This is a les­son in how not to gov­ern


AUS­TRALIA is now in the ap­palling po­si­tion of be­ing a na­tion with­out ad­e­quate lead­er­ship. The cit­i­zen­ship is­sue is not yet a Con­sti­tu­tional cri­sis but it is a cri­sis — yet our lead­ers seem in­ca­pable of deal­ing with it quickly.

What, if any­thing, can we take from our fed­eral Par­lia­ment’s past 15 years? The last sta­ble ad­min­is­tra­tion was the Howard gov­ern­ment from 1996 to 2007. It had its chal­lenges, but it made the best use of our grow­ing econ­omy and not only wiped out the debt left by La­bor but also di­rected bil­lions to set up the Fu­ture Fund.

Its two down­sides were the lack of ex­pen­di­ture on in­fra­struc­ture and the start of the pe­riod of en­ti­tle­ment, when the gov­ern­ment threw money at the elec­torate in or­der to win the 2004 elec­tion, which it did. Of course, the Howard gov­ern­ment had no an­swer to Kevin Rudd in 2007, prob­a­bly due to a com­bi­na­tion of the elec­toral pen­du­lum swing­ing af­ter 12 years of a con­ser­va­tive ad­min­is­tra­tion and the ap­par­ent fresh­ness of the new La­bor leader.

John Howard had the op­por­tu­nity to re­tire with grace be­fore the 2007 elec­tion and hand the lead­er­ship to Peter Costello. But he elected not to do so. Whether Costello would have led the Lib­eral Party to vic­tory or not is now only a mat­ter for con­jec­ture.

But since 2007 we have had a pe­riod of po­lit­i­cal “dis­rup­tion” dur­ing which per­son­al­ity pol­i­tics has emerged, de­liv­er­ing us a decade of wasted op­por­tu­nity. In­di­vid­ual am­bi­tion has com­pro­mised gov­ern­ment af­ter gov­ern­ment. As a re­sult the pub­lic has be­come dis­il­lu­sioned with the po­lit­i­cal class in Canberra and that has re­sulted in in­de­pen­dents and smaller par­ties win­ning seats in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives and the Se­nate, where leg­isla­tive dis­rup­tion has be­come a sport.

And while the mi­nor par­ties have been blamed for the dis­rup­tion to the gov­ern­ment’s pro­grams, I be­lieve that is a copout. The blame lies more with per­son­al­ity pol­i­tics and the tac­tics of op­po­si­tions. Started by Tony Ab­bott and now em­braced by Bill Shorten, the aim is to sim­ply op­pose, at any cost.

Of course, as Ab­bott dis­cov­ered, if all you can do is op­pose, it is very hard to gov­ern ef­fec­tively. And that brings us to this ques­tion: if a leader takes his party to power, is it in the party’s in­ter­ests, and those of the na­tion, if the leader is re­moved midterm by their col­leagues?

The ev­i­dence is that it is not. Rudd to Gil­lard to Rudd, Turn­bull to Ab­bott to Turn­bull.

It is all fo­cused on per­son­al­i­ties. Our lead­ers have lost sight of their re­spon­si­bil­ity to the pub­lic and to the pro­fes­sion of pol­i­tics.

What I find so re­mark­able about our present sit­u­a­tion is the fail­ure of lead­ers to do what should be ob­vi­ous to any­one in com­merce or gov­ern­ment: to act quickly to

solve a prob­lem. When we had the ex­plo­sion at the Esso gas plant in Septem­ber 1998, we moved quickly to put a re­sponse in place: tem­po­rary re­stric­tions to keep gas sup­plies flow­ing to house­holds and com­merce, mea­sures to deal with the hu­man tragedies, steps to keep the pub­lic and the me­dia in­formed; through trans­parency, we worked our way back to nor­mal­ity.

IN con­trast, the is­sue of cit­i­zen­ship is di­vert­ing Canberra from the goal of good gov­ern­ment. Once the High Court ruled on the Gang of Seven, Par­lia­ment knew it had an is­sue. The only way to deal with it quickly was an au­dit of all mem­bers. It could have been done rel­a­tively quickly by the Elec­toral Com­mis­sioner, who then could have re­ferred to the High Court any mem­ber whose sit­u­a­tion was in doubt.

In­stead mem­bers took po­lit­i­cal po­si­tions and now in­stead of lanc­ing the boil, it con­tin­ues to grow and cause pain.

I ques­tion whether Par­lia­ment can now pass any leg­is­la­tion know­ing there is a risk that some of those who will vote might be in­el­i­gi­ble. Once the High Court ruled as it did, Par­lia­ment can­not con­tinue to leg­is­late un­til the el­i­gi­bil­ity of all mem­bers is con­firmed. It should go into re­cess un­til the mat­ter is re­solved.

Sur­rounded by dys­func­tion, ev­ery­one is fo­cus­ing on Prime Min­is­ter Mal­colm Turn­bull and it’s true the buck stops with the leader; but it also stops with the leader of the op­po­si­tion, Bill Shorten.

And this de­ba­cle fur­ther demon­strates the eroded au­thor­ity of our re­cent lead­ers. When Gil­lard ousted Rudd, when Rudd ousted Gil­lard, when Turn­bull ousted Ab­bott, they were di­min­ished in the eyes of some in their par­ties but moreso in the eyes of the pub­lic.

The re­sult was the rise of the mi­nor par­ties and in­de­pen­dents and all the leg­isla­tive dif­fi­cul­ties this has caused the Par­lia­ment, lead­ing to com­pro­mise af­ter com­pro­mise. Our once high po­lit­i­cal stan­dards no longer ex­ist.

Amid the con­fu­sion, there has been talk of Turn­bull be­ing re­placed. Yes, we thought he had a plan when he took over from Ab­bott, but that was a false hope. None ex­isted.

But would an­other change achieve any­thing? No, of course not. It would de­liver only more chaos. Per­haps there would be a short-term lift in the polls but it would be fol­lowed by a long-term fail­ure of au­thor­ity.

Why do we have to en­dure this self-in­ter­est from so many of our rep­re­sen­ta­tives? Good gov­ern­ments have de­liv­ered good things for our coun­try. While we might not have agreed with all of it, the ben­e­fits of sta­bil­ity were demon­stra­ble. Hawke, Keat­ing and Howard. Since then it has been a waste of space.

Our cur­rent lead­ers may not be re­spon­si­ble for the cit­i­zen­ship cri­sis, but as sure as hell it is their re­spon­si­bil­ity to solve the prob­lem.

Let’s face it, the past 10 years have been a les­son in how not to run a coun­try.

Have a good day.

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