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An End to Australia's Democratic Pantomime?

Published in Project Syndicate, 27 August 2018

In Australia's long-established, conflict-free, and above all prosperous parliamentary democracy, which is enjoying a record 27th year of uninterrupted economic growth, no prime minister has served a full term since 2007. Why?

MELBOURNE – What explains Australia’s bizarre leadership churn? No prime minister has served a full term since 2007, with five different faces becoming prime minister in the last five years: Julia Gillard, Kevin Rudd, Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull – and now, in the latest party-room coup, Scott Morrison, whom most Australians, let alone international observers, would struggle to identify in a line-up. All this is happening in a long-established, conflict-free, and above all prosperous parliamentary democracy, enjoying a record 27th year of uninterrupted economic growth.

The answer still seems to lie in the three factors – globally familiar, nationally systemic, and personally idiosyncratic – that I identified three years ago. Is this entertainment – no joke here, however many others abroad may be laughing – destined to continue indefinitely, or can the cycle be broken?

The first explanation of the churn is that Australia is not immune to the preoccupation with personalities and popularity polls, and the demand for instant gratification rather than serious policy debate, afflicting most of the world’s established democracies in this age of the 24/7 media cycle and omnipresent social media. Traditional mainstream political parties everywhere, spooked by populist fringe-dwellers, are constantly on edge trying to work out how to counter their appeal.

A second dimension is Australia-specific: the tension created by peculiarities in our Westminster parliamentary system. A ludicrously short three-year electoral cycle, briefer than almost anywhere else in the world, makes it almost impossible to govern in a campaign-free atmosphere. The Senate, with more formal power to block and bring down governments than any comparable upper house, has been dominated in recent years by a litter of minor parties and independents reminiscent of the bar scene from Star Wars. These oddballs have made it very difficult for any prime minister to deliver on the promises he or she makes.

Moreover, the internal rules of the major parties – the now governing Liberal/National coalition, and until recently Labor – have permitted leaders, including serving prime ministers, to be torn down overnight by their own colleagues, with no referral to the wider party membership or other delaying process. If a leader is seen to be losing appeal, either to the broader electorate (or, as happened with Malcolm Turnbull last week, the party’s own base), the absence of any braking mechanism to force reflection means that momentum for change can build and feed on itself with sometimes lunatic rapidity.

The remaining part of the explanation is undoubtedly local and personal: the character quirks that have contributed to each leader’s dramatic rise and equally spectacular fall. Gillard was a highly competent transactional politician who had her minute of international fame with a brilliantly passionate attack on her opponent’s misogyny. But she was seen as politically tone-deaf otherwise.

Rudd, who wrestled the leadership back from her in 2013, remains intellectually without peer and highly regarded internationally, but was seen by his colleagues, not entirely unfairly, as too often incommunicative, obsessive, and having misplaced policy priorities.

Abbott, profoundly conservative and hyper-partisan, proved utterly incapable of managing the transition from opposition to government. He presided over the cabinet with slogans rather than coherent policy, and constantly alienated his colleagues with unpopular “captain’s picks.”

Turnbull, the urbane but arrogant former journalist, lawyer, and investment banker, whose deposition of Abbott in 2015 triggered a crusade of sustained internal hatred which finally drove his own ouster last week, was initially popular – and apparently as liberal in his instincts as Abbott was reactionary. But, while he maintained more public support than any of his internal rivals, he proved unable to translate it into opinion-poll majorities. And as he made ever more concessions to his party’s right wing in order to survive – notably on climate policy – the perception took root that he had no core beliefs at all, other than in his own genius.

Morrison is a potentially more appealing knockabout character, and less divisive than Turnbull’s main conservative challenger, the Abbott acolyte Peter Dutton, would have been. But bridging the gulf between the Liberal Party’s moderate and reactionary wings will probably be beyond him, with his public salesmanship not helped by the announced departure from politics of the well-known and well-regarded former deputy leader and foreign minister, Julie Bishop, who was the party’s most senior woman.

Moreover, Morrison’s very conservative social stance and hyper-liberal economic positions make him vulnerable to Labor electoral attack. For example, Morrison has opposed same-sex marriage, a phase-out of reliance on coal, and royal commission scrutiny of the big banks, and has supported big corporate tax cuts and a major dilution of Australia’s traditionally progressive income tax.

With the public manifestly fed up with division and dysfunction in the governing coalition parties, Australia’s next election, most likely in May 2019, seems now almost certain to result in yet another new prime minister, Labor’s Bill Shorten. Impossible though it may be to confidently predict anything about Australia’s future, given the madness of recent years, there are reasonable grounds for believing that this could be a circuit breaker, and that we might at last have leadership for the long haul.

The first reason for such confidence is that Labor has introduced a rule (which could be circumvented only in the most exceptional circumstances) that any leadership change between elections requires supermajorities in the parliamentary caucus and endorsement by the wider party membership. That change has already delivered leadership continuity and stability for the last five years, and there is no mood to go back.

The other reason is that Labor’s current front bench is not riven by any significant personal or ideological divisions, and seems to have an overall depth and breadth of competence not seen since the successful Bob Hawke and Paul Keating governments of the 1980s and 1990s. As party leader, Shorten continues to generate mixed reviews, not least because of the difficulty he sometimes seems to have in suppressing his instincts as a former trade-union apparatchik. But he is an astute strategist, has a good policy brain and decent core values, and is an excellent communicator one-on-one and in small groups (if less compelling in other settings).

Shorten and his team seem, overall, to be mercifully free of the indiscipline and character quirks and flaws that have afflicted Australia’s national leadership over the last decade. In the interests of our credibility abroad and sanity at home, it is not just Labor party loyalists here who are fervently hoping so.

This article was originally published in Project Syndicate