In late August, Scott Morrison replaced Malcolm Turnbull to become Australia’s 30th prime minister. After much infighting, Morrison became the leader of the conservative urban Liberal Party — which rules in coalition with the conservative rural National Party.
Australia has had seven prime ministers in just the past 11 years. The three previous prime ministerial changes immediately preceding an election effectively boosted the government’s popularity. This recent prime ministerial swap instead made the government more unpopular.
This was a foreseeable outcome. So why would a party take this route?
In most multiparty parliamentary democracies, the choice of prime minister is often the result of compromise between a few parties — that’s how it works in most European countries, for instance. That’s not the case in Australia, where internal party concerns factor into how the ruling party determines the prime minister. In this case, conservatives within Turnbull’s party wanted change and they got it, but at a potential real cost to the party’s electoral fortunes in the future.
Quirks in Australia’s electoral law make party leadership vital to winning elections
Australia, like the United States, elects its legislature with single-member constituencies. However, Australia uses a “fully preferential” alternative vote ballot where all candidates are ranked in order of preference. The candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and those votes are reassigned by the voter’s preference to the remaining candidates. This is repeated until one candidate has more than 50 percent of the vote. This forces voters to rank all candidates and turns competitions into races between the two major party blocs both in the aggregate at the national level and in most constituencies.
Very few minor party or independent candidates are elected to the House of Representatives in Australia due to what political scientists call Duverger’s Law — the tendency for majoritarian elections in single-member constituencies to produce two-party politics. Duverger’s Law helps manufacture artificial parliamentary majorities for governments. This means Australia’s governments are clearly identifiable and accountable to the electorate and tend to not rely on cross-bench support.
There’s another factor: Voting is compulsory in Australia. Attracting voters who are less ideologically committed creates a great centripetal force — major parties are compelled toward the center and away from the extremes. This is in contrast to the U.S. system, where sometimes the push to get the vote out means motivating the most ideologically polarized voters — centrifugal forces push parties away from the median voter toward the ideological extremes.
Prime ministers change often because parties are trying to find a more popular leader
But switching a party leader is not without costs. Leadership feuds are messy and parties publicly airing their factional fights attract negative media attention and draw voter ire. A party’s leadership is contested usually only if the benefits outweigh aggravating the voters who believe they ought to decide the prime minister’s fate.
For example, when former prime ministers Kevin Rudd (2010), Julia Gillard (2013) and Tony Abbott (2015) were replaced, each shift provided an uplift in voter support for the ruling party. In each case an election was less than a year away.
This time Australia replaced its prime minister with someone less popular
Turnbull as prime minister had a 12-point personal rating advantage over the opposition leader Bill Shorten, leader of the Labor Party. Preceding his becoming prime minister, Morrison enjoyed a 6 percent disadvantage to Shorten.
The fallout became clear in the Aug. 26 and Sept. 9 Newspoll surveys. If the election were held today, compared to the previous election there would be a 6 percent swing toward the Labor Party, and a 9 percent swing away from the coalition in terms of first preference votes. Crucially, the coalition is in a far less competitive position.
This was an expected result
Public polling clearly showed that Australians preferred Turnbull as leader of the Liberal Party before the leadership spill. At no point has Morrison performed better than Turnbull, “Someone Else” or “I Don’t Know” — which suggests Morrison’s personality is not an electoral asset.
An Essential poll for the Guardian suggests the new prime minister’s low likability and the electorate’s distaste for the party’s internal squabbling has made the ruling party less electorally competitive. Voters now view the Liberal Party as more divided, less ideologically moderate and more extreme; lacking vision for the country; less trustworthy; having poorer leadership; and more unclear on what they stand for. Compared to each of these indicators, the Labor Party now receives more positive assessments.
It’s all about party factions
So what prompted the change in party leader? Substituting the ideologically moderate Turnbull with the more conservative Morrison perhaps was an attempt to assuage conservative activists from supporting One Nation, a far-right ethno-nationalist party. But Newspoll surveys reveal that a 2 percent decline in One Nation voter support comes at a cost of 5 percent of the government’s two-party preferred vote.
There were other complaints about the Turnbull government. Australia’s Senate blocked corporate tax reduction, university fee deregulation and a university standard English language test for citizenship, among other goals of the Coalition government — but under Turnbull parliament legalized same-sex marriage, much to the conservative faction’s chagrin. Conservatives were irate that they were unable to make the policy changes they sought.
Internal party polls are usually done with robo polling, which notoriously is of poor quality, and is known to overestimate minority parties. Poor survey research might have spooked the Liberal Party. They came to believe their chances of winning the next election was unlikely under any leader. The stakes had become so low that policy and electoral competitiveness no longer motivated the party.
Adopting an unpopular conservative leader was a calculus to give top cabinet jobs to the conservative faction for the brief period before the next election, to take place by May 18, 2019. Party leadership politics without concern for electoral tactics is an incredibly vicious and bitter form of politics, only because the stakes are so low.
Luke Mansillo is a PhD candidate in the Department of Government & International Relations and the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. He is an associate in the Department of Government at Harvard University. Find him on Twitter: @Mansillo