Australian lawmakers ousted Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on Friday, the fourth time since 2010 the country’s ruling party has overthrown its leader from the inside.
That statistic has won Australia the title of “coup capital of the Pacific” in some quarters. The new prime minister is the country’s fifth in as many years.
Turnbull was facing mounting hostility from his own party over poor public support, leading to a struggle for power on Thursday that shut down the government. On Friday, lawmakers in the ruling coalition-leading Liberal party gathered enough signatures to trigger a “spill,” or leadership contest – effectively a vote of no confidence in Turnbull.
Turnbull did not run in the following contest, which came down to a vote between the coup’s instigator, hard-right interior minister Peter Dutton, and Scott Morrison, the finance minister. The foreign minister, Julie Bishop, ran as a third candidate but failed to receive enough votes to enter the runoff. Had she prevailed, she would have become Australia’s second female prime minister. In the end, Morrison emerged victorious – a victory for the moderate wing of the Liberal party.
To make things more complicated, the Liberal party is Australia’s leading conservative party. The Labor party is more left-leaning.
Many Australians took to social media to lament the latest in a series of leadership contests, which one user said had become the country’s “national sport.”
What is it about Australian politics that has led to so much instability?
First, the parliamentary system in Australia means that the prime minister is not nationally elected, unlike the president is in the United States.
Instead, like in other parliamentary democracies around the world including the United Kingdom, party lawmakers are elected by voters, and then the largest party (or coalition of parties) after the election has the right to make its leader the prime minister and form a government.
A side-effect of that is that if lawmakers decide they no longer like their leader – as was the case on Friday in Australia – they can pick a new one without going back to voters. If the party has the majority in parliament, the new leader can then be installed as the new prime minister.
So is there a chance it could happen again?
It’s not unlikely. Under Australia’s system, a prime minister’s job security is linked to the size of the majority his or her party holds in parliament. The Liberal-led coalition currently has a majority of only one, meaning Turnbull’s position in recent months had been precarious.
Following the challenge to his leadership, Turnbull has said he will step down from parliament – triggering an off-year election. That would be in his safe Liberal district of Sydney, but an election still poses a significant challenge to the new leader of the party – whose government could fall in the event of a loss. Many Australians have expressed their anger over the frequent culling of prime ministers and Sydney voters might just choose to teach the Liberals a lesson and elect someone from another party. That could cause even bigger problems for the Liberal government.
Why did Turnbull have to go?
The Liberal party is currently deeply divided between a hard-right faction, led by the unsuccessful leadership-challenger Dutton, and a more moderate wing, now headed by Morrison.
Turnbull’s leadership was more moderate, however he became increasingly unpopular amongst lawmakers in the face of a looming national election and poor opinion polling for the party.
In a self-reinforcing cycle, the impasse in the party had led to slow progress on key policies like tax cuts, spending cuts and climate change reform. In turn that frustrated party lawmakers, making progress even less likely. The internal fight came to a head on Friday, when Turnbull was forced out. But the vote, in which Dutton received 40 votes to Morrison’s 45, suggested the ouster had failed to heal the divided party.
Who is the new leader?
Scott Morrison, 50, was until Friday Australia’s treasurer. He is seen as a safe pair of hands by economists, having presided over economic prosperity in his last post.
However as immigration minister from 2013-14, he had been the architect of some of Australia’s most hardline policies to deter asylum seekers. Those policies include turning back ships with potential asylum seekers and holding them in controversial detention camps on foreign islands. Conditions in the camps have been criticized and asylum seekers can be held there indefinitely. Amnesty International has reported detainees being subject to “humiliation, neglect, abuse and poor physical and mental health care.”
Morrison’s first priority as prime minister will be to unite his party. “There has been a lot of talk this week about whose side people are on,” he said in a speech following his victory. “We’re on your side.”