When Tony Abbott was sworn in as Australia’s 28th Prime Minister today, it became the fifth time Australia has had three prime ministers in a calendar year.
A surprising number of countries have rotated through three prime ministers in a calendar year. They include Canada (1993), New Zealand (1990), Japan (1989), Greece (multiple times in wartime Europe, with military rulers sometimes holding power for just days) and the old West Germany in 1974.
The US twice had three presidents in a calendar year, both due to sudden deaths. The first was in 1841, when William Henry Harrison replaced Martin van Buren only to die of pneumonia 32 days later. He was succeeded by his vice-president, John Tyler. Then in 1881, Rutherford B. Hayes was replaced by James Garfield who was assassinated within a year and replaced by his vice-president, Charles Arthur.
With Australia’s federation only 112 years old, so getting around to it five times is unusual.
Here are the years involved, with potted summaries of what happened. Most of them were the result of some degree of political instability at the time. Two were caused by deaths of the office holders in 1904 and 1945.
1904 — Deakin, Watson, Reid. Deakin quit because he failed to pass legislation, Watson because he couldn’t get a double-dissolution.
1939 — Lyons, Page, Menzies. Lyons died and Page was made interim prime minister until Menzies became United Australia leader.
1941 — Menzies, Fadden, Curtin. This was probably the most tumultuous. The world was at war; Menzies was holding power with the support of independents; his majority became unstable over the question of representing Australia at the War Cabinet in London. Country Party leader Arthur Fadden replaced him but failed to hold the support of the independents. Labor Leader John Curtin formed a government without an election.
1945 — Curtin, Forde, Chifley. Curtin died in office, was replaced in office by his deputy Frank Forde but was then defeated in a ballot for the Labor leadership by Ben Chifley.
And the last one:
2013 — Gillard, Rudd, Abbott. Gillard is replaced by Rudd as Labor leader less than three months from a scheduled federal election. Rudd loses the election to the Coalition, led by Tony Abbott.
Australia also had three prime ministers in quick succession between December 1967 and January 1968, when Harold Holt disappeared, being replaced by his deputy John McEwen before John Gorton became Coalition leader.
(Hat-tip: Malcolm Farnsworth, and various other political history types on Twitter for the suggestions on the other countries.)
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