Five days after its July 2 election, Australians woke up Thursday morning to find that they still don’t know who will lead the next government — and that Standard and Poor’s is moving its ‘AAA’ credit outlook from stable to negative as political uncertainty reigns.
The only clear result of the first ‘double dissolution’ election since 1987 is that it might be days or weeks before Australians know who will hold a majority in either house of their parliament, with every possibility that both houses could wind up with no clear majority.
The other clear result is that the election is that, though his Liberal/National Coalition is growing closer to winning the narrowest of majorities, prime minister Malcolm Turnbull is the clear loser of the election. Just nine months into his premiership after he convinced his party to oust its prior (more conservative) leader Tony Abbott, Turnbull has lost at least 16 seats in the 150-member House of Representatives to the center-left Australian Labor Party (ALP). The Coalition, as things currently stand, is now trailing in the so-called two-party preferred vote (under Australia’s single transferable vote system) by the narrowest of margins — 50.09% for Labor to 49.91% for the Coalition.
For someone whose leadership pitch came down to electability, it means his days as prime minister might be numbered — even if the Coalition emerges with a majority.
Politics isn’t always fair, but Turnbull’s problem has always been that he’s a moderate in a conservative party.
I have no doubt that Turnbull, who has always been far more socially progressive than many other Coalition MPs, would like to accomplish some heady goals as prime minister. He’s been an ambitious man his whole life, and there’s no reason to believe that, with the right kind of mandate, Turnbull would like to solve several conundrums that neither the Coalition nor the Australian Labor Party (ALP) have been able to solve.
He might *like* to find a way to end the detention centers in Nauru and Manus Island without encouraging thousands of poor Asians to risk their live by getting on rafts to Australia, especially after Papua New Guinea’s supreme court ruled the Manus Island detention center unconstitutional.
He might *like* to have Australia’s parliament vote to pass marriage equality for gay and lesbian Australians and be done with an issue that now separates Australia from much of the rest of the developed world — almost all of western Europe, Canada, New Zealand and the United States.
He might *like* to redesign the failed carbon trading scheme that former Labor prime minister Julia Gillard enacted (and that Abbott, a few years later, abolished) as perhaps a business-friendlier carbon tax. After all, Turnbull lost his position as leader of the Liberal Party to Abbott in 2009 after he tried to compromise with the Labor government on climate change.
He might even *like* to take another run at an Australian republic after leading the pro-republic campaign in the failed 1993 referendum.
Since Coalition prime minister John Howard lost the 2007 election, and thereby leaving office after 11 consecutive years in office, Australia has changed prime ministers exactly four times.
That wouldn’t be so remarkable in an era of rapid change and economic anxiety — except for the fact that Australians have only gone to the polls twice since 2007.
Internal coups, unknown in the democratic and developed world outside Japan, within both the center-left Australian Labor Party (ALP) and the center-right Liberal Party (the dominant partner in the ‘Coalition’ with the more socially conservative National Party) have made politics in Australia possibly more exciting in between elections than during election campaigns.
Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull came to power only last September after ousting his more conservative predecessor Tony Abbott in an internal coup, as Liberal MPs in Australia’s House of Representatives began worrying about polls that showed Abbott would easily lose the next election. Those polls turned around when Turnbull, a more moderate figure who led the Liberal Party briefly from 2008 to 2009 and who led the 1999 campaign to transform Australia from a constitutional monarchy into a republic, became prime minister.
Labor leader Bill Shorten, in his own right, has managed to do in opposition what Labor couldn’t manage when it was in government for six years — remain united. Though Labor was elected in 2007 with a wide mandate for Kevin Rudd, he was ousted by his own deputy prime minister, Julia Gillard, within two years. Though she won a narrower mandate in her own right in 2010, the Labor caucus, in turn, ousted Gillard in mid-2013 when it appeared that she would not win the next election. Instead, they turning back to Rudd, who subsequently lost the 2013 election, however narrowly, to Abbott and the Coalition.
