Briefing / Global
Why Australia's fifth prime minister in five years may stick around and the country's Antarctic adventure.
VIEW FROM THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL
The Canberra carousel
By Benjamin Law
Last September, after Malcolm Turnbull seized leadership of Australia’s Liberal party and became the country’s 29th prime minister, voters felt like they were waking from a bizarre fever dream. Australia may be a stable OECD nation but its Federal politics – marked by internal party coups and late-night betrayals – were starting to bear the hallmarks of Shakespearean drama at best and a basketcase democracy at worse. Were we really on our fifth prime minister in five years?
Australians are trying to figure out how it happened by consuming political autopsies. The Killing Season – a documentary investigating the power struggles and coups between Labor PMs Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard – was a hit for public broadcaster ABC. When Malcolm Turnbull overthrew Gillard and Rudd’s successor – conservative Tony Abbott – a one-hour special aired.
All of this has made for thrilling drama but the past five years have also eroded Australians’ faith in democracy. At the last Federal election nearly a fifth of eligible voters boycotted it by either failing to enrol, not showing up (which is technically illegal) or lodging an invalid ballot.
Part of the problem has been the leaders: all have had weaknesses their colleagues or the public couldn’t stomach. Rudd was a visionary but also aggressive and egomaniacal. His successor Gillard was effective as an administrator but a poor communicator who voters refused to trust.
Abbott – a former competitive boxer – was an effective opposition leader but soon discovered no one wants a pugilist as a peacetime leader. Between unpopular attack-the-poor budgets, footage of him eating raw onions and reintroducing anachronistic honours such as knighthoods, Abbott became a Monty Python sketch that no one found funny. He is now the 10th shortest-serving prime minister in Australian history.
Enter Turnbull, a Sydney-based ex-journalist, businessman and multimillionaire. Voters have long preferred Turnbull as conservative prime minister but his political fortunes as centre-right Liberal-party leader sank in 2009, following a scandal where he attacked then prime minister Rudd on information based on falsified documents. Polling sank and Abbott seized the leadership. Now the public has mostly responded to Turnbull replacing Abbott with relief.
Turnbull has been adept at addressing some of Abbott’s blind spots, such as the near-absence of women in cabinet. He also markets himself well: he is rich but acknowledges his privilege, uses public transport and his wife Lucy is a former lord mayor. Federal support for the centre-left Labor party has all but evaporated, with opposition leader Bill Shorten polling at 15 per cent approval – the lowest for a Labor leader in a dozen years.
But honeymoons don’t last forever. We expect to see Turnbull struggling to reconcile the hard-right of his party and socially progressive voters on contentious issues. There is a budget deficit that treasurer Scott Morrison will struggle to mend. Proposed tax reforms will be difficult to pass and already Turnbull’s rejection of a fossil-fuel pledge at the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris has disappointed many. Despite this, no one believes Turnbull’s position is at risk. For now, politics here is back to boring – and most Australians couldn’t be more grateful.
Cabinet ministers to watch in the Turnbull government:
As Australia’s first female foreign minister, Bishop has performed strongly in both Abbott and Turnbull governments and receives much praise.
Minister for defence
The defence community has welcomed Payne as Australia’s first female defence minister, anticipating she will bring much-needed stability.
As immigration minister, Morrison launched a controversial border-control strategy to stop asylum-seekers arriving in Australia by boat. His next challenge: national debt and tax reforms.
Island in the sun
Papua New Guinea [Tourism]
While Papua New Guinea tends to attract international attention for the wrong reasons, 2016 will see the tropical nation stepping up its tourism game in a big way. Lately, headlines of witch-burning and corruption have been counterbalanced by reports of a quality international airport opening and serious expansion plans from cruise giant P&O. Direct flight paths connecting Australia to the sandy beaches of Alotau will also commence this year. But transforming a developing nation into an idyllic retreat is no easy task.
“It can’t compete with nearby Vanuatu or Fiji for beach-island tourism but the government is appealing to explorer types and they are also having success with luxury eco-tourism,” says Jenny Hayward-Jones from the Lowy Institute for International Policy, who notes that keeping tourists away from crime-ridden capital Port Moresby has been key to success.
As international interest in Antarctica heats up, Australia is boosting its footprint in the snowy continent. A new cargo-plane link from Tasmania to its long-term Casey Station base will be created, bolstering scientific operations. The Aussies are also developing a world-class icebreaker to head into unexplored regions.
China has increased its operations in Antarctica too: it now has four research stations compared to Australia’s three. Research in the continent is underpinned by the Antarctic Treaty System, which bans mining. Environmentalists hope this will allow key players such as China, Russia, India and the US to work peacefully with Australia until the treaty is reviewed in 2048.