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Omnishambles! What's with Australian politics?

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull
Stefan Postles - Getty Images
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull

A party coup that toppled Tony Abbott from the Australian prime ministership has shed light on the machinations inside a political system that allows a country to have five leaders in as many years.

In a dramatic series of events bearing similarities to satirical television show 'The Thick of It,' which chronicled the rough and tumble of British politics with its frequent coups and bickering among party members, former communications minister Malcolm Turnbull defeated Tony Abbott by 10 votes in an internal Liberal Party ballot late on Monday.

The snap vote came after Turnbull publicly challenged Abbott earlier on Monday, criticizing the latter's leadership style and his inability to pass reforms in parliament. Turnbull and deputy prime minister Julie Bishop reportedly finalized the decision to oust Abbott over the weekend, according to local media reports.

In Australia, the political party with the most seats in the House of Representatives forms the government, which means the ruling party can change leaders at its discretion. This means the nation is no stranger to internal party strife. In 2010, the Labor Party replaced then-prime minister Kevin Rudd with his deputy Julia Gillard, only to reverse that move in 2013.

"Monday's events illustrate one of the peculiarities of Australian political design: that the prime minister is not elected directly by the Australian people but rather by the members of the majority party in Parliament," said Simon Tormey, head of social and political sciences at the University of Sydney.

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"There is a deficit at the heart of the system - and a fractious style of politics that encourages back-stabbing, back-bench rebellion and political instability. Five leaders in the same number of years should surely make Australia look harder at how we can and must do better," he added.

Wayne Swan, who was Labor deputy prime minister from 2010-2013, echoed those sentiments: "Monday's events indicate there is a degree of polarization in Australian politics that we haven't seen of this depth before," he told CNBC this week.

"I think our politics have become more Americanized, especially on the right." Swan himself switched allegiances from long-time friend Rudd to Gillard in the 2010 coup.

Blame the media?

There is a confluence of factors behind the rapid turnover in leaders in the past five years, explained Sarah Maddison, associate professor at the University of Melbourne.

"One thing we've seen is a blatant disregard of the office of prime ministership itself," she told CNBC.

Using Julia Gillard's term in office as an example, Maddison referred to sexist comments and insults hurled at Australia's first female prime minister as examples of deteriorating respect towards the office of the prime minister.

"Allowing the media to insult the office in that way makes it easier for politicians to hold the person holding the title in disregard."

Ousted leader Tony Abbott also attacked the media during his outgoing speech on Tuesday: "We have more polls and more commentary than ever before, mostly sour, bitter character assassination. Poll-driven panic has produced a revolving-door prime ministership which can't be good for our country. And a febrile media culture has developed that rewards treachery."

While the selection process of party leaders has been addressed in the past, the new Liberal government has yet to indicate it will make any changes.

After his 2013 return to power, Rudd pushed through changes to Labor party rules so that its leaders would be selected by a combination of direct votes by party members and a caucus vote, preventing so-called midnight coups. But there were reports in June that Labor was moving to abandon those changes.

"You can't blame the [current] system. It's served the country pretty well in terms of stability throughout history...Imagine if we were to hold elections every time a prime minister was performing poorly, that would be very expensive and destabilizing," Maddison noted.