As Australia goes to the polls in a campaign that has been unmercifully long by Australian standards and mercifully short by American standards (eight weeks), neither Turnbull nor Shorten seem to inspire much confidence from the electorate. The two have spent the campaign tussling over issues from health care to the economy to LGBT marriage equality to immigration and, in the process, making voters like each of them less.
It’s a tight race. Polls show that the Coalition holds the narrowest of advantages, about 51% to 49%, over Labor in the so-called ‘two-party preferred’ vote — which reflects the outcome of a compulsory electoral system that features a preferential instant-runoff mechanism. It’s almost certain that the Coalition is doing far better than it would have been under Abbott’s leadership, though it’s almost just as certain that, even if Turnbull wins, it will be with a much reduced majority in both houses — and in each house, the balance of power may lie with third parties such as the Australian Greens.
Though both the center-right Turnbull and the center-left Shorten are sensible moderates well capable of governing Australia in a competent and centrist manner, voters seem to have tired of the internal scheming that have come to characterize both of the country’s two major parties.
Turnbull, once a moderate lion who championed climate change legislation, LGBT equality and an Australian republic, was forced by his more right-wing caucus to run on a platform around an AUS$48 billion corporate tax cut.
Shorten, who once vowed to defend the carbon trading scheme, is running on an ambiguous platform, shellshocked by the damage that Labor sustained in 2013 over what was perceived as a double mining tax and carbon tax. Those issues have become especially tender now that the Chinese economy has slowed and the global demand for commodities is somewhat subdued.
On gay marriage, both Turnbull and Shorten personally favor marriage equality. But Turnbull has been pushed towards supporting a nation-wide referendum on the matter, while Shorten has promised to call a vote in the Australian parliament if elected. The Labor position is that a plebiscite is a Coalition tactic to divide Australians that would bring unnecessary strife and animosity to the LGBT community (though Shorten in recent days has taken flak for once supporting such a vote).
Though the Great Barrier Reef is going through a horrific moment of coral bleaching, Australian politics is moving away from the carbon trading scheme (and mining tax) that Rudd promised, that Gillard enacted and that Abbott repealed. Ironically, Abbott ousted Turnbull from the Liberal leadership in 2009 after Turnbull tried to strike a deal with Rudd on the carbon trading scheme. Today, Turnbull, in thrall to his more conservative parliamentary caucus, would never sign up to a similar deal. Shorten, for his part, failed to stop the carbon trading scheme’s repeal last year.
In recent years, both parties have moved towards a more restrictive immigration policy. Both are now wedded to the policy of offshore detention of immigrants bound for Australia in subpar camps in Nauru and Papua New Guinea, notwithstanding a Papua New Guinean judicial ruling in April that called into constitutional question Australia’s immigration policy.
In some ways, the Australian election feels retro, like a British election a quarter-century ago. Australian commentators are still talking about ‘swings’ from the Coalition to Labor in a two-party world. That’s even as the Australian Greens stand to make even more gains in Saturday’s election, under the leadership of Richard Di Natale, a senator from Victoria, who took over the party’s leadership in May 2015. Nick Xenophon, an independent-minded senator from South Australia who came to power initially to oppose gambling machines in the late 1990s, is now leading a centrist ‘Nick Xenophon Team’ that could win seats in both houses.
The stakes are particularly higher in 2016, because Australia is having (for the first time since 1987) a so-called ‘double dissolution’ election, in which all 150 members of the parliament’s lower house, the House of Representatives, and all 76 members of the upper house, the Senate, are up for election. In most elections, only half of the Senate’s members are on the ballot — in other words, half of an Australian state’s 12 senators are up for election.
But the current Senate is deadlocked. While the Coalition has more seats than Labour (an advantage of 33 to 25), 10 members of the Senate belong to the Green Party and another eight senators belong to other small parties or sit as independents.
