The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Conservative revolt deposes Turnbull in Australia. But there could be more instability on the horizon.

Malcom Turnbull was ousted as prime minister of Australia by his party on Friday. He was replaced by the treasurer, Scott Morrison. (Saeed Khan/AFP/Getty Images)

Australia has just experienced its seventh change of leader in 11 years. We’re the coup capital of the world. We’re Italy without the pasta. But don’t blame the voters. Many of these Australian prime ministers have not been removed by the electorate. They’ve been thrown out by their own colleagues.

Under the Westminster system, borrowed from Britain, the leader’s position rests on the loyalty of his or her own party room — a loyalty that has been in chronically short supply. Australian prime ministers are now like Henry VIII’s wives. A long life is not guaranteed.

In a country that often looks to the United States, some blame President Trump for the most recent outbreak of hostilities. Malcolm Turnbull, prime minister since September 2015, was the leader of Australia’s main conservative party, but some say he has never been a real conservative.

Turnbull made many attempts to compromise with those to his right. He gutted his own climate-change policy, delayed a parliamentary vote on gay marriage and stepped back from his previous enthusiasm for a republic.

But each concession seemed to embolden his enemies. Cue Peter Dutton, a former police officer and chief enforcer of Australia’s tough immigration and refugee policy.

He’s a Trump mini-me. He campaigned against “African gang violence” in Melbourne and advocated for white South African farmers, saying they needed help from a “civilized country” like Australia.

It was Dutton who led the coup on Turnbull, but his extreme views caused some to doubt his electoral appeal. On Friday, Turnbull agreed to a party-room vote and — bowing to the inevitable — declared that he would not himself stand for reelection. His one remaining ambition was to deny the plotters their prize by supporting a candidate from his own side.

In this, at least, he was successful. His treasurer, Scott Morrison, won the day — but with the tightest of margins: 45 votes to Dutton’s 40.

Across much of Australia, there was a wave of relief. We narrowly avoided ending up with a divisive prime minister, one accused of using racism as a campaign tool.

The stock market recovered and the Australian dollar rose. The usual promises of party unity were made. Yet it’s hard to imagine how the governing party will now unite with a vote so close.

Morrison is a social conservative but one who had grown close to Turnbull — close enough to win him the lasting enmity of those behind the Dutton plot.

Some say the right-wingers hate Morrison even more than they hate Turnbull, on the basis that he was once one of their own and turned from the faith.

Besides, as we know from the past decade, removing leaders is habit-forming. In 2010, Julia Gillard grasped the leadership from then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who then grabbed it back again in 2013. Turnbull stole the crown from then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott in 2015, who now — through this latest spill —  has (partly) had his revenge.

It’s all a stark contrast to the country’s traditions. Go back a decade, and Australian politics was a sea of stability. From 1983 onward, two prime ministers, Bob Hawke and John Howard (one from each side of politics), served around a decade each. Howard, voted out in 2007, is the most recent leader to have served out his full term.

Maybe we are victims of our own success. With an economy that weathered the global financial crisis, solid employment growth and only distant memories of really troubled times, Australia has produced a political class free to indulge its own worst instincts.

The Australian people, meanwhile, are appalled. They see self-interest, factionalism and the politics of revenge. They ask: Could someone spare a thought for me?

One government MP summed up the dominant mood: “Australia,” tweeted rural politician Darren Chester, “we owe you an apology. You deserve better than many of the things our Federal Parliament has served up to you for the past 10 years.”

He ended with a hopeful pledge: “We can do better. Don’t give up.” The question is how.

One prime minister has been deposed and a new one put in his place. But the appetite for vengeance remains unsated.

As Lady Macbeth discovered, once there’s blood on your hands, a clean start can be hard to achieve.

Loading...