-run centers in Papua New Guinea and Nauru. He is also a social conservative, which will satisfy Liberal Party voters who were outraged by Turnbull’s support last year for same-sex marriage.
Yet for all his conservative instincts, most observers expect Morrison to govern much as Turnbull did, as a moderate. Dutton has pledged to back Morrison to maintain party unity, but that may prove to be a fragile arrangement as general elections near — a vote must be held by May 2019 — and the Liberal Party’s prospects are dim. Liberals holds a one-seat majority in the legislature, which could vanish when Turnbull steps down as promised. The opposition Labor Party has been leading in opinion polls for some time and it has already using the Liberal’s turmoil — “division and chaos” — as a reason for change.
Relations with Japan are unlikely to be affected by the change. Australian prime ministers of both major parties have nurtured relations with Japan, building security ties and working to forge a durable regional order. The steady maturation and expansion of ties with Japan despite the turnover in Canberra is proof of the bipartisan commitment to Japan-Australia relations. Tokyo has been weighing a summit with Australia in November, in which the two governments hope to agree on a new accord for joint military exercises. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has congratulated Morrison for his new position and said the two countries should continue to work together as strategic partners.
Nevertheless, as Japan knows well, rapid turnover of top leadership becomes a problem. Diplomatic partners are disinclined to invest time in senior-level relationship building when those individuals will not be in office long. That reluctance takes on increasing significance when other powers are pursuing policies that threaten to upend the regional balance of power. Steady and experienced leadership in Tokyo and Canberra is needed now more than ever to protect against instability. Morrison has no time to lose.