Australia: Yet another prime minister?

On Monday September 15th, Malcolm Turnbull replaced Prime Minister Tony Abbott as the leader of the liberal party, ensuring Malcolm Turnbull would become the fifth prime minister (or head of government) of Australia within five years.

This post looks at how this seemingly crazy frequency of change actually takes place, the underlying ‘crisis’ and implications for democracy both in Australia and on a wider view.

Seemingly Crazy?  A Regional Joke?

‘We know the Prime Minister’s coming, we just don’t know who’s going to turn up’: New Zealand PM John Key jokes about Australia’s revolving door of leaders

Read more: source

Yes, a change of leader every year on average is surely a sign of an unstable government?

Ok, How is there a change so often?

Australia holds elections for the national government once every three years.  While this is relatively short, it does not explain all the changes.  In fact, often the same party, and with the same leader, can remain in power for a series of elections.  There is no limit to how many times the same person can lead government, and past leaders have remained in office for as long as 16 years.

How does the government change?

Australia is a parliamentary democracy that currently has two major parties and these parties win government with almost equal chance. Many of the population will always vote for the same party, leaving government decided by the small number who do change their vote. In periods where the number unlikely to ever change vote is greater than 50%, it becomes obvious that the party holding such support will win a sequence of elections.

So how does the leader change without an election?

A political party, rather than an individual, holds the power to govern as a result of a general election.  If the party in government changes their own leader, then the head of government changes without a general election being required.  This is the process that has delivered so many new heads of government.  The combination of changes of party, together with parties changing their leader. This is the mechanism, but just why is it happening?

Two parties: Labor Party and Liberal Party.

The labor would formed as the political arm of the union movement.  In a country where only now less that 18% of the workforce are union members, the party now presents itself as a party of ‘traditional labour values’, but apealing to a wider audience.

The liberal party was formed in 1945 by a previous prime minister ‘Sir Robert Menzies’. Menzies formed the ‘Liberal’ Party to be more liberal than main alternative party to the labor party at the time.

The Identity Crisis.

Both of these parties has an identity crisis.

Is the Labor Party still a political arm of the union movement, or simply a modern left-centre party?

Is the Liberal Party a party that should take the views of party founder in 1945 and stay with those exact views,  or take the centre liberal position of the party founder on the issues of the 21st century?

Each party has people of both views.  The more extreme unionist (labor party) or conservative (liberal party) see themselves as the ‘true believers’ but tolerate the more moderate group only when needed to gain power with a more moderate electorate.  The war over identity is correct for the party sees changes of party leader, and these party leaders changes can happen at any time.

The ‘Unholy truce’ and winning elections.

For each party, the more central view of the party is popular with the majority of public voters.  The less central, more extreme, view enjoys greater support within the party than in the electorate.  So both parties tolerate their more moderate side in order to win elections.  Even tolerate leaders from the more moderate side occasionally if that will win an election.

The recent role call of leaders in Australia.

Each party continually battles with a choice.  Leader representing the position the general population prefer, or leader representing the ‘party faithful’ but far less popular with the public.   It is the switching between these choices which has created the ‘revolving door’ of leaders.

Cannot win an election otherwise:   Try the more moderate candidate and let that group take charge!

Success guaranteed because the other party is in a bad position, or just cannot live with the compromise to be in power:  Put the more extreme candidate have the more extreme ‘true believers’ take charge.

Already the more extreme conservatives are passionately angry about the new, one week old leader being allowed to take the party exactly where those pesky voters want!

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