Australia should review political system after years of musical chairs

July elections may return a seventh change of prime minister in nine years, bringing instability at a time when important decisions need to be made

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 May, 2016, 11:38pm
UPDATED : Monday, 16 May, 2016, 11:38pm

Australians vote on July 2 to decide if they want their seventh change of prime minister in nine years. The political uncertainty has not hurt the economy, which has been growing for 25 years. But policymaking has suffered, as have regional and international perceptions and influence. Until a strong leader with a clear mandate to govern is elected, other nations will be wary about deal-making and forming partnerships.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull decided to call the vote several months early after the upper house of parliament repeatedly blocked legislation. He dissolved both houses, the first time so many lawmakers’ seats will be up for grabs in an early election since 1987. With Turnbull’s Liberal-National coalition and opposition Labor Party evenly pitted in opinion polls, the outcome is far from certain. Nor if either side scores a narrow win, is there a guarantee that Australia will be spared more of the back-room political infighting that since 2010 has unseated three prime ministers between national elections.

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The economy, education and health are the hot-button election issues, with tax a particular matter of disagreement between Turnbull and Labor leader Bill Shorten. But clashes within the Liberals on climate change and same-sex marriage helped unseat the last prime minister, Tony Abbott, and factions run deep within Labor; they were behind the party’s ousting of Kevin Rudd by Julia Gillard and his subsequent replacement of her. The chaos has meant that foreign governments are never quite sure who will represent Australia at gatherings or whether what is said and done during overseas visits will still be in effect in coming months. It is a far cry from previous decades, where the word “era” was readily attached to a prime minister’s name.

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Juggling the needs of Australia’s rapidly growing and ageing population with falling revenue will be the priority of the election winner. But ensuring political stability is also necessary if the nation is to play a prominent role. Beyond ensuring greater party unity, it may also be time to review the political system.