The narrowest of victories: Australian Federal election

Australian prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull

With Mr Turnbull’s far from convincing – and not yet completely assured – victory, political instability in Australia may continue.

Australia has, by and large, been a model of economic prosperity and global cosmopolitan values for the past decade, the economy having not experienced a recession since 1991 and cities such as Sydney, Melbourne and Perth the envy of the world.

Politically, Australia has been in a state of relative turmoil with five prime ministers in as many years following the Liberal leadership election of 2015 in which Tony Abbott, then Prime Minister, was overthrown by his predecessor of the party and the man he himself had previously defeated in a leadership election, Malcolm Turnbull. This very same phenomenon occurred within the other Australian party of government, the Labor Party, in which Kevin Rudd both preceded and then succeeded Julia Giddard.

On 2nd July, 2016, Australians appear to have avoided a sixth prime minister in as many years, with the incumbent Malcolm Turnbull now seemingly poised to form a government after a result mired in uncertainty. Confusion can arise in an Australian election because while there is, in effect a two-party system, the voting system in use (Alternative Vote) in which voters rank candidates in order of preference, does allow for a handful of smaller parties to potentially hold the balance of power.

After days of counting, however, it appears that Malcolm Turnbull’s Liberal Party will have won 76 seats in the lower house out of a total of 150, allowing for a government – albeit one with a razor thin majority – to be formed.

Evidently, then, Australians can be forgiven for polling data showing dissatisfaction and disillusionment with the democratic political system. Polling by the Lowy Institute in 2014 showed that 40% of Australians no longer believed that democracy was the best form of government. Clearly a key issue at stake is term-length. Democracy is inevitably at the mercy of short-termism and opinion polling: for a democracy to be healthy a government can never be too far off a potential election. Yet in Australia this is rather brought to the extreme with the term limit on parliaments being just three years in contrast to five years in the United Kingdom, and four years in Canada.

This by no means precludes long-serving prime ministers. John Howard, for example, was prime minister for 11 years, from 1996-2007. Clearly, this is an arrangement prone to instability, especially in a system still based on two-party politics, yet representing an increasingly diverse people who simply are not representative of the current Labor-Liberal dichotomy in Australian politics.

Especially fascinating in the election, is the rise of the Xenophon Party, led by Nick Xenophon. Based in South Australia, a once great manufacturing state which has fallen on hard times, it espouses protection for industry yet at the same time presses for an increase in immigration to boost economic growth. Australia has by-and-large avoided the toxic mix of economic populism and anti-immigration xenophobia that increasingly characterises the politics the United States and the United Kingdom.

With Mr Turnbull’s far from convincing – and not yet completely assured – victory, political instability in Australia may continue. There is much to praise about Mr Turnbull especially regarding issues such as marriage equality and climate change. It will be his ability to provide Australians with secure governance for the next three years upon which he will surely be judged.

The most important thing to remember is that dysfunction in Australian politics has yet to seep seriously into its economy or society. Indeed Australia in the past quarter of the century has been, in many ways, the envy of the western world. The challenge will be for its politicians – Mr Turnbull in particular – to keep it that way.


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