Australian fauna has developed an awesome reputation. Massive crocodiles, deadly spiders and venomous snakes have earned the country’s wildlife a fearsome renown. Even the red kangaroo, the quintessentially Australian marsupial, has a combative disposition. Communal animals, male kangaroos have no reservations about “boxing,” physically challenging each other for status. Australian politicians, it turns out, are quite similar.
In fact, the analog of the red kangaroo is quite revealing of how conservative Australian politicians have established their pecking order lately. When political status is up for grabs, there are no holds barred. Whereas kangaroos grapple with and kick at one another, politicians backstab and betray.
On Aug. 24, 2018, Scott Morrison won the leadership of the center-right Liberal Party of Australia and became the country’s prime minister. He is the sixth prime minister in just 11 years; no one has served a full three-year term as premier since the Labor Party’s Kevin Rudd was elected in 2007. So tumultuous is Australian political jockeying that Rudd’s second term as prime minister lasted a mere 94 days. Instead of a predictable succession of power, party politics and backstabbing have pushed prime minister after prime minister from office. Like a kangaroo that takes a tumble after a misstep in a bout, in Australian party politics, these leadership challenges are known rather innocuously as “spills.”
Morrison’s rise to leader of the Liberals and prime minister reads like a chapter from “Game of Thrones.” A longtime ally of former Liberal Party Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull — who himself led a successful spill against former Prime Minister Tony Abbott in 2015 — Morrison hopped at the opportunity to seize the premiership when Peter Dutton, far-right Liberal, signalled the party had lost confidence in Turnbull. He capitalized on his relatively centrist attitudes to win the spill over Dutton and Julie Bishop, another Turnbull loyalist.
In these political brawls, conservative Australian discourse has been dragged far to the right by the loudest voices, Dutton among them. Before the spill, Dutton was considered a legitimate contender for the premiership, a junior in the troop ready to battle his way to the top.
A prominent front-bencher in both Abbott’s and Turnbull’s ministries, Dutton has been criticized for his anti-immigration views. As the minister for immigration and for home affairs, he has continued a widely derided policy of detaining asylum seekers and holding them in detention centers in Pacific island nations. His insinuations that white South African farmers are refugees, saying that “they need help from a civilized country,” and allegations of misconduct have drawn considerable ridicule.
Nor is Morrison, who was seen by commentators as a moderate during the most recent Liberal spill, a progressive darling. When debating the Labor Party’s energy policy in February 2017, Morrison addressed the Australian House of Representatives holding a lump of coal, declaring that the opposition had “an ideological, pathological fear of coal,” which he dubbed reductively, “coal-a-phobia.” Not to be outflanked by his fellow front-benchers, Morrison had to meet his peers on the right. Alliances in Liberal politics are short-lived and opportunists are always waiting to pounce on the chance of leadership; a hint of weakness invites challenge.
Political boxing is still a boy’s club. Sexism and engrained gender biases are apparently so pervasive in Canberra, Australia’s capital, that following the spill, Julia Banks, a Liberal member of Parliament, announced that she would not run for re-election next year. “The scourge of cultural and gender bias, bullying and intimidation continues against women in politics, the media and across businesses,” Banks wrote in a news release. In 2012 Labor’s then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard made the papers around the world when she lambasted Abbott, who was then the opposition leader, for his “repulsive double standards when it comes to misogyny and sexism.”
Despite having won the leadership spill, Morrison is not out of the woods. When Turnbull lost control of his party, he announced that he would resign from Parliament, and a by-election is being held for his seat in Wentworth, a Sydney constituency. If the Liberal Party or one of its allies fails to reclaim the seat, Morrison’s coalition government will slip into minority status. Australia may have yet another prime minister within months. With Labor poised to win the general election slated for next year, Australia is headed for a political train wreck.
Male red kangaroos battle each other for social supremacy. Contests are nail-biting; the most skilled boxers are those that balance on their muscular tails while they use their powerful hind legs to kick opponents. Thus, those who appear to be on the backfoot often emerge victorious. Moreover, it seems that there is always another challenger on the rise. Given the past decade of backstabbing and political knifing, it seems Australian politicians have been taking notes.
Joshua Levy is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. Animal Kingdom appears online every other Friday.