The Straits Times says

Switching leaders, staying the course

Musical chairs in Canberra in itself would already unnerve many in the region, especially after seeing four prime ministers at the helm in about two years. But when the transition is marked by party intrigues and a wielding of "the assassin's knife" (to use former premier Tony Abbott's imagery), some might fear the nation's strategic policies will be destabilised, in particular its well-intentioned embrace of Asia. In retaining Ms Julie Bishop as Foreign Minister, is new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull signalling that, like his predecessor, he will nurture the strategic partnerships forged with India, Japan and Singapore, for example, or is he rewarding her for loyalty during the Liberal Party putsch?

Mr Turnbull earlier indicated no abrupt change of course but that would hardly justify the unceremonious dumping of Mr Abbott and some of his allies. The new PM clearly wants to set a fresh direction in coming months with an eye on the next election - the very rationale for Mr Kevin Rudd's darting move against Labor premier Julia Gillard in 2013, a replay of what she had done to him in 2010. The only bright spot in all this political skulduggery is the prospect of a strong electoral win for Mr Turnbull, favoured by seven in 10 voters for the top post over opposition leader Bill Shorten, according to one pollster. That's important as Ms Gillard could only do so much, argue pundits, because her minority government could not make decisive moves.

Asians would cheer a clear-eyed focus in Canberra on the economy and a readiness to engage more fully with the region. Singapore, for example, would welcome an updating of its free trade agreement with Australia to unlock new opportunities. Enhancement of transport links; greater ease of travel for professionals; and investment opportunities in food, infrastructure and new growth areas like Northern Australia are some of the initiatives envisaged under the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership pact between the two countries. How Australia steers its relationship with an emergent China - balancing this with its longstanding ties with its Western allies - will also be critical to its, and the region's, future.

The long-term development of cooperation with regional partners in the economy, defence, foreign affairs, and arts and culture calls for leadership continuity that is central to Australia as it is to other countries. The country's next election is due by January 2017, the same month that the next president of the United States is sworn into office. South Korea's presidential election and Malaysia's general election will be in the same year (if not called sooner), while Taiwanese and Filipino voters will pick their leaders next year. An outward-looking Australian prime minister is more likely to forge closer ties with other new leaders that a region-centric strategic posture requires.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 22, 2015, with the headline 'Switching leaders, staying the course'. Print Edition | Subscribe