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Latest leader-swap frustrates Australians

Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was forced out of office on Friday by disgruntled lawmakers, the fourth prime minister pushed out of the job since 2010 in a period of political instability. The leadership change has struck a particularly sour note among Australians. 

David Grey/Reuters
The new Australian Prime Minister Scott Morison is sworn in at a ceremony in Canberra, Australia, on Aug. 24, 2018.

Australia's new prime minister, Scott Morrison, on Friday promised a stable government at the end of a tumultuous week in which his predecessor was forced out of office, 13 ministers resigned, and Parliament was shut down for an afternoon.

Disgruntled government lawmakers forced former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull from office on Friday, arguing that most had lost faith in his leadership. Mr. Turnbull became the fourth prime minister dumped by his or her own party since 2010 in an extraordinary period of political instability that frustrates most Australians.

Mr. Morrison distanced himself from the turmoil, saying he had not been part of the push led by fellow lawmaker Peter Dutton to oust Turnbull over four chaotic days that was inspired by a feud between hard-right conservatives and moderates.

"We will provide the stability and the unity and the direction and the purpose that the Australian people expect of us," Morrison told reporters.

"The work of government continues. I want to assure all Australians that those normal wheels are turning," he added.

The political civil war shocked business and industry that want crucial energy and tax policy reforms finalized. It's also an international embarrassment for a nation that prides itself on being a safe and stable democracy in which to invest.

It is not clear who if anyone will take Turnbull's place on an important trip he planned next week to regional neighbors Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam, which was to end at an annual forum of 18 Pacific island nations on Nauru on Sept. 5.

China hopes the change of leader will thaw bilateral relations that have been chilled for months by Turnbull's crackdown on covert foreign interference in domestic politics and on industrial espionage.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang congratulated Morrison on his new role and said Beijing would work with him to develop China-Australia ties "along the right track."

Morrison has been dubbed the "accidental prime minister" because he had no plans to nominate until Thursday, when Turnbull declared he would not recontest his job. Morrison on Friday declined to detail any policy changes that he might make.

He played down speculation that he might call an election before it's due early next year.

"We intend to be governing ... so I don't think anybody should be making any plans for any elections any time soon," Morrison said.

Turnbull said he would quit politics "not before too long."

His resignation would force a by-election that could cost the government its single-seat majority. It could also provide an incentive to call an early general election.

Turnbull, a centrist leader who takes credit for Australia legalizing gay marriage, blamed his downfall on a campaign by hard-right lawmakers backed by "powerful voices" in the conservative media.

"There was a determined insurgency from a number of people," Turnbull said. "It was extraordinary. It was described as madness by many and I think it's difficult to describe it in any other way."

Turnbull said he was impressed by his party's decision not to reward Mr. Dutton and to elect Morrison, whom he descried as a "very loyal and effective treasurer." Morrison defeated Dutton 45 votes to 40.

Dutton's failure prevents Australian policy from shifting to the hard right, although there has been little policy discussion in the leadership struggle.

Dutton later suggested that the crisis was driven by personalities rather than policy differences.

"For me, I only ever nominated because I believed I was a better person and a person of greater strength and integrity to lead the Liberal Party," Dutton told Australian Broadcasting Corp.

Morrison was officially sworn in as prime minister later Friday and his deputy leader, Josh Frydenberg, as treasurer. Morrison said the rest of his Cabinet would be sworn in next week.

Dutton's and Turnbull's camps waged the most chaotic, frenetic, and at times farcical leadership struggle that Australian politics has seen in years, closing down Parliament on Thursday so that the government could focus on its rapidly escalating internal crisis.

Parliament does not sit again until Sept. 10.

Turnbull's leadership was vulnerable because his government was trailing in opinion polls. Analysts expect the polling to worsen due to the clumsy and bungled way the leadership was challenged.

Australia's latest leadership switch has struck a particularly sour note among a populace typically well educated in politics, but increasingly disillusioned with the actions of those it elects.

In the local vernacular, many Australians say they've "had a gutful."

They're tired of voting in elections only to see their choice of leader overturned within the ruling party, usually for reasons of public popularity and the party's chances of reelection.

Some Australians used the latest internal party upheaval to poke fun. One set up a tongue-in-cheek Twitter account that names Australia's prime minister, with hourly updates. Others struck a more serious tone, echoing the sentiments of the major headline from one of the country's biggest newspapers, the Sydney Morning Herald, which said: "Australian democracy is a laughing stock."

Sydney workplace environment manager Darren Moore said it was nonsense for a party to claim they should be allowed to change leaders how they like on the grounds that the public had voted it in.

"It's got so cynical now that the politicians are coming out blatantly and saying they need to change leader in order to win the next election. Is that the sole focus? How about running and organizing the country?"

Adelaide business manager Dave Pearlman said such internal coups "could not be more dismissive of the people of the country."

Stewart Jackson, a lecturer in government and international relations at Sydney University, said Australians are more disillusioned with this latest coup than the previous one, in which Turnbull himself ousted Tony Abbott in 2015.

He said the electorate then was disappointed Mr. Abbott had not delivered on several election promises and was largely accepting of the incoming Turnbull. He said this switch, which came with relatively little warning, was far more shocking, orchestrated as it was by disgruntled junior members of the government.

"Increasingly the public see these two major parties as treating politics as a game between the two of them," Mr. Jackson said.

"You've seen the party backbench destabilize a legitimate government. Most people have been left asking 'What's going on?' It's inexplicable."

This article was reported by The Associated Press.

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