Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on May 21, 2016
Australian politics and foreign policy: Turbulence at the top

< style="color: #0180b3;">This is the first part of a three-paper series which will explain the recent turbulence at the top and will discuss the chances of candidates in the upcoming election and its impact on Australian foreign policy.

Australia’s politics, at least at the very pinnacle of power, has been turbulent recently. Five Prime Ministers have come and gone in five years, with the latest switch taking place in September 2015 when Malcolm Turnbull ousted Tony Abbot to become Australia’s 29th Prime Minster. And another change may come at an election in a couple of months — on  July 2.

Here, politics has long been dominated by the conservative Liberal Party and the progressive Labour Party. The Liberals have been permanently allied with the Nationals since 1923; by not running against each other in certain seats they remain electorally competitive, and at present the Coalition currently enjoys a strong 90-seat majority in the 150-seat House of Representatives. Labor is the largest party on the left although the Greens, who sit further left, have been winning between 8 percent and 12 percent of the vote at recent elections. But, while proportional voting in the upper house enables the Greens to consistently win Senate seats (currently 10 of 76) their support is too geographically dispersed to win many House seats (currently only one). Greens voters typically deliver their second preference votes to Labor, but a permanent coalition between the two parties is unlikely for two reasons: first, the preferential voting system allows them to coexist without splitting the progressive vote; and second, a post-election alliance with the Greens after the 2010 election upset Labor voters and allowed the opposition Coalition to ‘tag’ the Labor government as the ‘hostage’ of ‘tree-hugging hippies’. Senior Labor figures have recently rejected allying with the Greens should Labor fall just short of a majority at the upcoming election.

Choosing leaders

Until recently, both the two major parties chose leaders in the traditional way, namely, by a ballot of MPs. A challenger could initiate a ‘spill motion’, although any MP could call for a ballot, not stand, and hope ‘someone’ — everyone usually knew who — would nominate themselves. Sometimes a ballot took place without the real expectation of a leadership transition, and, instead, the purpose was to ‘send a message’ to the leader. A leader could also call a ballot to ‘smoke out’ a potential challenger. The Liberals still choose leaders this way, but after the recent traumatic leadership wrangles Labor changed its system — party members’ votes and MPs’ votes are now weighted equally — although the party’s constitution has not been formally amended yet, meaning a future leader might be toppled in yet another coup. Most Australians understand that prime ministers are not directly elected, but equally, I suspect many only understand this intellectually; at an emotional level they have become annoyed by the fact they have only had a say in one of the five recent leadership transitions (i.e. when the Liberals’ Tony Abbott was elected in September 2013).

The revolving door to the PM’s office


Labour’s Kevin Rudd won a sweeping electoral victory in November 2007, but by 2010, he had suffered several policy setbacks. Senior Cabinet colleagues were feeling sidelined by unelected advisors, the government seemed directionless, and it was trailing in the polls. So, with an election approaching so-called ‘factional heavyweights’ convinced the Deputy PM Julia Gillard, to challenge on June 23, 2010. Rudd, knowing he faced defeat, stepped down and Gillard was elected unopposed. But, Rudd refused to retire from politics. Worse, he actively undermined Gillard during the August 2010 election campaign with leaks, and Labor was subsequently reduced to a minority government. Gillard attempted to conciliate Rudd by appointing him Foreign Minister, and he held this post throughout 2011. But, after months of renewed leadership speculation amid bad polling numbers, in early 2012, Gillard’s supporters launched a pre-emptive smear campaign against Rudd, who resigned from Cabinet on February 22, 2012 and launched an ill-prepared challenge. Gillard won 71 to 31 in a text-book example of how to smoke out a potential challenger.

 But, Labor’s polling numbers remained poor so on March 21, 2013. Simon Crean, a Cabinet Minister, unexpectedly called another ballot. Crean proposed himself as Rudd’s deputy, but an unprepared Rudd declined to stand, meaning Gillard was re-elected unopposed. Yet, this was to prove merely a stay of execution: Gillard’s popularity fell further and with an election approaching Rudd finally challenged on June 26, 2013 and won 57 to 45. Unfortunately, he did not campaign well and Labor fell from 71 to 55 seats at the September 2013 election. Still, polling data suggested Gillard may have only won 40 seats, and Rudd subsequently claimed that he had ‘saved some of the furniture’.


Many expected Tony Abbott’s thumping victory would draw a line under the venomous Rudd-Gillard era. But, the turbulence at the top continued. Abbott had exploited Labor’s travails ruthlessly as Opposition Leader by vociferously attacking Gillard’s character and integrity. But he was never popular — he had merely looked good by comparison — and he failed to transition from effective ‘attack dog’ Opposition Leader to ‘statesman-like’ Prime Minister. Abbott’s policy record was also mixed: for example, he fulfilled a key election promise by stopping asylum seeker boats, but the 2014 budget was widely considered unfair and therefore a failure. He was also increasingly perceived as too conservative, too out of touch with modern Australia on issues like climate change and gay marriage. This sentiment boiled over when Abbott, having unilaterally reintroduced Knights and Dames to the Honours List, knighted Prince Phillip, and on Australia Day (January 26, 2015) no less.

This clumsy act seemed to confirm the public’s suspicions, the Coalition’s polling numbers lurched downwards, and several backbenchers demanded a leadership ballot on February 9, 2015. Malcolm Turnbull, the only credible alternative leader, declined to stand and Abbott survived. He had been sent a pointed message by his backbench, but he never really recovered and eventually, in September 2015, a fully-prepared Turnbull finally challenged and won 54 to 44. The Liberals’ polling numbers immediately improved dramatically, but the government’s honeymoon began to end after Christmas and the two major parties are now virtually level. The media has pounced on the occasional hint of ongoing disquiet in Liberal ranks, but now the election campaign has begun Turnbull looks safe, at least from internal challenges. Whether the voters will back him, however, remains to be seen.

The author is Research Fellow at the University of New South Wales, Australia.

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Alan Bloomfield

Alan Bloomfield

Dr. Alan Bloomfield is a Research Fellow at the University of New South Wales Australia. He has recently published India and the Responsibility to Protect ...

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