Australia needs an early election. The election of a new Liberal Party leader, Scott Morrison, yesterday is unlikely to change the fact that the party is 10 points behind Labor in the polls and has been behind for a long time. The voters are clearly in the mood for a change of government and who could blame them? The Liberals have been riven with dissension for most of the five years they have been in power.
The misfortune for Australian voters is that the previous Labor Government was no better. In fact there is a remarkable similarity in their leadership changes. The Liberals have done exactly what they saw Labor do and ought to have learned what not to do. Labor dumped the Prime Minister who had led them to power two years earlier, Kevin Rudd. His replacement, Julia Gillard, led the party to a narrow re-election and then was herself dumped when the party reverted to Rudd just before losing the 2013 election.
The Liberals came in under Tony Abbott, dropped him for Malcolm Turnbull who led it to a narrow re-election in 2016 and now it has reverted, not to Abbott but it was his faction that forced the latest change on the party this week.
No wonder the polls show a fall in support for both major parties and a rising vote for fringe parties. The trend has been underway for some time. Both Gillard and Turnbull had to form alliances with independents to give their governments a second term. It is all too possible that the next election will hand real power to someone such as Pauline Hanson in coalition with the Liberals and Nationals. Australia could succumb to the small-minded, protective, monocultural populism that has produced Brexit and Donald Trump.
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That would be bad news for New Zealand which has had problems enough with deportations of Australian Kiwis under the present Government. To think that the minister enforcing that policy, Peter Dutton, was in the running for the leadership yesterday suggests Australians generally approve of it. It is some relief that the party preferred Morrison, who has spent part of his life in New Zealand, worked for tourism here, and might work more assiduously on the transtasman relationship.
Australian public opinion might support that work. Labor's sustained poll lead suggests the weight of opinion may be on the liberal (small L) side of politics now. Turnbull clearly believed so. He tried to move his party to the left on issues such as climate change and same-sex marriage but seemed unable, or unwilling, to stand up strongly enough against Abbott and the conservatives.
The result of the referendum on same sex marriage, which should not have been needed, showed how far public opinion was ahead of the Government on those issues and no wonder. Australia was almost the last western country to recognise gay marriage in law.
An effort by Turnbull to act on Australia's Paris commitments on climate change was the move that has brought him down. An electricity policy adopted last week contained a carbon emissions reduction programme that Abbott, Dutton and a few other MPs could not accept. There were enough of them to force a vote on Turnbull's leadership and all that followed but they not a majority, as Morrison's victory yesterday proves.
May he succeed where Turnbull failed, to make the Liberals more liberal.