It wasn’t all that long ago that John Keys, the then Prime Minister of New Zealand, quipped ahead of an encounter with his Canberra counterpart that meetings with the Australian PM were always interesting because you could never be quite sure who was going to turn up.
Last week, for the fourth time in little more than eight years, Australia changed horses midstream after a few days of utter confusion in Canberra. In the end, last-minute manoeuvres by Malcolm Turnbull, the incumbent until Friday, prevented his challenger, Peter Dutton, from succeeding him. Instead, Scott Morrison emerged as the new head of government.
That is considered something of a defeat for Tony Abbott, the PM Turnbull successfully challenged in September 2015. That came as something of a relief to many, given that the radically right-wing Abbott was on a bizarre trajectory that would have gone haywire had he still been in office when Donald Trump grabbed power in the United States.
However, when Turnbull called an election the following year, the ruling coalition of the liberal and national parties was returned to power with a single-seat majority in the Lower House of Parliament and, not surprisingly, a deeper deficit in the Upper House. A shattered Turnbull thereafter felt even more obliged than before to cater to his party’s resurgent right wing.
Among his more alarming measures was the creation of an expanded home ministry, stretching from “border control” to immigration, which he handed to Dutton. Meanwhile, Morrison, who had been in charge of border control under Abbott and claimed credit for “stopping the boats” — by militarily depriving refugees of the right to approach Australian shores, combined with a strategy of being exceptionally cruel to those who had already arrived — become treasurer. In that capacity he was entrusted with the task of lowering corporate taxes to sanctify the government’s trickle-down tendencies, but the effort stalled in Parliament.
Turnbull was willing to veer rightwards in all too many respects, which was hardly surprising given that principled politics were never his forte. Once upon a time the lawyer and investment banker was keen to wed his political fortunes to the Australian Labour Party (ALP), but when that failed, he was happy enough to latch himself to the Liberal Party bandwagon, notwithstanding its aversion to the republican cause — that is, disentangling Australia from the colonial cord that binds it to Britain, with Queen Elizabeth II constitutionally its head of state — which he had prominently stood for in the 1990s.
As PM, he made no effort to go down that road, despite the likelihood of Opposition support in any such endeavour. He knew, after all, that significant components of his own party were averse to the idea of declaring complete independence from the empire it was once part of.
In his parting speech last Friday, Turnbull was keen to emphasise the “progressive” nature of his government, which was a gross exaggeration, citing in particular the legislation last year of same-sex marriage, which was indeed a step in the right direction that faced considerable opposition within his party. Both Dutton and Morrison detested the very idea, with the latter’s aversion apparently rooted in his evangelical Christianity. Like all too many fundamentalist Christians, though, Morrison has no problem with extraordinary cruelty towards those who seek refuge.
Nor, for that matter, has the supposedly left-wing ALP, which has colluded in the incarceration of innocents — including children who are growing up having known no other life, yet tend to be denied treatment for inevitable mental health issues — on Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island. Perhaps worst of all, they are even denied the possibility of normality in New Zealand, which has frequently offered to absorb a proportion of the prisoners.
Alongside the “insurgents” in his own party, Turnbull also excoriated sections of the media. He wasn’t bold enough to name any names, but it is universally assumed that his diatribe was directed against Rupert Murdoch, the Australian-born tycoon whose organs also go to great lengths to poison the political discourse in Britain and the US. Murdoch’s Newscorp owns the vast majority of newspapers in Australia, as well as a cable television channel, Sky News, that switches after dark to replicating America’s Fox News.
Former ALP PM Kevin Rudd, who bore the brunt of the Murdoch media’s venom in the lead-up to his dethroning in 2010, after having led Labour to a landslide win just three years earlier, this week described Murdoch as “the greatest cancer on Australian democracy”, claiming that “Murdoch operates as a political party, acting in pursuit of clearly defined commercial interests, in addition to his far-right ideological world view”. He can be faulted in other respects, but he’s not far wrong here.
But with elections due by next May, it remains to be seen whether the ALP can stuff up the opportunity it has been handed on a platter.
By arrangement with Dawn