Even in these heady days of Brexit and Trump, Australian politics continues to lead the way in its example of absolute political chaos. In the time Angela Merkel has been German Chancellor, Australia has had six Prime Ministers, and so it is not surprising that at the recent G20 summit Merkel had to attend a meeting with the latest leader of the ‘ruling’ Liberal party, Scott Morrison, armed with a factsheet about her latest counterpart.
With Morrison and the Liberals expected to lose the next general election, coming in May, Australian politics is stuck in limbo, without a functioning government and with its international reputation in chaos.
The stability of the government has long been compromised by Houses of Parliament which are smaller than those of other nations such as the UK, which has 650 MPs in its lower House compared to 150 in Australia. This means that, presently for example, the government has 73 of the 150, requiring constant negotiation with Independent MPs to pass legislation, in addition to the Liberal party already being in coalition with the National party. This structural weakness extends to the Senate, where there has largely been no majority since the 1980s.
When the previous Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, became the latest in a now long list of Prime Ministers to be forcibly deposed by the conservative wing of his party in August, his ally Julia Banks quit the party to become an independent in November. This further destabilised the government, a move which prompted Prime Minister Morrison to commit the democratic outrage of drastically cutting the number of sitting days for Parliament before the election in May to fifteen days in the next six months, to try and avoid defeat.
The polls ahead of the election suggest that the Labour party will win handsomely, unsurprisingly given the turmoil of the Liberals. However, there is no indication that this would go any way to solve the instability of the country. Since 2001, the party has had seven leaders. Indeed, this instability is not a characteristic of the Liberal party, but more a structural weakness within the Australian political system. Events such as the eligibility crisis arising in 2017, where a number of politicians were declared ineligible for Parliament on the basis that they held dual citizenship, exposed that Australian politics seems destined for crisis.
Of course, all of this turmoil does not affect domestic Australian politics in isolation. Australian foreign policy in recent decades has been principally defined by its relationships with both China and America as the key forces in the Pacific. At a time when relations between those two superpowers are becoming increasingly frosty, as prospects of a trade war rise dramatically, Australian commentators are noting that their nation is being pushed towards making a choice between which power to row in behind. In this context of a crucial time in Australian foreign policy choices, continual infighting and instability not only hampers the ability of any leader to make these choices and garner political support for them, but it also increases feeling from the outside world that Australia does not have the strength or consistency of leadership to stand up to these powers and ensure their interests are protected.
Comical events, like the meeting between Merkel and Morrison, do nothing to dispel this notion, instead increasing international feeling towards Australian politics as a bit of a laughing stock.
As Australia becomes more and more obsessed with its own domestic politics and infighting, it risks missing out on international affairs and the deals it needs to make with countries like Indonesia, India and Korea. Fresh instability could soon come to a head from the Nauru scandal, continuing to disrupt Australia’s foreign policy powers and leading it further into chaos.
The structural weaknesses in the political system mean that the government is too often in danger, and thus cannot control its domestic or foreign policy.