American Interest

Tory Coup in Australia

Ravenel B. Curry III Distinguished Fellow in Strategy and Statesmanship

An internal challenge from the centrist wing of his own party has overthrown the Prime Minister of Australia. The Wall Street Journal reports

Malcolm Turnbull will succeed Tony Abbott as Australia’s prime minister after a party rebellion that may moderate the country’s stance on issues ranging from same-sex marriage to climate change and economic policy.

Mr. Turnbull called for a leadership ballot earlier Monday as voter surveys pointed to defeat for the ruling Liberal-National conservative coalition at federal elections due next year. The 60-year-old former investment banker defeated Mr. Abbott by 54 votes to 44.

Australia can’t be a banana republic, because its voters have never agreed to replace Queen Elizabeth with an elected President. But otherwise, after generations of a fairly stable political environment, it seems to be moving to a much more volatile system.

The last Labour government had as much plot as Macbeth, with backstabbings, palace coups, and intrigues galore. Prime Ministers came and went until the voters swept out the whole pack—despite a solid economy.

Now the Coalition, a center right group, is going through the same kind of tumult. Abbot became leader of the Tories by staging his own intra-party coup against Turnbull while both were in the Opposition; he was then elected Prime Minister in 2010. Abbott has had a turbulent run in office (not helped by China's economic troubles, and the fact that Australia may be facing its first recession in 24 years), and he already survived one formal challenge to his leadership in February,_February_2015. Now, Abbott is back out of office and Turnbull in—but today's events hardly seem a recipe for long-term stability in the ruling party.

What happens to Australia matters more to the world than it used to. Like Canada, it is a rising power. It has a sophisticated economy, strong educational system, growing population, good record with assimilating immigrants, and an extraordinary resource base. Both Australia and Canada seem to be encountering some political turbulence as they rise; that’s not unusual. In rising powers with rapidly developing economies and evolving societies, political institutions and parties have a hard time keeping up with the changes in the wider society. And as countries become stronger economically and more important politically, their global interests become more complicated, and domestic struggles over foreign policy can become harder to resolve.

One of those struggles will likely affect Australia's relations with the United States. Turnbull is a member of the Australian school that believes the country needs to balance more effectively between the U.S.—Australia’s main security partner—and China, its main economic partner.

Australians who take this view are liable to misunderstand the nature of China’s rise, and to underestimate the importance (economically as well as strategically) of the network of powers from Japan and Korea to India that are creating a new Asian alignment. As a result, the China School could end up weakening Australian ties with the U.S. and other important states in Asia without gaining anything from China.

Australian foreign policy shouldn’t consist simply of saying “Yes, sir!” and saluting every time Washington makes a proposal. There are ways that Australia’s location and interests give it important insights into common problems, and if Washington is smart it will listen closely to what Canberra has to say. But the China School seems to misunderstand the nature of the impact of the rise of China on regional politics, overestimating what China is capable of doing and underestimating the determination and capability of states like India, Korea, Vietnam, and Japan to balance China’s rise. A rising China makes alliance politics more complicated and more important for Australia as well as for other countries in the Pacific—that much the China school gets right. But the answer isn’t to distance oneself from allies and partners; it's to engage more deeply and thoughtfully in order to develop effective ways to promote peaceful Asian integration.

At the end of the day, though, these domestic struggles and foreign quibbles are mostly the growing pains that come from Australia's increasingly important role on the global scene. In the 19th century, the UK dominated the Anglosphere. In the 20th century, it was the U.S., with Britain reduced to second fiddle. The U.S. won’t be fading away in the 21st century, but the Anglosphere may start looking like a string quartet, in which four distinct but connected fiddles make music that intrigues (and sometimes infuriates) the whole world.