Scheming white men, once allies in the conservative cause, knifing one another in the back. Complaints about pervasive — and sexist — bullying at the top. Galloping paranoia on the right. Wrenching battles over whether refugee policies are racist and cruel, and whether climate change fears are overwrought. A juicy government scandal involving illicit favours for a pair of comely young women.
Welcome to chaos, Australian-style. Down under, there’s no demonic, mesmerising Macy’s parade balloon of a leader like Donald Trump. But there are still plenty of echoes with America’s mad, ugly Thunderdome.
In the dizzying quadrille of leaders known here as “Canberra’s churn,” Australia has a brand new prime minister. That makes six prime ministers in 10 years, with Kevin Rudd serving twice. While everyone in America knew who Trump was when he was elected, only half the people here were familiar with Scott Morrison when he suddenly catapulted to the top job a week ago.
As in America, a woman in the running — who had been the top diplomat — was shockingly shoved aside at the last minute. And the man who has taken over is not as popular as his more personable predecessor. In both countries, there is widespread exasperation with a flawed political system that coughs up heads of government who capture a branch of their party without capturing the hearts of most of the country.
In Australia, they use a deceptively innocent word, “spill,” to describe the brutal parliamentary decapitation wherein politicians can topple popularly elected prime ministers and put another in place for no apparent reason. The fracturing of conservative politics here means that, especially on social issues, the governing conservative coalition does not reflect consensus opinion in the country. For instance, Morrison opposed same-sex marriage, which a large majority of Australians favoured. (Like the water swirling down the drain clockwise or appetisers being dubbed entrees, the Liberal Party means the opposite here. It’s a rough equivalent of the Republican Party, complete with a hard-right element that dog-whistles on race.)
“Polls tell us that if elections were held next Saturday, this government would be swept from office in a landslide,” says Frank Bongiorno, a professor of history at the Australian National University. “The shenanigans and general ugliness of the Canberra leadership spill increased people’s disillusionment and disaffection with the political process.”
He adds: “I think Trump gives the Liberal Party a feeling of confidence that they can do a Trump in Australia because history might be on their side.” And that retro swagger is boosted by Rupert Murdoch’s media empire here, reflecting the argot of Trump’s America.
Morrison’s main appeal is that he beat out the man who started the spill, Peter Dutton, a repellent Ted Cruz figure who is the subject of a Senate inquiry for helping friends and donors keep two au pairs — one French and one Italian — in the country while the asylum seekers he has dismissed as “illiterate and innumerate” are stuck in a hellscape on two island detention centres. (By Friday, when a third au pair had popped up, The Sydney Morning Herald had dubbed Dutton, the home affairs minister, “The Minister for Foreign Au Pairs.”) Morrison also took a hard stance on refugees to maintain Fortress Australia, with his “Stop the Boats” policy as immigration minister.
In the snappiest slogan since Hillary mulled “It’s Her Turn,” the ordinary-bloke mantra of Morrison, Australia’s first Pentecostal prime minister, is: “If you have a go in this country, you will get a go. There is a fair go for those who have a go.”
Australian opinion on climate change is more liberal than the position staked out by Morrison. Just as Trump talks about “beautiful” coal — maybe precisely what you don’t want in your Christmas stocking — Morrison last year brought a lump of coal to the House of Representatives and stroked it while he complained about “coal-o-phobia” on the left.
It was the attempt by Malcolm Turnbull to offer a modest policy on reducing emissions that sparked the Julius Caesar plotting that toppled him from the prime minister slot.
Tony Abbott, the former Liberal prime minister who helped mastermind the ouster of Turnbull, called climate change “absolute crap,” comparing efforts to fight it to “primitive people once killing goats to appease the volcano gods.” Is he oblivious to the fact that half the coral in the Great Barrier Reef is dead, looking ghostly grey and white?
The spill did not do anything to improve Canberra’s reputation as a breeding ground for toxic frontier masculinity, where women are in a subordinate zone.
Julie Bishop, the popular Liberal Party’s minister for foreign affairs, got iced out by her less popular male colleagues; JBish, as she is known, took it with her usual style, wearing defiant scarlet satin heels for her resignation press conference.
Julia Banks, a Liberal MP, was so disgusted with the brass-knuckle tactics of the Liberal wolf pack that she announced she would not run again. “The scourge of cultural and gender bias, bullying and intimidation continues against women in politics, the media, and across businesses,” she said in a statement, adding, “Women have suffered in silence for too long.”
Sarah Hanson-Young, a senator with the Greens Party, is suing a male politician who called out across the floor of the Senate in June, during a debate on violence against women, telling her to “stop shagging men.”
As Bongiorno notes: “It’s a very bad look. And in the end, if a government smells bad enough, it will be tossed out at re-election for sure.”
The spill was so crazy because it was not a contest of ideas, just slippery mud wrestling.
© 2018 New York Times News Service