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Tea Leaves

Assassins at work in Australia's chamber of horrors

Canberra's leadership fiasco makes it the 'coup capital of the democratic world'

A Madame Tussauds artist works on Malcolm Turnbull’s likeness before it is shelved. (Photo by Madame Tussauds)

Asia has proved fertile ground for Madame Tussauds, the venerable wax model museum founded in London nearly two centuries ago. The business, which specializes in displaying wax images of politicians and other famous people, has spread across the region to China, Thailand, Japan, India and Singapore since opening in Hong Kong in 2000. 

In Australia, though, the company has encountered a problem: While Madame Tussauds' Asian galleries feature current political leaders such as Xi Jinping, Shinzo Abe, Narendra Modi and Joko Widodo, Australian prime ministers are losing office at such a rate that the company's sculptors have given up creating their images in wax.

Since December 2007 Australia has had six prime ministers (including one who returned to office after being deposed). In May the total will rise to seven, if opinion polls are correct in forecasting that Scott Morrison, head of the center-right Liberal Party since Aug. 24, will lose a general election to the opposition Labor Party. 

Morrison will meet his fate at the hands of the voters. But four of his five immediate predecessors were sent packing not by the people, but by political assassins within their own parties -- most recently in August when the centrist Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull was knifed by legislators from the party's conservative wing. It is little wonder that the author Nick Bryant has dubbed Canberra the "coup capital of the democratic world."

The carnage is a far cry from when I first arrived in the Australian capital in 1976 as a parliamentary reporter. Back then, Australian politics were boring. I missed a flurry of excitement in 1975, when Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was dismissed by Governor-General Sir John Kerr, (the representative of Queen Elizabeth II, the head of state) and there were only four subsequent prime ministers between 1975 and 2007 -- fewer than the number of U.S. presidents. 

By the time things began to speed up I had long since traded Canberra for postings in Europe and Asia. And from a distance it seemed that political instability had little impact on Australia's prosperity -- an increasingly dysfunctional government presided over an apparently functional economy. In 2018 the country experienced a record-breaking 27th consecutive year of economic growth, having avoided recession even during the global financial crisis a decade ago. 

Today, Australia is the world's 13th biggest economy, according to the World Bank, with an output of more than $1.3 trillion. And it is not the only country to have experienced revolving-door leadership. Before the rise of Abe, initially for a year in 2006 and then again in 2012 (and excluding two earlier long-staying prime ministers) Japan was known for trading premiers even more frenetically.  

Increasingly, however, Australia's instability at the top is trashing its brand. Indeed, in a report from the Nov.30-Dec. 1 Group of 20 summit in Buenos Aires, the Australian Financial Review newspaper reported that the country's leadership gyrations had left it struggling to be taken seriously. 

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has outlasted six Australian leaders, conspicuously consulted a cheat sheet to discover who the latest Australian incumbent was. Characteristically, U.S. President Donald Trump asked Morrison bluntly what had happened to his predecessor. "Australian leadership fiasco becomes an international WTF," the AFR headlined its story, aptly, if crudely.

Closer scrutiny also shows that Australia's politicians have not been quite as effective at economic management as they are at back-stabbing each other. The country owes much of its prosperity to minerals dug out of the ground and sold to China. High immigration levels also help to prop up an economy that in other aspects has underperformed. While unemployment has fallen, slow wage growth and soaring house prices have led to eye-watering levels of household debt. Environmental policy remains hostage to conservative climate change deniers.

But if the G20 was an international embarrassment for Australia, the consequences of political instability may be greater at home. Weak leaders make desperate decisions to shore up power. On the eve of a by-election that cost Morrison's government its overall majority in parliament, the prime minister announced that Australia might follow Trump's example and move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. The idea was to win votes from the constituency's Jewish community. But it failed spectacularly, while causing predictable dismay among Australia's Muslim neighbors and endangering a trade deal with Indonesia, Southeast Asia's largest economy.

Meanwhile, back at Madame Tussauds, where each waxwork can cost $100,000, work on Turnbull's half-completed likeness was terminated in August as abruptly as his leadership. Given the grim prognosis for his successor, Morrison's prospects of being sculpted in wax look even worse.

William Mellor has been a correspondent in Australia and Asia for Bloomberg and Time.

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