Australia's Unusual Election

Turnbull's Gamble

Labor leader Bill Shorten holds a baby crocodile during a visit to the aboriginal community of Maningrida as part of the 2016 election campaign in West Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia, May 2016.    Mick Tsikas / Reuters

On July 2, Australians will head to the polls. Malcolm Turnbull, the prime minister, is seeking a second term for his conservative Liberal-National coalition against Bill Shorten’s Labor Party.

This is an unusual election. On Turnbull’s request, the Governor General, Queen Elizabeth II’s representative in Australia, dissolved both houses of parliament, which means that every member of the House of Representatives and the Senate faces reelection. This is only the seventh “double dissolution” in the country’s history and its first since 1987. Double dissolutions are intended to resolve constitutional deadlock when both houses of parliament fail to agree on the passage of legislation.

Turnbull is Australia’s fourth prime minister in three years, leaving many observers perplexed at the level of volatility in an otherwise stable democracy. Australia is unique in the ease with which parties can replace their leaders. With the exception of the Labor Party, which changed its leadership selection rules in 2013 to allow party members to participate, all that is needed to remove a leader is a majority vote of the parliamentary party. Once a leader loses the support of the dominant faction, his or her days are numbered.

The trigger for this double dissolution was the Senate’s refusal to pass a bill that would have established a federal watchdog for the construction industry. But many Australians think that the dispute simply provided a convenient excuse. After all, an Essential poll conducted in late March found that 49 percent of Australians held no opinion about the watchdog.

Australia is unique in the ease with which parties can replace their leaders.

A more likely explanation for Turnbull’s decision has to do with the government’s fractious relationship with independent senators, including Nick Xenophon, Glenn Lazarus and Jacquie Lambie, and with the minor parties, such as the Greens and the Motoring Enthusiast Party. The Liberal-National coalition has clashed with senators from other parties on key issues such as university fee deregulation, health care copayments, and welfare reform.

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