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Photographer: Brendon Thorne/Bloomberg

What Went Wrong With Australian Politics?

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What Went Wrong With Australian Politics?

Photographer: Brendon Thorne/Bloomberg

Viewed from afar, Australia is the envy of the world with its abundant resources and an economy that’s gone 27 years without a recession. But scratch beneath the surface and it’s a different story. An era of stability and economic reform has been replaced by a revolving door of leadership and politics trumping policy. The nation is sliding in international rankings for innovation and education, leaving it struggling for economic momentum even as global growth picks up.

1. What’s gone wrong with Australian politics?

In short, a dearth of leadership. From 1983 to 2007, the nation had just three prime ministers and underwent a period of economic reform. Since then, no leader has served a full three-year term. The removal of a first-term prime minister in an internal coup, when Kevin Rudd was ousted by his own Labor lawmakers in 2010, marked a fundamental shift in the political landscape as a narrow focus on opinion polls, driven by a 24-hour news cycle, took hold. Voters have noticed. Since 2007, the major parties’ share of the vote has fallen from about 80 percent to 70 percent. Into the breach has stepped a hodgepodge of single-issue independents and small parties, mopping up disaffected voters from the left and right fringes.

Revolving Door

Australia's political upheaval is in stark contrast to stability in New Zealand, Canada

Source: National Archives of Australia, Parliament of Canada, New Zealand History

2. So is anything getting done?

Not enough, particularly when it comes to the economy, which needs new drivers after decades of reliance on demand for Australia’s commodities. Current Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull from the center-right Liberal Party was previously a banker and businessman with a reputation for driving deals. But like other recent leaders he’s struggled to handle a fractious upper house of parliament and manage his own lawmakers. His hold on power is looking tenuous after he survived a leadership vote on Aug. 21. Right now, academic Donald Horne’s 1964 book that concluded “Australia is a lucky country run mainly by second-rate people” has arguably never been truer. In the 1980s and 1990s, Labor leaders Bob Hawke and Paul Keating floated the local dollar, deregulated banks, cut manufacturing tariffs and modernized the tax system. Liberal leader John Howard, in power from 1996 to 2007, enacted a 10 percent tax on goods and services. But Australia hasn’t had a big reform since.

3. How hard is it to deal with parliament?

The rise of populism in Australia, as seen also in the U.S. and across Europe, has particularly been felt in the Senate. The upper house chamber has three times more independent or minor party lawmakers than it did a decade ago and they collectively hold the balance of power. That’s forcing the government to horse-trade as it seeks to push through a policy agenda. While Turnbull’s government has had legislative successes, dealing with the Senate has been difficult. Last year, Treasurer Scott Morrison was forced to abandon A$13 billion ($9.6 billion) of savings measures blocked by the upper house -- adding to a stubborn budget deficit that’s jeopardized the nation’s AAA credit rating. More recently, Turnbull has dropped key parts of his signature energy policy as well as a plan to cut corporate taxes for big businesses.

4. Are there other problems for Turnbull?

It’s not just the Senate that Turnbull has to worry about. Rudd’s removal changed the political dynamic, and parties now feel free to ditch their leaders without waiting for the public to have a say in an election. Julia Gillard replaced Rudd and then suffered the same fate: Labor reinstalled Rudd just before the 2013 election, which he lost. The victor, arch-conservative Tony Abbott, fared little better despite the Liberals vowing not to repeat such chaos. He was removed after just two years by Turnbull. Abbott has not gone quietly into the night. Still a lawmaker, he’s one of Turnbull’s biggest public critics on policies from same-sex marriage to climate change. Of greater threat though is another member of the right wing of Turnbull’s own party: Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton forced the Aug. 21 leadership vote which Turnbull won 48 votes to 35. Dutton then quit as minister, raising the prospect of another leadership challenge.

5. So where does that leave the country?

That’s what many Australians are asking. Infighting has weakened every government since 2007, breeding ferocious oppositions and creating an acrimonious atmosphere in a hyper-partisan parliament. As a result, substantive policy debate has evaporated -- leaving the nation struggling to tackle a housing affordability crisis, find new growth drivers or craft a climate policy. With Turnbull in a precarious position, the revolving door of leadership may well spin again before the next election due in 2019, as Australia battles to rise above the “second-rate people” Horne warned about more than 50 years ago.

The Reference Shelf

— With assistance by Chris Bourke