Blow­ing Up the Gov­ern­ment To Save It

Com­ment by Ge­orge Me­ga­lo­ge­nis

The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS -

Aus­tralians need a new ti­tle for the politi­cian who re­places a prime min­is­ter be­tween elec­tions. “Act­ing prime min­is­ter” or “care­taker prime min­is­ter”? Ei­ther would do to re­mind the gov­ern­ment of the day that its new leader has not been tested at the bal­lot box. It would spare the me­dia the pre­tence of def­er­ence, and might en­cour­age fu­ture plot­ters to think be­fore plac­ing their gov­ern­ment on the bon­fire of pub­lic ridicule again.

Scott Mor­ri­son shouldn’t take this per­son­ally. As a keen stu­dent of pol­i­tics, he would ap­pre­ci­ate how each coup since 2010 was re­ceived by the vot­ers. The first act of regi­cide sapped the au­thor­ity of the gov­ern­ment as it lost its buf­fer on the floor of the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives; the sec­ond opened the gates of elec­toral hell.

When La­bor took its civil war into a sec­ond term, it did so un­der­stand­ing the risk of a wipe-out at the next elec­tion. But the play­ers could not help them­selves. It bears re­peat­ing that La­bor’s pri­mary vote in 2013 col­lapsed to 33.4 per cent – its low­est since the split of the 1930s. If the pat­tern re­peats for the Lib­eral Party at the next elec­tion, it would threaten its very ex­is­tence. The party of Robert Men­zies has never lost of­fice in a land­slide be­fore.

Know­ing all this, the Lib­er­als still leapt into the abyss in Au­gust. The in­sur­gents did not have the num­bers to re­move Mal­colm Turn­bull for their pre­ferred can­di­date, Peter Dut­ton. But they as­sumed their cam­paign could not fail be­cause ev­ery prime min­is­ter since Bob Hawke who was chal­lenged in the party room fell be­fore the next elec­tion. The shock­ing thing, go­ing into the sec­ond bal­lot, was that Turn­bull could con­ceiv­ably have sur­vived un­til the end of that self-in­dul­gent sit­ting

week. As one La­bor front­bencher re­marked af­ter­wards, that would have given Turn­bull the nu­clear op­tion to call an early elec­tion. He might have had a mad chance of win­ning, this per­son con­ceded. Turn­bull could have pit­ted him­self against the ex­tremes of Aus­tralian pol­i­tics: La­bor to his left, with their thug­gish trade union con­nec­tions, and the fa­nat­ics of his own party to his right.

And that has been the prob­lem all along. The idea that a sin­gle in­di­vid­ual could blow up the sys­tem to save it has be­come the great Aus­tralian delu­sion of the 21st cen­tury. The main par­ties have been on a self-sab­o­tag­ing search for a mes­siah since 2007, when La­bor sur­ren­dered its iden­tity to Kevin Rudd to de­feat John Howard.

Ev­ery suc­cess­ful fed­eral coup since 2010 has in­volved a cy­cle of over-cor­rec­tion and ac­qui­es­cence. The de­posed leader was said to be crazy, or un­pop­u­lar. The party room was re­claim­ing the gov­ern­ment on be­half of the peo­ple. But then the new leader as­sumed the same au­thor­ity as their pre­de­ces­sor, booby trap­ping the gov­ern­ment for an­other coup.

The pub­lic view of these things has been con­sis­tent. Once a gov­ern­ment re­moves its leader, it loses its man­date. It doesn’t mat­ter how long the new prime min­is­ter waits to call an elec­tion; ev­ery coup since 2010 has been pun­ished with a swing against the gov­ern­ment.

On face value, the first-term ex­e­cu­tions of Kevin Rudd and Tony Ab­bott con­tained as many dif­fer­ences as sim­i­lar­i­ties. Rudd was still pop­u­lar; Ab­bott never was. Rudd was ousted with­out warn­ing; Ab­bott had been given six months to im­prove his per­for­mance be­fore he was fi­nally chal­lenged. Yet nei­ther man saw their fall com­ing or ac­cepted the ver­dict of their party room. Their re­spec­tive cru­sades to re­claim their old jobs made the coun­try un­govern­able in the sec­ond term of each gov­ern­ment.

