Australia changed Prime Minister in dramatic fashion this week. Here’s what you need to know.
What actually happened?
On Tuesday Peter Dutton, a member of the ruling Liberal Party called for a leadership challenge. In the Australian system, as in the UK, the Prime Minister is not elected by voters but is the leader of the party that holds the majority in government. So, Peter Dutton essentially made a bid to become Prime Minister. Dutton lost the initial contest (or ‘spill’ as it’s known in Australia) and promptly called another one. Following the second spill on 24 August Scott Morrison defeated Dutton. Scott Morrison is now the incumbent Prime Minister.
But isn’t it actually slightly more complicated than that?
Yes. This is an Australian parliamentary leadership fight. They’re always complicated. Turnbull has since indicated that he will resign from parliament which will spark a by-election. The government currently has just a one-seat majority and therefore if the Liberal Party lose their seat in this by-election Scott Morrison may have to call an early general election.
Who are the major players?
Sign up for our FREE Reaction Weekend Email
Read the week's best-read articles on politics, business and geopolitics
Receive offers and exclusive invites
Plus uplifting cultural commentary
The recently ousted Malcolm Turnbull was leader of the Liberal Party (equivalent of the British Conservative party) and Prime Minister from 2015-2018. In September 2015 he was responsible for ousting Prime Minister Tony Abbott and reclaiming leadership of the Liberal Party.
Peter Dutton was Australia’s former Home Affairs minister. His ministerial duties were extended last year into a ‘super portfolio’ essentially granting him more power than most ministers. Compared to Turnbull he’s a robust conservative known for Australia’s tough policies on asylum seekers. He became the most senior conservative in Turnbull’s government.
Scott Morrison, or “ScoMo” as he’s known around Parliament, became Treasurer when Turnbull replaced Abbott as Prime Minister in 2015. As a social conservative, he appealed to the moderate factions of the Liberal Party. He rose to prominence too in his endorsement of Dutton’s asylum seeker policy. He didn’t initiate the leadership challenge, but defeated Dutton at the critical moment.
Why has this happened?
Australia is no stranger to turbulent politics, with four Prime Ministers being ousted in the last decade. With an election likely and MPs growing nervous about the government’s poor opinion polling and precarious majority, Turnbull’s fragile alliances began to break down. Last week it was an argument about energy policy that reignited the pre-existing tensions between Turnbull, a moderate, and the party’s conservative factions. Dutton, a conservative, saw this as an opportunity to overhaul the direction the party was heading in under Turnbull and make it more conservative.
Why does this always happen in Australia?
Good question. As mentioned above, Turnbull is the fourth Prime Minister to be ousted by colleagues this decade. In fact, the BBC report that the political turbulence has been so consistently extreme that in 2015 emergency workers allegedly stopped asking patients who was prime minister, “saying it was no longer a good indicator of their mental state.”
The general consensus appears to be that it is a combination of three-year election cycles and incredible media pressure that engenders such a political environment. But it hasn’t always been like this, in fact, between 1983 and 2007 Australia had just three prime ministers.