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The Soap Opera That Is Australian Politics

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When I woke up this morning I wasn’t expecting anything big to happen. On my mind was coffee, ironing, maybe going jogging and possibly finally caving into a friend’s wishes and watching Despicable Me. But the first thing I saw when I checked my phone was a BBC News update: Malcolm Turnbull challenges Tony Abbott for the leadership. The whole “OMG REALLY???” reaction was quickly superseded by a feeling I suspect most Australians and journalists having to report on Australian politics share: “Seriously?? Oh for goodness sake, HERE WE GO AGAIN…“.

But hang on, I hear you ask- who is Tony Abbott? I’ve never heard of Malcolm Turnbull? And why are all journalists who now have to report on this simultaneously emitting a groan so loud it might be heard across the whole planet if you listen carefully enough? Well, do allow me to enlighten you.

Tony Abbott was- until only a few hours ago- Australia’s Prime Minister and the leader of the (conservative) Liberal Party of Australia. Some of you who stay up to date with international news might have seen him in some headlines in the last few years, none of them good. He only became Prime Minister in 2013 but in that time he has been able to garner an astonishing amount of negative press. Some of the more unpopular and downright irresponsible stuff he has done is continuously voting against gay marriage, abortion and denying that climate change exists. (No, you did not read wrong, this guy actually doesn’t think that climate change is an issue and has adjusted his policies accordingly.). One of the biggest embarrassments is probably the fact that he not only supported and continued to implement a policy of processing asylum seekers in detention camps offshore of Australia and actually turning the boats carrying refugees and asylum seekers around (completely ignoring the human right to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution) but has also passed a law that makes it illegal to report any form of abuse in these refugee camps. As a result of this a report found Australia guilty of breaching an international anti-torture convention. Tony Abbott’s response to this?  “I really think Australians are sick of being lectured to by the United Nations.”
Yep, once again, you read that right.

So it’s no wonder that Tony Abbott is proving very unpopular in Australian opinion polls. Ironically, the biggest reason his leadership was challenged was not because of all the unpopular and harmful opinions and policies mentioned above, but mainly because of his economic leadership. And this is where Malcolm Turnbull comes in. According to him, the Prime Minister “has not been capable of providing the economic confidence that business needs.”

Malcolm Turnbull is also part of the Liberal Party. But while Tony Abbott has been described by some as too conservative, Malcolm Turnbull has been described by others as not conservative enough. On certain topics (for example on migrant policy) his views do not differ substantially from Tony Abbott’s own. However, unlike his predecessor, he is in favour of gay marriage, believes that Australia should become a republic and is of the opinion that polluters should pay for carbon gas emissions. These left of centre views make him rather unpopular among the more right wing of his own party, but relatively popular with voters across the political spectrum.
Up til this morning, Malcolm Turnbull was communications minister in the Abbott administration. However, to the complete surprise of….well, everyone, he resigned this morning and challenged Tony Abbott to a leadership vote. And he won it. Hooray, Australia with less than 24 hours warning, now has a new Prime Minister.

Now, this is normally pretty exciting stuff for journalists and political bloggers, right? A break from the boring bureaucratic procedure? Well, in any other country it probably would be. But not in Australia, where this has happened so often in the last few years that Australians have actually developed an involuntary reflex of an eye roll and a tired sigh as a response to the situation.

While Australia has a history of political outsings, the last eight years have been special. Let’s quickly look at Australia’s (very) recent political history.
In 1996 John Howard, a member of the Liberal Party, became Australia’s Prime Minister and stayed in the position until 2007. During the 2007 election he ran for office again, but many people wanted a change. This change came in the form of Kevin Rudd, the youngish, charismatic and down to earth leader of the Labour Party. He won the election and immediately made many promises to the Australian people.
Three years later and the promises were still only vague notions. In the end public opinion plummeted and his popularity in the party sank so low that eventually a labour leadership challenge was threatened and Rudd decided to resign. Julia Gillard, the party deputy, became leader of the Labour Party. Not only that, but she also went on to win the next election and became Australia’s first female Prime Minister. Although she managed to push through certain reforms, her popularity faded. Three months before the next election public opinion of Labour was once again low and the party decided that Kevin Rudd was their only hope of winning the upcoming elections. The party backed Rudd to challenge Gillard; he won, and promptly began campaigning. Obviously, this internal chaos and constant bickering did not exactly endear the Labour Party to voters and three months later Tony Abbott won the position of prime minister.

Phew. Although Australia now had a misogynist, bigoted and racist Prime Minister, at least they finally had someone who could at least unite his own party and not cause a complete upheaval in national politics every three years. But no, not even that…

So now we’re back to the present day. Australia has a new Prime Minister, who, like every other PM before him, is now promising unity and stability and seems to be forgetting that he is now the sixth Australian prime minister in eight years. As the Australian comedian Tom Gleeson put it: “Let’s not have elections anymore. They are a waste of time”.
Not only is it uncertain whether Turnbull will actually be able to implement any new policies in the year before the next election, but it’s also hard to take his promise of solidarity seriously since in the last eight years it’s just become a punch line to a joke that just keeps getting less and less funny for the Australian people (with the exception of John Howard, who is probably in tears of laughter and has been ever since Rudd resigned).
But for now, let’s see how Malcolm Turnbull does. The one positive thing Tony Abbott has managed to achieve is to be such a bad representative of Australia that Malcolm Turnbull could never screw up as badly. But on second thought, let’s not jinx it.

Laura Hermannová (lh)

* This piece was written on the 13th of September, the day the leadership was announced, but was not published until after the 20th of September.




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