If Australia’s House of Representatives and Senate twice fail to agree on legislation, the government may prevail upon the governor-general to dissolve both the House and the Senate under section 57 of Australia’s constitution. In the current election, four bills qualify to trigger such a double-dissolution election.
Everyone expected that if Australia’s ruling Liberal Party were to lose the upcoming by-election in the Canning district, prime minister Tony Abbott would face an uprising against his hard-edged conservative style, even as rumors swirled that Abbott was preparing to call a special ‘double dissolution’ snap election that would involve members of both houses of Australia’s parliament.
No one expected that Abbott would face a leadership ‘spill’ even before the by-election, though it was abjectly clear that Abbott’s premiership was in danger as far back as February, when he defeated a leadership challenge by a vote of just 66 to 39.
Blindsided by a Liberal caucus worried about its fate in Australia’s coming election, which must be held on or before January 2017, Abbott’s internal party critics finally brought him down late Monday night, Canberra time, narrowly electing former leader and communications minister Malcolm Turnbull (pictured above) as the Liberal Party’s new leader — and, therefore, the leader of Australia’s Liberal/National Coalition government and Australia’s 29th prime minister.
Literally overnight, it brings a new government to Australia from the moderate wing of the Liberal Party — a new centrist prime minister who is LGBT-friendly, more likely to balance liberty and security, sympathetic to the fight against climate change and, above all, ready to signal a singular focus on Australia’s growing economic woes.
Turnbull — a moderate and a ‘small-l’ liberal
Turnbull is a moderate who has always been much more widely popular with the Australian public than Abbott, whose own prickly personality and economic and social conservatism dragged the current Coalition government firmly to the right. Six months into Abbott’s tenure as prime minister, Australia’s center-left Labor Party, under the new leadership of Bill Shorten, took the lead in polling surveys and never looked back. Labor now holds a healthy lead of between five and 10 points in most surveys on the two-party preferred vote (the measure when all third-party votes are distributed, through second preferences, to Labor and the Coalition, as the two largest parties).
Turnbull’s election will pull the governing Liberal Party back to the center of Australian politics after a two-year Abbott government that’s arguably one of the country’s most right-wing in history.
Turnbull is set to embrace a more urgent tone on economic policy, including a full-throated embrace of the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement (ChAFTA) signed in July 2015 and the multi-continental Trans-Pacific Partnership. Turnbull, in his post-election press conference, praised New Zealand’s prime minister John Key for enacting economic reforms and explaining them well to the electorate. Joe Hockey, the government’s treasurer (essentially the equivalent of finance minister), an Abbott loyalist who denounced Turnbull’s leadership challenge, seems certain to lose his role as the chief economic policymaker.
Turnbull also embraces a much more liberal view on civil liberties, even in an era of rising national security. Unlike Abbott, who firmly opposes LGBT marriage, Turnbull fully supports it and it’s reasonable to expect that he will allow the Australian parliament to hold a ‘free vote’ on the matter — if for no other reason than to lower tensions on the issue before the next election.
As a former environmental minister who once supported the opposition Labor Party’s attempt to introduce a carbon pricing scheme, Turnbull’s election will give Australia a much stronger voice as November’s global climate summit in Paris approaches.
The Canning by-election, scheduled for September 19, comes after the death of Don Randall, a sitting MP who was first elected to the Australian House of Representatives in 1996. The contest, which takes place in a district on the outskirts of Perth in Western Australia, is essentially too close to call, even though Randall and the Liberals easily won the seat in the 2013 election with 51% of the vote (and with 62% of the ‘two-party preferred’ vote).
Though the Coalition’s political troubles are in large part due to Abbott’s personal unpopularity, Turnbull’s election will not magically transform the perilous fundamentals for Liberal reelection hopes. The tanking price of commodities has hurt Australia’s mining-heavy economy, especially as China’s economy stalls after decades of double-digit GDP growth. If Turnbull waits until early 2017 to call fresh elections, Australia might well be in recession. Moreover, Turnbull may seek a personal mandate as the new Liberal leader — in 2010, Gillard called an election almost immediately after succeeding Rudd to legitimize her own premiership.
