To put things into perspective, the view from abroad can be helpful. Sometimes, it can be a little painful, too.
When German Chancellor Angela Merkel met her Australian counterpart, Prime Minister Scott Morrison, on Saturday at the Group of 20 summit, the things that weren’t said appeared to be more telling than those that were. As the two world leaders were silently sitting next to each other ahead of bilateral talks, Morrison smiled toward the cameras.
But Merkel wasn’t feeling it. She casually reached for a stack of papers lying on the table in front of her to study its contents.
For a brief moment, photographers were able to capture the front page: seemingly a cheat sheet on the new Australian prime minister, complete with his headshot.
With all photos of the paper too blurry to read, Australian observers came up with their own interpretations.
One Australian news site published an imaginary, silent Merkel monologue from that moment: “Ahh yes, my good friend Malcolm. How is the old chap? Wait — who the hell is this?”
Malcolm, that’s the more moderate conservative Malcolm Turnbull, who was replaced as prime minister by Morrison in August. Australians would probably forgive Merkel if she really had not noticed. After all, Morrison is already the sixth prime minister since the German chancellor took office in 2005, embarking on a steadier political journey than her colleagues on the other side of the globe.
Since 2007, no Australian prime minister has finished his or her term. Merkel is in her fourth.
Asked to explain why Australian parties so frequently sack their leaders, John McTernan, former communications director for a Morrison predecessor, told the New Statesman newspaper: “It’s because they can. And the incentives all align in one direction.”
Whereas more politically stable nations such as Germany have relatively short election campaigns, Australia is the exact opposite. At three years, parliamentary terms here are among the world’s shortest. “As soon as you have completed your first year, you hit midterm and have to start election planning. In reality, you have a culture of constant campaigning,” according to McTernan.
Voting is mandatory in Australia, with the declared goal of making politics less susceptible to the influence of well-funded interest groups. But critics argue that the requirement has forced participation by constituents who favor leaders' personalities over their political stances — thus encouraging parties to replace leaders whose popularity almost inevitably plummets the longer they stay in office.
Compared to U.S. politics, the Australian version is far more tumultuous. Whereas U.S. presidents cannot easily be removed, even if they have fallen out of favor with their own parties, in Australia it can take only a simple majority of a prime minister’s own lawmakers to elect a new party leader, who will then automatically become prime minister. (The threshold needed to remove a party leader differs among Australian parties, which explains why most of the toppled PMs are from one party, the conservative Liberals.)
The Machiavellian turn of Australian politics has become a growing frustration for many voters, however. When Morrison toppled Turnbull in August, one commentator remarked that it was “World Knife Day! How appropriate!”
In Australia, the fluctuation in politics has triggered questions about whether it is even worth getting to know new prime ministers, who might already be on their way out again.
Deliberately insulting other leaders isn’t Merkel’s style, and yet the G-20 is a treasure box for anyone who wants to read between the lines. In another photo, taken moments before her meeting with the Australian prime minister, Merkel can be seen checking her watch. She doesn’t look content.
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