World News

Australia’s Liberal Party, Seeking to Project Stability, Tries to End Leadership Coups

Posted December 3, 2018 10:58 p.m. EST

SYDNEY, Australia — Well, at least Angela Merkel may be relieved.

Australia’s governing Liberal Party announced overnight that it was changing its rules so that the prime minister leading the party at election time would stay in the post until the country next went to the polls.

The revolving door to the top job had Merkel, the German chancellor, apparently confused, as photographs captured her during the Group of 20 summit meeting last weekend cribbing from notes about the relatively new Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, as the two sat down to meet.

Morrison was not the prime minister she had met in April this year in Berlin at a German-Australian forum. That was Malcolm Turnbull, who was ousted from leadership in an internal party struggle in August.

His replacement, Morrison, acknowledged that the party’s inner turmoil had eroded voters’ goodwill.

“Australians have the very reasonable expectation that when they elect a government, when they elect a prime minister, then they should be the ones that determine if that prime minister is to not continue in that office,” Morrison told reporters after the party leadership’s late-night meeting Monday.

“We understand, our entire party, the frustration and the disappointment that Australians have felt when governments and prime ministers that they have elected under their authority, under their power, has been taken from them with the actions of politicians here in Canberra,” he said, referring to the Australian capital. “We understand that frustration, we understand that disappointment, we acknowledge it and we take responsibility for it.”

From now on, the Liberal Party, which governs the country in a coalition with the National Party, would require a two-thirds majority vote to force a change in leadership, Morrison said.

Australia has had five leaders in 11 years. The opposition Labor Party, after its own disastrous power struggles, made its own rule change in 2013 to ward off disruptive leadership challenges.

The Liberal Party is still feeling the consequences of an August party coup that led to Morrison taking power, and has suffered where it hurts most: at the voting booth.

In October, it lost a conservative seat it had held for more than a century to an independent candidate. The seat was vacated by Turnbull, who quit Parliament after the coup. The defeat, fueled in large part by the anger of the electorate’s voters who had supported Turnbull, cost Morrison his single-seat majority in Parliament.

In November, a state election in Victoria awarded the governing Labor Party another term and the opposition Liberal Party lost nearly 10 seats. Another state election — this one in New South Wales — is coming in March, and the Liberal Party move Monday could be seen as an attempt to pacify conservatives disgusted by the internal political brawls.

Polls predict that if the country were to hold an election today, the Liberal Party and its coalition would be soundly defeated.

“The key point is that three-plus months after the leadership coup, internal Liberal divisions are still dominating the news,” said Rod Tiffen, an emeritus professor in government and international relations at the University of Sydney.

“The bitterness of both sides against each other is all too evident,” he said, adding that there was never a prospect of anyone challenging Morrison before the election. “So the rule change is a desperate attempt to look stable.”

Greater stability should help in the short term, at least. Morrison says he will present a federal budget in April and voters will go to the polls in May. So for the next six months at least, Australia will have the same prime minister. Maybe.