Politics and Society

Your Guide to the Revolving Door of Australian Prime Ministers

Australia has had five different Prime Ministers in five years, with only two elections in that same period. Somehow, our country isn’t literally on fire — yet. But the ridiculousness of our situation has finally been brought to international attention at the recent G20 summit in Argentina.

How’d this happen? What the hell is going on!?

Don’t worry, you’re not alone, as world leaders at G20 have been asking the same questions! Our new Prime Minister, Scott Morrison — who only took up the post in August — had to explain who he was to Donald Trump, while Angela Merkel was caught brushing up on a cheat sheet with his picture on it while sitting right next to him. It really is hard to keep up, so allow me to explain.

In Australia, there’s two major parties, the Liberals (actually conservative) and Labor (centrists) who always compete against each other to win the most seats, very occasionally having to compromise with minor parties or independents in order to form a government. We vote for individual Members of Parliament (MPs), not for the Prime Minister (PM) — whichever party or coalition wins a majority of MPs can technically designate whichever MP they want their PM. As a consequence, they can also vote to replace the PM with whoever they want, if they feel so inclined.

Back in 2010, this happened for the first time in 20 years when Kevin Rudd (Labor) was ousted in a leadership spill (the amazing term for a snap vote on the party leadership) and replaced with Julia Gillard. Leadership spills were, in the past, almost entirely limited to the opposition party rather than the governing one. Now, all of a sudden, politicians have been reminded that they could replace the PM, and they all thought it would be a really good idea to do it as much as possible. Thus, the clown show began.

So, let’s get started on the rollercoaster of The Five Australian Prime Ministers in the Last Five Years That You’ll Need to See to Believe!

Prime Minister #1: Julia Gillard, Labor (2013)

The fashionable Gillard started the leadership spill trend when she, as mentioned, ousted Kevin Rudd back in 2010. She was our first female PM, and she did end up winning an election soon after to give her leadership some legitimacy, so fair play to her. While she was the target of a lot of misogyny from the right, she did a good job of taking it in stride, implementing some good policies — most notably a carbon tax. In fact, she passed so much legislation during her three years as PM that she’s been called ‘the most productive Prime Minister in Australian history’.

She was, unfortunately, not quite cool enough to take the initiative on gay marriage, though. Still, she was a well-liked leader and achieved a very important milestone in Australian politics that secured her place in the history books. But it all came crashing down thanks to this next guy…

Prime Minister #2: Kevin Rudd, Labor (2013)

Then, in 2013, Rudd (who was still an MP) came back and challenged her for the leadership. This was the second time, mind you — he’d failed once before in 2012. This time, he won, and all of a sudden Australia had Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister again. He’s a career public servant and an expert on China (yes, he speaks Mandarin) who was a diplomat before entering politics. In his first term as PM, he proved to be fairly progressive, immediately officially apologising to Australia’s Indigenous people (the first time our government had ever done so). In this second term, though, he didn’t really do much aside from be the first Australian PM to openly support gay marriage, which was kind of bittersweet considering that he hadn’t done so during his first.

Rudd called a snap election soon after replacing Gillard, so fair play to him as well on actually realising that it’s fair to let the people vote again when they’ve suddenly got a new Prime Minister. Except then he lost the election in an absolute landslide to…

Prime Minister #3: Tony Abbott, Liberal (2013)

Yes, that’s right: three Prime Ministers in one year. Tony Abbott is a career politician who had long been one of the loudest and most annoying voices on the religious right in Australia. Now, somehow, he was Prime Minister. This was kind of like our Trump moment, except we already pretty much knew it was coming because the Labor party was a shambles at the time and he’d been a scourge on our politics for a very long time.

What’s he like? Well, apart from being a loud-and-proud religious nut, immigration-baiting racist, and climate change denier (he repealed Gillard’s carbon tax), he’s incredibly prone to embarrassing, highly visible gaffes, constantly coming off like a child despite his privileged, private school background. The most well-known of these was when he reacted to being handed an onion by immediately taking a huge bite of it, skin on. Yep — he grew up so pampered that he’d never had to prepare an onion before, thus having no idea that you don’t just eat them like apples.

It’s no wonder that he turned out to be too ridiculous even for the leadership of our ridiculous conservative party. So, up stepped the next bloke:

Prime Minister #4: Malcolm Turnbull, Liberal (2015)

After Abbott’s government got the worst of 30 consecutive opinion polls, a leadership spill was called, which he predictably lost to Malcolm Turnbull. Turnbull is about as centrist as the Liberal party gets, that is to say just a little bit. He was one of the few people in the party who believed in climate change and who supported gay marriage — more of a ‘I hate poor people, but I don’t really care what anyone does in private’ sort of conservative. People naturally thought that his personal politics might actually result in at least a marginal improvement compared to Tony bloody Abbott.

Haha, wrong! After assuming the Prime Ministership, he immediately forgot that he had personal convictions and started toeing the party line on every single issue — suddenly, he was doing everything in his power to avoid a vote on gay marriage, was conspicuously silent on climate change, etc. He called an election the next year, in which his party lost many seats, but still barely retained government. Still, their majority was so small that it made it very difficult for them to push through any legislation. Remember that thing about Abbott losing 30 consecutive opinion polls? Turnbull did, too, much to Abbott’s (who‘s still an MP with delusions of being PM again one day) delight.

This made the party a mess of internal squabbling, and as a result, Turnbull was challenged the Immigration Minister, Peter Dutton, who is most well-known for looking a bit like a potato and being quite racist. Dutton lost the challenge quite handily, then decided that he was going to keep challenging for the leadership until it actually worked. Malcolm Turnbull, rather than deal with another vote, stepped down. Thus, instead of the party choosing between Turnbull and Dutton, Dutton ran against…

Prime Minister #5: Scott Morrison, Liberal (2018)

…and subsequently lost. Scott Morrison, however, was a compromise candidate: he won purely by virtue of being the guy who wasn’t Dutton. He’s still essentially just a slightly-less-stupid but just-as-religious version of Tony Abbott.

After taking over the Prime Ministership, he’s declined to call an election to legitimise his position, probably because polls show that the Liberals, who have been wrought by infighting for the last 3 years, are going to lose handily. He’s also already been quite destructive in his short time as PM: among his ill-considered acts, there’s been an attempt to pass a law that would have allowed schools to legally discriminate against LGBT children, and a proposal to move Australia’s Israeli embassy to Jerusalem — right in the middle of negotiations for a lucrative trade deal with Australia’s close, Muslim-majority neighbour, Indonesia, which predictably compromised it.

Then, right before leaving for the G20, Morrison thought it would be a good idea to tell some school kids who were considering protesting about climate change to “do less activism” and “go back to school”. The kids then, of course, did the exact opposite of this, staging a massive nationwide student strike and protest while he impotently moaned about it.

What’s next?

I like to think that Morrison’s most recent own goal is precisely what Merkel was reading about in her notes, right before meeting her sixth different Australian Prime Minister since becoming Chancellor of Germany. That fact really puts the volatility of Australian politics into perspective. Next year, it’s almost certain that Labor‘s new leader, Bill Shorten, will be elected Prime Minister — just in time for Merkel to meet her seventh Aussie PM before she finally steps down in 2021.

However, that might actually be too optimistic. If the ludicrousness of the last five years are anything to go by, she could very well end up meeting an eighth or ninth before retirement. Or, heaven forbid, a tenth.

Will the show go on? I bloody well hope not.

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