Last week Australian voters were mute spectators while members of parliament (MPs) in the governing Liberal Party replaced Tony Abbott with Malcolm Turnbull.
Turnbull marks Australia’s fifth prime ministers in eight years!
The switch represented a triumph of the center-left metropolitan elite over the ordinary Liberal voters.
For Australia, the change is a bad thing. It increases the country’s political instability and reduces the range of views that will be considered when navigating the Australian economy.
But for those of us in the United States, Turnbull’s election eerily echoes the presidential nomination drama happening right now.
There’s something we can learn from the similarities between Turnbull and Trump’s rise.
A Media Darling
Turnbull first came to public prominence in 1985 when he was the lawyer defending Peter Wright, the British ex-MI5 chief who was accused of revealing state secrets in his memoir, Spycatcher.
Turnbull’s obnoxious grilling of various British security chiefs endeared him to the media. Since then, he has continued to maintain fashionable viability, such as by strongly espousing global warming legislation and supporting the Labor government’s carbon tax, introduced in 2012.
As leader, Turnbull has promised not to reverse the Abbott administration’s abolition of the carbon tax, a policy that has substantially softened the inevitable contractionary effect of declining resource prices on Australia’s resource-dependent economy.
But the next election is due within a year or so (it must be held by January 2017). And Turnbull is unlikely to feel bound by that promise if he wins the election.
Conversely, if Labor wins, it will presumably reintroduce the carbon tax, or something like it. Australian voters, therefore, have been deprived of a choice in the matter.
The Problem With High Turnover
Australian democracy has always had an element of instability because of its extraordinarily frequent elections. The parliamentary term is a maximum of only three years. Plus, there’s this new tendency, exhibited by both major parties, to oust leaders in the middle of their prime ministerial terms. Government personnel and policies cannot be relied on for any length of time. Inevitably, this imposes an unnecessary cost on the economy.
Anti-populist coups like the one staged by Turnbull raise the risk of fueling populist movements in the future, which could result in unpleasant policies. Just as leftist parties need to remain reasonably in touch with their liberal constituents, so rightist parties need to avoid imposing the elite liberal consensus on their conservative supporters, or risk an unpleasant reaction.
Still, Turnbull will survive and prosper if he follows Abbott’s policies, especially on global warming and immigration. The model to follow here is that of British PM David Cameron, a very moderate politician with impeccable elite liberal credentials and connections, who has avoided fighting his party’s right-wing.
Turnbull’s election has solved the Liberal party’s short-term problem of Abbott’s mid-term unpopularity. He’s enjoying at least a brief “honeymoon” with his personal popularity running at 70% in spot opinion polls. If he calls an election within the next few months, as is expected, he should win it.
Like Looking Into a Mirror
Economically, Australia is going through a difficult period with low commodity prices. Although, the country has managed to avoid a recession for the last 26 years.
With 2015’s budget deficit forecast at only 2.4% of GDP by The Economist, Turnbull can afford to chuck a bit of public money around before the election.
As a former partner in Goldman Sachs as well as a lawyer, Turnbull understands economic issues. But he hews to the fashionable consensus, which could – through overspending and the lack of a politically viable alternative – lead Australia into budget trouble if the global downturn in resource prices persists.
Turnbull represents a much safer choice for Australia than leftist Jeremy Corbyn does for Britain or eccentric Donald Trump in the United States. However, as with Corbyn and Trump, his emergence demonstrates that the Australian political system’s methods of leadership selection need to be reevaluated.
In Australia, the problem is not necessarily the identity of the winner, but the frequency and ease of change is troubling.