Australia’s government is in disarray after Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s narrow victory in a Liberal party leadership contest, with simmering rivalries threatening to unleash a fresh round of political bloodletting.
Mr Turnbull won the Liberal party contest against Peter Dutton, his home affairs minister, on Tuesday by 48 votes to 35 and appealed to his internal critics to stop destabilising the government. However, an offer to retain Mr Dutton in the cabinet was immediately rebuffed and political analysts forecast that another leadership challenge could occur within days or weeks.
“Turnbull now looks like a dead man walking,” said Ian McAllister, politics professor at Australian National University, adding that Mr Turnbull’s immediate future could depend on whether any other ministers followed Mr Dutton to the backbenches.
Even if Mr Turnbull can cling on to his job until the next election, which is due in the first half of 2019, his divided government has little scope for delivering on key parts of its agenda, such as tackling rising energy costs, dealing with climate change or cutting corporate taxes.
The Liberal-National coalition holds only a slender one-seat majority in the lower house of parliament and is at the mercy of an erratic group of independents, who hold the balance of power in the Senate and a veto over much legislation.
But it is the hardcore group of conservatives within his own party — led by his arch-rival Tony Abbott — who have caused the most damage to his authority in the party and his reputation among voters by frustrating efforts to develop a coherent policy agenda.
“Turnbull is a lame duck and now politically impotent, without even the support of his own party,” said Sarah Maddison, associate professor of politics at the University of Melbourne. “It’s a pretty grim reflection of politics that our last prime minister to see out a full term was John Howard in 2007.”
Australia has experienced multiple leadership coups over the past decade, with five prime ministers sworn into office since December 2007. Mr Turnbull, a former Goldman Sachs banker and lawyer, assumed the prime ministership in September following a challenge against Mr Abbott, whom he accused of poor economic management.
Mr Turnbull was initially popular with the public, many of whom anticipated he would shift the government towards the centre following an Abbott premiership characterised by swingeing cuts to public services, the promotion of coal power and a focus on traditional family values. But his willingness to compromise with conservative colleagues on causes he had previously championed, such as gay marriage, the republic and climate policy, gradually eroded his public support.
“I thought Turnbull would be an existential threat to Labor by straddling the centre ground,” said Bruce Hawker, a former adviser to Labor leader Kevin Rudd. “But the right kept holding him back and in the end Turnbull looks like he doesn’t stand for anything. He seems inauthentic to voters.”
The slow-motion suffocation of Mr Turnbull’s leadership by his conservative critics reached a nadir on Monday when he shelved an energy and climate policy, which was intended to end a decade-long ideological battle that has undermined Australia’s energy security and pushed up prices. But Mr Turnbull’s willingness to appease the Liberal party’s conservative wing has attracted little praise from critics, including Mr Abbott, who asked on Tuesday: “Where are this prime minister’s convictions?”
Many analysts have forecast that Mr Dutton, a former police officer who is best known for overseeing Australia’s hardline immigration policy, is poised to challenge a second time for the party leadership, possibly as early as this week. If he succeeds, he would become the sixth prime minister in just over a decade — a remarkable record in a stable democracy that has enjoyed 27 years of continuous economic growth.
“When you have Italian friends making fun of your country’s political instability, you know you have problems,” says Mr Hawker, who has just returned from a trip to Rome.
The bitter internal wrangling within the Liberal and Labor governments over the past decade has probably contributed to growing support for minor parties and independents, which surged to a record high in 2016. It also bodes poorly for any incumbent government seeking re-election.
“Australians are sick and tired of all the political infighting,” said Mr Hawker, who ran Mr Rudd’s campaign for re-election in 2013, which he lost in a landslide to Mr Abbott after a period of bitter infighting with his colleague, Julia Gillard. “It’s death for politicians.”
Australia’s ‘Game of Thrones’?
Since 2007, the country has had five prime ministers. Here are some key moments:
Labor leader Kevin Rudd defeats John Howard in a general election, ending more than a decade of Liberal-National coalition government
Tony Abbott defeats Malcolm Turnbull by 42 to 41 votes to claim the Liberal party leadership, following a dispute about support for the government’s emissions trading scheme
Rudd sinks in opinion polls following disputes over climate policy and a mining tax, prompting his deputy Julia Gillard to challenge for the Labor leadership. She is elected unopposed and becomes prime minister
Rudd resigns from cabinet and challenges Gillard to a leadership vote, but loses the ballot
Rudd ousts Gillard as leader in another vote, and becomes prime minister again
Abbott leads the Liberal-National coalition to a landslide electoral victory over Rudd
Turnbull ousts Abbott in a party room ballot by 54 to 44 votes, accusing him of poor economic management and failing to connect with voters
The Liberal-National coalition achieves only a one-seat majority in parliament in an election they were expected to win easily, denting Turnbull’s authority
Turnbull narrowly defeats Peter Dutton by 48 votes to 35 in a snap leadership contest sparked by wrangling over energy policy and consistently poor polling
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