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The accidental prime minister

  • Published at 12:03 pm August 27th, 2018
Who will have the last laugh?
Who will have the last laugh? /REUTERS

Why is Australia changing prime ministers so frequently?

I landed in Australia for post-grad training five years after the nation abandoned the “White Australia Policy” in 1971, the same year as our Liberation War. 

Australia was made a non-white nation by a Labour Party (currently in opposition) prime minister, Gough Whitlam, which was of course a revolutionary step to be taken in 1971. Unfortunately, the Whitlam government was sacked by the governor general of the day in 1973. 

That is a different story, but history tells us that the Whitlam government converted Australia into a non-white immigrant country, and at the same time, Whitlam passed a number of bills in parliament over three years which, at the time, were unprecedented, greater than all Australian bills passed between 1900 and 1970. 

With all these new legislations, Mr Whitlam made sure that Australia never went back to its past. Over the years, politicians of both sides established a truly advanced multicultural nation. 

Lately, however, a former PM, along with some ultra-nationalist parties, has been stirring the pot against a multicultural Australia.

Why was Whitlam sacked by the governor general of the day whom Mr Whitlam himself had recommended to the Queen? 

Australia was a colony of Britain up until the point it received the status of a federation in 1900, which broadly means self-rule while the king or queen of Britain remains as the head of state. 

But the governor general is the de facto head, who must be an Australian citizen and must have approval of the sitting PM. He or she has the authority to sack a PM with the instructions of the queen if necessary. 

Why was the Whitlam government dismissed in such an unceremonious manner? That is another long story.

The Australian parliament runs for three years, and there is no restriction on the time frame or how many terms one seeks to be elected in the general election held every three years. Over the last 43 years, Australia has had eight different PMs from 14 elections. 

Some went for three consecutive terms, while others fell even before the term was over, ambushed by his/her own parliamentary colleagues. This has become a norm over the last 10 years.

Australia has two unique characteristics under the Westminster-type of democracy: Compulsory voting, and the head of the government, the PM, can be dismissed by their own colleagues (it is not a no-confidence per se by the whole parliament, but is a numbers game of the incumbent exercised in the party room of MPs and senators through carrying out a spill motion against the sitting PM). 

This is what happened on August 24, 2018. Mr Turnbull, the sitting PM from the Liberal Party, has been dislodged by his own colleagues nine months before he finishes his term. This is not new in Australia, and this turmoil has been witnessed over the last 10 years involving both the major parties.

Mr Turnbull was elected in 2016, and the next election was due in May 2019.

However, he was politically stabbed in the back by his colleagues in the caucus of a second spill brought by his opponents in the party room within as many as three days. 

In the first spill last Tuesday, Turnbull survived scoring a majority of 13 votes, but in the second spill on August 24, sensing a defeat, Turnbull endorsed his treasurer, Scott Morrison, to stand against the challenger, Peter Dutton, who failed in the first attempt three days back. 

Mr Dutton was doomed to defeat again in the second spill by five votes to Scott Morrison, who is now being called an “accidental PM.” Since Peter Dutton has been closing the gap from 13 to five over three days, it seems the game is not over yet and he would certainly strike again before the election is due in May next year. 

In the process, the opposition Labour Party is having the last laugh and smelling the treasury bench from close proximity. 

The nation had not been governed over the last seven days and the electorates were dismayed seeing the politicians within locked in such a dangerous feud. The reason was that the government is engaged in a factional war over contesting ideology: One mob is ultra-conservative like Trump’s Republicans, while the other, although conservative, is not radical, like the challengers.

For example, ultra-conservatives backing restricting immigration allow bigots to show intolerance against non-white people, and would love to see that the Paris Climate Change Accord is a hoax (in fact, in per capita terms, Australia is the top CO2 emitter on Earth), and other extremist nationalist policies.

The nation is now relieved temporarily, knowing that the ultra-conservative mob is behind in the polls, but they are certainly at a striking distance again before the next election is called any time between now and May 2019. 

The great Australian leader Gough Whitlam was a Labour man, and must be turning in his grave seeing the rise of ultra-nationalism. The present episode of disloyalty towards the sitting PM by 40 votes out of 85 cannot be seen lightly, but surely the electorate does not want to see a public feud within.

This ultimately brings destruction into their own democracy. 

Moazzem Hossain is a freelance writer based in Brisbane.

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