It’s difficult to say what the Turnbull coup will mean for Saturday’s by-election. The new prime minister may himself call snap elections earlier than absolutely necessary, despite the fact that the current government can expect to command a stable majority for the next 16 months.
Second time lucky
A Sydney native, Turnbull is a banker whose first involvement in Australian politics came in 1993, when he chaired the Australian Republican Movement, which aims to make Australia a republic with an elected president (and not a constitutional monarchy with Queen Elizabeth II as its head of state) — republicans only narrowly lost a 1999 referendum on creating such a republic. Though the 1999 fight brought together traditional allies from the right and the left, Abbott is a committed monarchist and he drew derision in January when he awarded a knighthood to prince Philip, Queen Elizabeth II’s husband.
Elected to the Australian parliament in 2004, Turnbull’s ascent was rapid and, in the final year of prime minister John Howard’s government, Turnbull served as minister for the environment and water. Though he won the Liberal leadership in 2008, discontent among the opposition’s right flank to the Labor carbon pricing scheme forced him out nearly a year later after Turnbull instructed his caucus to support the bill. After two leadership spills in a week, Abbott usurped the leadership in December 2009 after two ballots, by the narrowest margin of 42 to 41.
More than an unpopular mining tax or one of the world’s most progressive carbon trading schemes, Australian voters booted the last Labor government as a punishment for the personality-driven drama between Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard who, in six years of government, traded the premiership twice and fought through four different leadership battles.
Rudd eventually returned to leadership in the summer of 2013 when its fickle members worried that sticking with Gillard would result in an electoral catastrophe. Labor lost the election anyways, and Tony Abbott, the conservative leader of the opposition Liberal/National Coalition, became prime minister.
Just 17 months after taking office, however, Abbott now faces the same dynamic, and Australia’s prime minister survived a ‘leadership spill’ earlier this week by a narrow margin of 66 to 39. If successful, the challenge would have opened the way for a direct leadership contest, presumably against either two more popular figures — communications leader (and former Liberal leader) Malcolm Turnbull or Australia’s foreign minister Julie Bishop, a rising star.
The leadership wobbles point to a growing trend of snap leadership contests that are reshaping Australian politics by narrowing the time horizons for leaders of both major parties. Though that makes party leaders conceivably much more responsive to their colleagues and it also gives individual government ministers more power and leverage, it correspondingly creates uncertainty and drives weaker leadership. Think, for example, of the rotating-door premierships so common in Japan or Italy for much of the post-war era.
Why Abbott was so vulnerable
Abbott largely did what he said he would do when he was elected in September 2013. He’s deployed enough military personnel and detained enough asylum seekers at detention centers in Papua New Guinea to sufficiently disincentivize immigrants from attempting the dangerous trek to Australia by boat. He successfully won enough support among the Australian Senate’s independents to kill both Rudd-Gillard era accomplishments — first, their landmark carbon trading scheme and, a month later, an unpopular tax on mining profits (that, in any event, raised far less revenue than initially anticipated). For good measure, Abbott finalized two key free trade deals, with Japan and with South Korea, at a time when the Australian economy is reeling from both China’s economic slump and a decline in global commodities prices. In the crisis over downed Malaysian Airline flight 370, he showed genuine regional leadership, especially in contrast to the Malaysian government. In Abbott, Australians got exactly the prime minister that was advertised — a passionate right-wing conservative not afraid of controversy.
You’d be excused if you thought that Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd’s concession speech earlier today sounded more like the victory speech of a man who had just won the election.
In a sense, Rudd did win the battle against expectations — just barely. Even though Rudd will soon become a former prime minister and has already announced he will step down as the leader of the center-left Australian Labor Party, he can breathe a sigh of relief that Labor did not fare as poorly as some worst-case scenarios projected — either under Rudd’s return to the leadership or under former prime minister Julia Gillard. So Rudd was probably right to gloat in his speech that he preserved Labor as a ‘viable fighting force for the future.’ What Rudd didn’t have to say was his belief that Gillard would have led Labor to an absolute collapse.
