By Ernest Z. Bower
As the sun set in Canberra today, another Shakespearean-worthy political plot was thickening. Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s colleagues in his Liberal Party rallied around a former Goldman Sachs banker and the member of parliament from Wentworth, Malcolm Turnbull. Members caucused and voted 54-44 to oust an increasingly unpopular Abbott and replace him with the country’s top polling politician, Turnbull. Turnbull will be sworn in as prime minister tomorrow.
The political bloodletting in Australian politics has become so pervasive in the last decade that it now has a name – “spill,” as in the act of eviscerating one’s rival, allowing their internal organs to spill out in front of peers: a vicious, highly public dismissal. September 14th’s spill took down the third Australian prime minister since Julia Gillard gutted Kevin Rudd while he was visiting the United States in 2010.
Despite the highly personal and full contact nature of these intra-party coups in Australia, the country’s foreign policy, national security, and international economic policies have remained surprisingly consistent. That is likely to be the case as Turnbull takes the reins, supported by Abbott’s foreign minister and still deputy leader of the party Julie Bishop.
Turnbull is Australia’s most popular politician. He is a centrist. In an American context, he would be considered a moderate Republican – fiscally conservative, socially more flexible. Not unlike the dying breed of “blue dog” Democrats here in the United States. His popularity, however, extends outside of his conservative Liberal Party. He polls high among voters identifying themselves with Labor and the Green Party. Unlike Abbott, he is more forward leaning on issues like climate change, gay marriage, and immigration. It remains to be seen if he will choose to try to take these sensitive issues on early in his term. They are the same topics that dogged Abbott’s relatively short run as prime minister and diminished his popularity, even as the hard line faction in the Liberal Party cheered his conviction to hold the line.
The challenge for Turnbull will be to try to unify his own party, convince coalition partners in the National Party to stay on board and win an election. Timing may be politically favorable for Turnbull. His internal competition will need time to develop their plans and support and the opposition Labor Party is considering whether their leader, Bill Shorten, is the right man to take them forward.
Within the Liberal Party, competition will come initially from conservative politician Scott Morrison who is an Abbott loyalist and a young leader committed to many of the conservative views held by his now dismissed leader. History will demand that Turnbull also keep an eye on his newly minted deputy, Julie Bishop.
Bishop was Abbott’s close adviser and foreign minister. She strongly supported her boss until she didn’t. Bishop is a highly capable leader with a very strong international brand. She is tough, energetic, smart, and determined. She and Turnbull know one another well, and will likely keep Australia on a very consistent path in terms of its foreign policy, posture toward Asia, and foundational commitment to the alliance with the United States. But she is ambitious and given the patterns now well worn into the political track in Canberra, Turnbull will need to keep one eye on her even as he watches and courts Scott Morrison.
The Labor Party is remaking itself, and may not be fully unified for an election in the coming months. There are open discussions about challenging Bill Shorten, though Kevin Rudd, after he successfully removed Julia Gillard in part in retribution for her coup that cost him his first prime ministership, installed new rules that prevent the easy removal of the party’s leader.
For the United States, the development is not likely to change the arc of a strong and expanding alliance. In fact, Turnbull will be a much more natural counterpart for a wonkish Barack Obama. Turnbull is likely to be a more natural ally on climate change in the run up to the United Nations Conference in Paris in late November and early December. Bishop is likely to continue as foreign minister and will stay the course on plans to strengthen regional resolve to help convince a rising China to work with neighbors and other powers to make and abide by international rules rather than try to remake Asia around new Sino-centric institutions.
As Australia approaches the first quarter of the twenty-first century, Turnbull is a promising leader. He knows the world’s financial and foreign policy leaders. He has an investor’s instinct for identifying and mitigating risk and commitment to fiscal discipline. The question is not whether Australians will back him – polls suggest they will, in droves. The question is whether the Liberal Party is ready to be unified by this man.
Ernest Bower is Chair of the Southeast Asia Advisory Board at CSIS.