Pointless: Australian democracy is now an even bigger laughing stock
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Pointless: Australian democracy is now an even bigger laughing stock

Of all the pointless convulsions in Australian politics in the last decade, this is surely the most pointless.

The left swung behind Scott Morrison, the candidate of the moderates faction. He won by just five votes.

The left swung behind Scott Morrison, the candidate of the moderates faction. He won by just five votes.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

It achieved no benefit on any level but came at great cost to the government and to Australia.

There was no great principle at stake. The only policies at issue could have been worked through with a bit of goodwill, as Malcolm Turnbull said. The new prime minister isn’t even as electable as the one he replaced.

Only 54 per cent of the Australian electorate had even heard of Scott Morrison in an April recognition poll conducted by the Australia Institute.

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In truth, a piece of factional foot-stamping within the ruling party created an earthquake.

It brought down a prime minister, destabilised the government, damaged the standing of the ruling party, unsettled the country, and made Australian democracy an even bigger laughing stock. Without satisfying the disgruntled faction that started it all.

The fundamental reason for the upheaval was a revolt by the right-wing faction of the Liberal Party against a prime minister that it considered too left-wing.

So what’s the outcome? A change without a difference. The right-wing faction’s candidate, Peter Dutton, lost. The left swung behind Scott Morrison, the candidate of the moderates faction. He won by just five votes.

Malcolm Turnbull with granddaughter Alice and grandson Jack after speaking to the media on Friday.

Malcolm Turnbull with granddaughter Alice and grandson Jack after speaking to the media on Friday.Credit:Dominic Lorrimer

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The right is just as furious today as it was yesterday. Turnbull rubbed it in in his valedictory remarks: “The insurgents were not rewarded by electing Mr Dutton.”

The right-wing revolt may go quiet for a time, but it is not over.

“The Liberal Party may as well be the right faction of the Labor party,” fumed a senior conservative.

So what was the point of removing Turnbull?

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“Good question,” answered an angry member of the right-wing insurgency. It settled nothing.

And as a NSW conservative powerbroker told me before the spill: “My base hate Malcolm Turnbull, but they hate Scott Morrison even more because he plays both sides.”

Labor can’t believe its luck.

“Today the architect of giving the big banks a $17 billion tax handout is set to become the prime minister,” Bill Shorten emailed Labor’s support base the moment the vote was taken.

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It’s a policy that the government has since dumped, but Morrison is stuck with.

The Greens will make the most of the pictures of Morrison in the house brandishing a lump of coal as if it were the Hope Diamond.

And his deputy, Josh Frydenberg, was the creator of the National Energy Guarantee, another policy the government dumped.

And, rounding out the triumph, Turnbull left the job with a final act of spite – by promising to quit Parliament before an election. He is bequeathing the government a by-election.

In the meantime, public confidence in democracy overall is damaged yet again at a time when authoritarianism is on the rise across the world.

A wag has set up a satirical Twitter account that names Australia’s prime minister, with hourly updates. It’s called @WhoIsPM. It could do with a companion account called @WhyIsPM.

Pointless.

Peter Hartcher is the political editor and international editor of The Sydney Morning Herald. He is a Gold Walkley award winner, a former foreign correspondent in Tokyo and Washington, and a visiting fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy.