The World

Australia Changes Prime Ministers for the Fifth Time in Eight Years

Why the country has been plagued by chaotic “leadership spills.”

Malcolm Turnbull, Scott Morrison.
Malcolm Turnbull, Scott Morrison.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Stefan Postles/Getty Images and Mark Graham/AFP/Getty Images.

After days of feverish speculation, political machinations, party infighting, and spillposting, Australia has changed prime ministers—again. Malcolm Turnbull will be replaced as party leader and PM by his former treasurer, Scott Morrison, also known as ScoMo—a man who once brought a lump of coal to Parliament to prove to environment advocates the fossil fuel is harmless.

For the fourth time in eight years, the governing party has switched leaders in a “leadership spill,” a snap ballot for the leadership of a party that can affect the leadership of the entire nation. (The PM is simply whoever leads the majority party in the lower house—Australia’s Paul Ryan, if you will.)

Leadership spills have become unusually common in Australia in recent years, leading to its reputation as the “coup capital of the democratic world.” There have been eight spills within the federal government since June 2010, four of which resulted in a sudden change of PM. Every person to hold the role of PM since 2007 has now lost the role in a spill. But this spill has been the most vicious, drawn out, and dramatic of them all.

Though Australia watched this latest spill unfold in slow motion over five long days (so, more of a drip than a spill), Morrison’s ascendency came as a twist. Turnbull, a moderate member of his party, was facing a coup from the far right, whose previous leader, Tony Abbott, he deposed in a 2015 spill. With Abbott now a political pariah, this challenge was mounted instead by Abbott-friendly sub Peter Dutton, a deeply unpopular figure best known for his hard-line immigration policies, his boycott of the historic apology to the Stolen Generation of Indigenous Australians, and his blatant racism. (Memes fluctuate between comparing him to Voldemort and a potato. He also particularly hates this photo of himself.)

Dutton lost his first spill attempt on Tuesday after Turnbull pre-emptively called one, in response to rumors Dutton was building numbers. But the margin, 45–38, was so close that many assumed it was only a matter of time before Dutton, who immediately resigned as Turnbull’s home affairs minister, struck again. As the week went on, the list of Turnbull turncoats continued to grow, and Dutton agitated for another meeting. By Thursday, 13 of Turnbull’s ministers had withdrawn support for him and offered their resignations, including key conservative backers, saying it was time for a new leader. Insiders signaled that Turnbull would take himself out of the running if another spill was called and that his treasurer or deputy would run in his place. Following days of nonstop speculation and chaos—including fiery debates on the floor of Parliament and, allegedly, outright shouting in its corridors—Turnbull finally called a Friday meeting.

After a motion for a spill was passed at Friday’s meeting, Turnbull opted not to run, as expected, though his deputy and treasurer did, as also expected. Deputy Julie Bishop, who had also served as Abbott’s deputy, was eliminated in the first round of voting, but in an upset, Treasurer Morrison went on to defeat Dutton 45–40. (The betting odds had favored Dutton, then Bishop.) It’s arguably a bitter victory for Turnbull.

ScoMo is less conservative than Dutton, and many are relieved to have narrowly avoided having as PM a man who was once caught on a hot mic joking about islander nations being destroyed by rising sea levels (although for those wishing for a Labor win at next year’s election, the Trumpian Dutton may have been preferable). But Morrison, an evangelical Christian, is still among the most conservative members of the party’s “moderates,” and his ministerial track record is equally as horrendous at Dutton’s. As immigration minister, he continued Australia’s inhumane offshore detention policy and once said that the government was wasting taxpayer dollars on funerals for Iraqi and Iranian refugees who died in a boat crash on their way to Australia. Last year, Morrison voted no on marriage equality in Parliament, even after his party had put the country through an unnecessary national poll that returned an overwhelming yes. It’s for these reasons that he emerged as a victorious compromise candidate, bridging the party’s right and hard right.

The Liberal Party—economically liberal, that is, but otherwise conservative by most standards—is deeply divided, with Turnbull’s wing struggling against Abbott’s for many years. The division began to heat up in early August, with the party split over Turnbull’s move to legislate a carbon emissions reduction target. One columnist also suggested Rupert Murdoch’s annual pilgrimage to the country this month may have pushed things along.

But Turnbull, a social liberal, has struggled to maintain authority ever since deposing Abbott in 2015. He cuts an unpopular figure on both sides of politics, trying to appease his conservative backers and disappointing those on the left (myself included) who thought he might bring his progressive values with him to the leadership. He’s backed down on his push for Australia to abolish the monarchy, a progressive movement that he led in the ’90s; he considerably lessened his push for climate action; and despite his own personal support for marriage equality, he put the country through the ugly and divisive vote at Dutton and co.’s insistence. Turnbull was losing in the polls, though Dutton was not likely to fare better, meaning this agitation was mostly ideological. Many pointed to the Liberal Party’s renewed push for a more conservative leader—despite the fact that Turnbull was already implementing most of its agenda to appease them—as a move to appease someone else: the alt-right.

This spill was particularly unpredictable in terms of its final twist, but spills are by now a fixed feature of Australian political life, threatening any leader who is losing in the polls, does something remotely unpopular, or upsets a large enough faction of their party. There’s a reason why the Wikipedia page “Sport in Australia” noted (until Friday morning) that “the main national sport is the Leadership Spill which fixates the nation on a random but regular basis.” But the mutinies are actually a new wrinkle. Leadership spills have always been common in the opposition—after all, this is how parties change leaders—but midterm spills within the governing party have become increasingly normalized. Spills have resulted in a change in the prime minister only six times in history, but note the change in frequency: 1971, ’91, 2010, 2013, 2015, 2018. The Twitter @WhoIsPM is truly no joke.

Australian politics is frequently compared to Game of Thrones. American politicians are of course just as scheming. But unfortunately for Aussie leaders, the mechanism to change prime ministers is as simple as 45 elected officials saying so. That’s unfortunate for the people, too. Of the past five prime minister changes, the public has voted for only one. (Although in a vote of confidence—or just a desire for some stability—spill winners Julia Gillard and Turnbull were both re-elected by the people soon after. We’ll see how that goes for ScoMo.) Meanwhile, amid the squabbling and coups, real issues go unaddressed.

Trumble, as he is sometimes known by White House press secretaries, says he will quit politics—though he’s said this before. He claimed he would quit politics after losing a spill as opposition leader to Abbott back in 2009 but changed his mind.

One might call this a small victory for Turnbull. He lost the prime ministership, as all of his recent predecessors have. But he staved off Dutton’s bid for the leadership and installed one of his own proxies instead.

Also, he doesn’t have to talk to Trump anymore. Congrats, Malcolm!