In the midst of this crowded political season, dominated naturally by the US presidential election and Brexit referendum in Britain, the international bandwidth left available for the Australian election will surely be taken up with one simple question: will this vote end the 'Here Today, Gone Tomorrow' phase in the country’s prime ministerial politics?
Given the frequency with which Australians go to the polls — is it not time to revisit the question of longer parliamentary sessions? — and the regularity that party rooms oust sitting prime ministers, the world will watch to see if this election will deliver something that’s been lacking in Australia for almost an entire decade: political stability.
The possible scenarios sketched out by foreign diplomats based in Canberra for their superiors back home will have changed as the polls have narrowed. Six months ago, they could reasonably have predicted a thumping Turnbull win, which would have been regarded as a strong personal mandate and possibly brought about a return to the days when Australian prime ministers had the word 'era' ascribed to their names. But Turnbull’s popularity has waned since ousting Tony Abbott, and he has not lived up to high-ish international expectations.
Now those diplomatic cables are doubtless more circumspect. If Turnbull wins narrowly, with a reduced parliamentary majority, then the political volatility could easily continue, because he will always be prey to a challenge from the right. Likewise, if Labor ekes out a narrow victory there will be the prospect of more killing seasons. Bill Shorten is hardly a commanding presence, after all. Then there is also the real possibility of a repeat of 2010, with no clear result: a hung parliament producing minority government.
With polls suggesting a closer-than-expected race, Australia could be in for more 'continuity and change', the slogan used both by Turnbull and the HBO satire 'Veep' that rather aptly sums up the prolongation of revolving door politics. This would diminish the country’s standing in the world.
Often lost in the intrigue and palace gossip of Canberra’s coup culture is how it looks internationally. That much-vaunted Aussie punch has been weakened by the unpredictability surrounding which prime minister will deliver it. Longevity brings clout, but Turnbull is the fourth Australian prime minister in the space of three years.
International summitry and the personal diplomatic chemistry it nurtures has seldom been so important, but new faces continually emerge from that RAAF VIP plane. Foreign leaders could be forgiven for not investing hugely in forging partnerships with modern-day Australian prime ministers. Who knows how long they will survive?
Back in 2009, Barack Obama might reasonably have thought that Kevin Rudd would be around for his entire presidency. They clearly enjoyed a special relationship. Senior administration officials made it clear he was the President’s new best friend; 'a match made in Kevin', according to the Sydney Morning Herald. But Rudd was gone by the congressional mid-terms in 2010.
The diplomatic damage was driven home to me the other day when, while watching archive footage of the G20 summit in Petersburg in 2013, I noticed Bob Carr hovering in the background, not unlike a newcomer at a crowded party nervously trying to connect with other guests. Carr, deputising for Rudd who was campaigning in the federal election, did not even hold the customary press conference at the end of the summit, which left the world’s media 'puzzled,' according to the Guardian, not least since Australia was down to host the next G20 in Brisbane. By the time the world’s media descended upon Queensland, Abbott was in charge, and moaning to his fellow leaders about a $7 GP payment, as if to prove how parochial Australian politics had become.
The merry go round of prime ministers not only presents a family photo problem at the end of summits — who will show up? — but also a big picture problem. What is the Australian narrative? What is the long-term national strategy? Where does the country place itself in the region and the world? No recent prime minister has been around long enough to convincingly outline that vision, let alone see it through. It’s a far cry from the certainty of the Howard years, when the prime minister was in place for more than a decade, as were his foreign minister and treasurer.
For further evidence of how the chaos in Canberra undercuts Australian international leadership, just consider the problems facing Kevin Rudd as he pursues his long-shot bid to become Secretary General of the UN. These difficulties flow not solely from gender; with the search on for the first female Secretary General, he fails the so-called 'testicular test'. Or geography; he hails from Queensland rather than Eastern Europe. UN diplomats are also aware of the personality and managerial flaws that received such a public airing during his ouster from power, and the subsequent leadership spills that culminated in his return. His rival Helen Clark, by contrast, has the full backing not only of her former Labour colleagues but also of John Key, who defeated her to become prime minister.
The wide-held view among diplomats up until the start of the year was that Malcolm Turnbull had the look of a prime minister who might break the cycle, and stick around for a while. Like Rudd, he has the intellectual smarts and stature to become a global player, as well as the same internationalist leanings. That said, his roll-out on the international stage has been hampered by that nagging question, ‘is he worth investing in'? Besides, that other new kid on the block, Justin Trudeau of Canada, has eclipsed him. It is harder to convince the world that there has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian when so many of Trudeau’s international admirers believe that to be truer for Canadians.
Yet, despite all the political uncertainty at home, Australia has achieved diplomat success abroad in the last nine years. It seems to be managing its balancing act between the US and China considerably better than the UK, whose 'Asia Pivot' has drawn scolding criticism from the Obama administration. It enjoyed a successful tenure on the UN Security Council, largely thanks to ambassador Gary Quinlan and his talented team. But the churn of prime ministers has weakened the country’s influence and standing. International observers marvel at Australia's 25 years of continuous economic growth, but scratch their heads at the volatility and brutality of its politics.
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