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Australia’s Pantomime Democracy

CANBERRA – Australia has a new prime minister – its fifth in just eight years. No Australian prime minister has served a full electoral term since 2007, and we have had four incumbents in the last 27 months alone. In June 2013, Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard was defeated in a party-room vote by Kevin Rudd, who lost the post in the general election later that year to the conservative coalition’s Tony Abbott, who has now in turn been defeated in a party-room coup by Malcolm Turnbull.

This latest turn in our prime ministerial carousel has left Australians trying, yet again, to explain to bemused colleagues around the world how this stable bastion of Western democracy, and the world’s twelfth-largest economy, could be engaged in such a pantomime. Is it something in the water that makes us want to treat our political leaders like disposable tissues?

There seem to be three different dimensions to the explanation. One is simply the local impact of the impatience that is becoming increasingly obvious in the world’s established democracies. The endless 24/7 media cycle and omnipresent social media are generating a taste for celebrity and an almost pathological preoccupation with current opinion polls, rather than serious political debate. Traditional parties and processes are finding it harder and harder to satisfy the demand for instant gratification.

A second dimension is Australia-specific: the tension created by peculiarities of the country’s political system. A ludicrous three-year electoral cycle, shorter than almost anywhere else in the world, makes it almost impossible to govern in a campaign-free atmosphere. And party rules have allowed for leaders – including serving prime ministers – to be torn down overnight by their parliamentary colleagues (although this has now changed for Labor).