The Year of Chaos Is Far From Over for Australia's Leader

Updated on
  • Prime Minister welcomes Joyce victory in special election
  • Battle for Bennelong on Dec. 16 could be a much tougher test

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull 

Photographer: Stefan Postles/Getty Images

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull won some relief from the chaos imperiling his leadership, with his deputy winning a special election on Saturday. The next month could be much tougher for him.

Barnaby Joyce was one of two lawmakers from the ruling coalition forced to re-contest their lower house seats because they were in breach of the constitution for being dual citizens. The other, John Alexander, will face voters in Sydney’s electoral district of Bennelong on Dec. 16, with polls showing a much closer fight.

A loss there could heap more pressure on Turnbull, whose leadership is under growing scrutiny. Still, there are no obvious replacements and most of his colleagues realize a messy leadership challenge would probably spell doom for the government by putting voters permanently offside.

Turnbull’s minority coalition is lagging in opinion polls, and the next election isn’t due until 2019. Of more immediate concern is the dual citizenship crisis, which has also forced out seven senators across different parties. Tuesday is the deadline for all parliamentarians to declare whether they might also need to resign.

‘Blood in the Air’

“You get the sense that people are starting to smell blood in the air,” said Nick Economou, a political analyst at Monash University in Melbourne. “Turnbull faces challenges from all fronts and he doesn’t seem to be in control of events. He may well survive into 2018 but his leadership seems to be in terminal decline.”

Joyce, 50, claimed victory on Saturday for his seat of New England after early counting showed he would easily win. With counting continuing on Monday, he will still be absent when parliament reconvenes, leaving the government two seats short of a majority and the Labor opposition looking to exploit the political circumstances as best it can.

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A nightmare scenario for Turnbull, 63, would be the resignation of more lower-house coalition lawmakers on Tuesday over dual-nationality concerns. That could threaten the government’s ability to govern, Economou said.

Marriage Vote

Debate over same-sex marriage legislation due to be voted on in the lower house this week could also get heated, with some conservative members angry that the new law may not contain certain provisions for religious freedoms.

Turnbull’s popularity has fallen since he seized power in a party coup in September 2015, and his government barely survived a general election in July last year. After earning a reputation as a social progressive before entering parliament in 2004, he alienated many voters as prime minister by sticking with the policies of his more conservative predecessor Tony Abbott.

Wins such as a crack down on union corruption and the likely legalization this week of same-sex marriage have been rare. More common has been policy inertia and government gaffes, to which Turnbull’s sometimes inept responses have raised questions about his political judgment.

Bank Inquiry

Just last week Turnbull caved in to pressure from the Labor party and several outspoken government lawmakers to call a royal commission into the banking industry. Turnbull had for years claimed such an inquiry would damage the financial sector. He called his reversal “necessary but regrettable.”

“Turnbull’s credibility was hurt because he was dragged kicking and screaming to a royal commission that he didn’t want,” said Martin Drum, a senior lecturer in politics at the University of Notre Dame in Perth.

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While Labor leader Bill Shorten has delighted in the government’s woes, more disturbing for Turnbull in recent weeks have been the attacks from within.

A disappointing state election result in Queensland on Nov. 25, which saw his conservative colleagues lose ground to the incumbent Labor government, prompted several coalition lawmakers to openly criticize Turnbull’s leadership and New South Wales state Deputy Premier John Barilaro -- an ostensible ally -- to call on him to resign by the end of the year.

No Alternative

“You’ve got a party in disarray, a coalition government in disarray and a community not unified and that is all at the feet of the prime minister of Australia,” Barilaro said in a radio interview.

With Australians craving political stability after a decade of political turmoil, it all adds up to a nervous end to the year for Turnbull. The prime minister was defiant on Sunday, threatening to refer Labor lawmakers with potential dual nationality to the High Court this week and insisting he will remain leader for the long term.

“I have every confidence that I will lead the coalition to the next election in 2019 and we will win it,” Turnbull said in a Sky News interview.

A Newspoll released Monday underscored the difficulty of Turnbull’s task -- his coalition trails Labor by six percentage points, 53 percent to 47 percent.

With parliament due to begin a two-month hiatus at the end of the week, his leadership is likely to survive -- at least into 2018, said Monash University’s Economou.

“The two things probably saving him from a challenge in the near term is that the coalition knows voters have no appetite for more leadership bloodletting,” Economou said. “And there’s a lack of a clear alternative -- who could and would want to step into the breach now?”

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