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Politics

Employment woes hastened Abbott's demise

Malcolm Turnbull   © AAP

SYDNEY, Australia -- The ballot coup that cut short Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott's stay in office Monday was made possible partly by a deteriorating jobs market.

     Abbott's approval rating had been languishing. Sworn in nearly two years ago, he has failed to keep a number of campaign promises, such as cutting the corporate tax and expanding paid family leave. Inside the ruling Liberal Party, officials had begun to despair of winning this coming Saturday's by-election in the state of Western Australia, let alone a general election that must be held by September 2016. Malcolm Turnbull, who defeated Abbott in Monday's hastily convened party leadership contest, cited the by-election at the party caucus.

     With commodity prices slumping, economic growth slowed to 0.2% on the quarter in April to June from 0.9% in the preceding three months. The unemployment rate has been stuck in the 6% range. These lean times have seen a surge in support for the opposition Labor Party.

     In foreign affairs, Abbott made much of relations with Japan. He and Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe deepened bilateral ties in a remarkably short time, starting with an economic partnership agreement. Abbott's government was keen on ordering Japanese-made Soryu submarines as a way to strengthen three-way defense cooperation with the U.S., their countries' mutual ally. The change of prime ministers in Canberra may affect the submarine purchase.

     Few expect Abbott's departure to have much impact on policies overall. Some think that Turnbull will be more disposed to strike a diplomatic balance between Japan and China, Australia's biggest trading partner. But as leader of the opposition Liberals back in 2009, he attacked the Labor government's foreign policy under then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who boasted of his own China expertise. Turnbull has also said Australia's Asian diplomacy must have consistent goals, uphold principles, and be faithful to Australian values. He does not appear likely to greatly change the course of Australia-Japan-U.S. defense cooperation, which seeks to create a counterweight to China.

     Speaking to reporters Monday, the incoming prime minister called the free trade agreements negotiated under Abbott "some of the key foundations of our future prosperity," which suggests that he will keep Australia actively involved in pursuing the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership. Should he prove more popular with the public than Abbott, he may succeed in amassing the political leadership needed to advance structural reforms to get Australia through the post-commodities boom.

     "The Australia of the future has to be a nation that is agile, that is innovative, that is creative," he said.

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