With three seats left to be determined, the center-right Coalition government led by Liberal Party leader Tony Abbott has 91 seats in Australia’s 150-member House of Representatives to just 54 seats for Labor and two independents, with Adam Bandt, the sole MP of the Australian Greens, holding onto his Melbourne seat despite a strong Labor push. That’s a very strong victory for Abbott, who has picked up 18 seats, but it’s not a historic landslide — four of those gains come from seats formerly held by independents.
Rudd, on the other hand, can claim that his three-month leadership of the party helped avert a catastrophe, though we’ll never know whether Gillard would have done better or worse (and there are some reasons to believe that Labor should have simply stuck with Gillard through September).
You can get all of the seat-by-seat results here, and you can read the pre-election analysis of the marginal seats here.
Here’s the result of the primary vote count:
The most striking piece is that more than one of every four voters chose as their first preference someone other than a Labor, Coalition or Green candidate, and it corroborates that the election was more a statement of disapproval of the Rudd-Gillard governments than an embrace of Tony Abbott.
Polls are now open across Australia, where voters will elect all 150 members of the House of Representatives, the lower house of the Australian parliament, and a little over half of the 75 members of the Senate, the upper house.
If polling surveys prove correct, prime minister Kevin Rudd (pictured above, left) and the Australian Labor Party is facing certain defeat at the hands of Tony Abbott (pictured above, right), the leader of the Liberal Party and the center-right Coalition between the Liberals and Australia’s agrarian conservative National Party.
As we wait for results to come in later today, it’s worth taking a closer look at the voting to determine just what could happen.
Polls opened at 8 am and will close at 6 pm (for those of us on the east coast, polls close on Australia’s east coast at 7 am ET and on Australia’s west coast at 9 am ET). Voting is mandatory in Australia, with a fine of around A$20 for citizens who don’t participate.
Australia elects House members in single-member constituencies, but with a preferential voting system that ranks candidates (much like Ireland’s preferential vote). Each voter casts a ballot in one of 150 electoral districts throughout Australia. But instead of just voting for one candidate, voters rank their candidate to indicate preferences from first to last.
The so-called ‘primary vote’ is the tally of the first preferences of all voters. If, after the primary vote is counted, no candidate wins an absolute majority, the candidate with the lowest amount of support is eliminated, and the second preferences of the voters who preferred the eliminated candidate are distributed to the remaining candidates. Candidates are eliminated, and preference are allocated, until one candidate wins more than 50% of the vote. In reality, this typically means that all third-party candidates are eliminated, and the final count comes down to a contest between the Coalition and Labor — this is referred to as the ‘two-party preferred vote.’
So imagine a race with three candidate — Kevin, Tony and Christine. Suppose that in the primary vote, Kevin wins 35%, Tony wins 45% and Christine wins 20%. Christine would be eliminated, and we would look at the second preference of all of Christine’s voters. Suppose that Christine’s voters preferred Kevin and Tony equally — when the second-preference votes are added to the existing tallies, we would see that Tony wins the election with 55% to just 45% for Kevin.
The system for determining senators is even more complex because voters elect 12 senators for each state (in a typical election, voters select just six senators for each state, but in a ‘double dissolution’ election, voters sometimes choose all 12 at once). Senate elections are conducted with the same principles of preferred voting, but within statewide multi-member districts. I’ll spare you the details, but if you’re interested in how the vote count becomes exponentially more complex, feel free to watch this primer.
In the previous August 2010 election, neither Labor nor the Coalition won enough seats to form an absolute majority in the House — Abbott’s Coalition actually has one more MP in the House today than Rudd’s Labor (a 72-71), which means that Abbott needs to pick up just four seats to become prime minister: