Australia trapped in political crisis management: Analysts

Australia`s frenetic leadership challenges, fuelled by poor opinion polls and internal party unease, could leave it trapped in a cycle of political crisis management, analysts say.

AFP| Last Updated: Feb 09, 2015, 13:21 PM IST

Sydney: Australia`s frenetic leadership challenges, fuelled by poor opinion polls and internal party unease, could leave it trapped in a cycle of political crisis management, analysts say.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott, in the job for less than 18 months, survived a backbencher revolt against him on Monday. Had he lost, the country would have had its fifth prime minister in as many years.

Politics has been roiled in recent years by leadership changes initiated not only through the ballot box but from within the ruling political party amid bitter infighting.

Labor leader Kevin Rudd was elected prime minister in a landslide in 2007 only for his deputy Julia Gillard to snatch power in a party room coup in 2010.

After narrowly winning the 2010 election, Gillard herself was then ousted by Rudd in 2013 in another party room vote. But he failed to turn around Labor`s poor polling figures and lost the election that year to Abbott. 

"Australia seems to be going a lot further than other countries in cycling through the leaders," said Wayne Errington, a lecturer in politics at the University of Adelaide, who cited the rise of the professional politician as one factor.

"We`ve gone from never replacing a leader in a first term in the two-party system for about 100 years to suddenly doing that twice in a row, so there`s certainly a change."

University of Western Sydney political historian David Burchell said fear had robbed the government and the opposition of the ability adequately to explain often difficult reforms to voters.

With national elections held every three years and politicians facing constant media scrutiny, both parties were struggling to get their message across, he said.

"They have become paralysed by the fear of fickle electorates, and trapped in a cycle of endless political crisis-management," Burchell said.

Errington said there was no single factor behind the increasingly common leadership challenges, but more and more backbenchers were entering parliament viewing politics as a long-term career.

"If you`re a backbencher who is relatively young and you think you`ve got an entire career in politics ahead of you and suddenly you are looking down the barrel of a government which is 10 points behind in the polls... you will just take that very pragmatic decision and chop them off," he said.

"Once you start doing this it creates a cycle that you can`t stop....and once you have this uncertainty and the parties get in the habit of making these changes relatively easily, it can all happen very quickly."Such was the case with Gillard`s removal of Rudd in 2010 -- seemingly overnight a new prime minister was in charge, leaving the public stunned that the man they overwhelmingly voted for had been ousted.

In Abbott`s case, he has alienated members of his backbench by delivering a budget last year widely seen as unfair and making policy backflips and so-called "captain`s calls" -- including creating Britain`s Prince Philip a knight.

His polling has also been dire with Abbott`s Liberal-National coalition attracting only 43 percent of the vote compared to Labor`s 57 percent, a Newspoll showed Monday. 

"Everyone in politics is ambitious and will stab you in the back at the drop of a hat, so unless you can get that relationship with the public, reflected in the polls, it doesn`t look like you are ever going to be safe any more," Errington said.

Burchell said the recurring instability in Australia could be the country playing catch-up with Europe, where politics has also become more volatile. 

"Australians have always prided ourselves on being steady as she goes and having a quiet, orderly parliamentary system. And it doesn`t look like that right now. It`s completely chaotic," he said.

"We`re just catching up with the incredible political instability and sense of loss of national economic control that is now bedevilling western electorates everywhere."

Political expert at Melbourne`s Monash University, Nick Economou, agreed that Australian voters were "a conservative lot".

But he warned against underestimating Abbott.

"He`s a great survivor," he said.