It’s pos­si­ble to imag­ine that Ju­lia Gil­lard would have won a ma­jor­ity in her own right if the Rudd camp hadn’t leaked against her dur­ing the 2010 cam­paign, or that Turn­bull would still be prime min­is­ter to­day if Ab­bott had been per­suaded to leave the par­lia­ment at the last elec­tion in 2016. But what is more strik­ing is that Gil­lard and Turn­bull suf­fered al­most iden­ti­cal swings. La­bor lost 11 seats in to­tal un­der Gil­lard in 2010; the Coali­tion lost 14 un­der Turn­bull in 2016. The na­tion di­vided along the same parochial lines in each elec­tion. La­bor was the ma­jor­ity party in the two most pop­u­lous states and the two poor­est – New South Wales, Vic­to­ria, South Aus­tralia and Tas­ma­nia – while the Coali­tion dom­i­nated in the min­ing states of Queens­land and Western Aus­tralia.

The tribal com­po­si­tion of the Gil­lard and Turn­bull gov­ern­ments meant that each was be­ing tugged back to its base. Gil­lard’s mi­nor­ity gov­ern­ment re­lied on the sup­port of in­de­pen­dents and Greens from New South Wales, Vic­to­ria and Tas­ma­nia.

Turn­bull’s one-seat ma­jor­ity gave the at­ten­tion seeker who threat­ened to cross the floor dis­pro­por­tion­ate power. Queens­land’s Ge­orge Chris­tensen was con­sid­ered the can­di­date most likely to bring down the gov­ern­ment, and he even told An­drew Bolt and oth­ers he would move to the cross­bench if Turn­bull were still prime min­is­ter at the end of last year. But he re­mained a loyal mem­ber of the Coali­tion after Turn­bull agreed to es­tab­lish the bank­ing royal com­mis­sion. On this is­sue, at least, the con­ser­va­tives found com­mon cause with or­di­nary Aus­tralians. But then they re­verted to type on the ques­tion of cli­mate change.

It was Ab­bott’s threat to cross the floor against Turn­bull’s Na­tional En­ergy Guar­an­tee that reaf­firmed how po­larised pol­i­tics had be­come within gov­ern­ment. Even though the Coali­tion party room had ap­proved the NEG, Turn­bull did not want to risk bring­ing the leg­is­la­tion to the par­lia­ment be­cause Ab­bott and oth­ers would likely have voted against it. La­bor never en­tered Turn­bull’s cal­cu­la­tions. It was his ne­go­ti­a­tion with Rudd on the orig­i­nal Emis­sions Trad­ing Scheme that trig­gered his down­fall as Op­po­si­tion leader in 2009.

But Prime Min­is­ter Turn­bull was view­ing the NEG from the wrong end of the tele­scope, and with the lens cap on. If he had asked La­bor and the in­de­pen­dents, they would likely have given him their sup­port. The par­lia­men­tary vote would have been de­ci­sive. Yet Ab­bott had made bi­par­ti­san­ship a hang­ing of­fence, and, egged on by a hand­ful of sup­port­ers in the me­dia, he was able to bluff the prime min­is­ter into ne­go­ti­at­ing against him­self. Turn­bull be­gan to roll back his pol­icy to the point of in­com­pre­hen­sion, which prompted Ab­bott to state the ob­vi­ous: “What we want to know is, where are this prime min­is­ter’s con­vic­tions?”

The echo here was not Turn­bull’s ex­pe­ri­ence in De­cem­ber 2009, but Rudd’s in April 2010. Rudd’s lead­er­ship was doomed once he walked away from the great moral chal­lenge of cli­mate change.

The com­mon thread through the two-party churn has been the im­plicit recog­ni­tion that once a gov­ern­ment splits there is no point pre­tend­ing nor­mal pro­gram­ming can re­sume for the re­main­der of the par­lia­men­tary term. The new leader is com­pro­mised un­til they face the peo­ple. The par­ties can’t have it both ways, con­duct­ing pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns and then in­sist­ing the pub­lic re­spects the will of the party room.

What is eas­ily for­got­ten in the han­dover from elected to care­taker prime min­is­ter is the dis­rup­tion caused by the new leader’s short-term agenda. Ev­ery change – from Rudd to Gil­lard to Rudd, and from Ab­bott to Turn­bull to Mor­ri­son – has in­volved a bun­gled as­ser­tion of au­thor­ity that has dam­aged Aus­tralia’s rep­u­ta­tion.

Gil­lard made a mess of cli­mate-change pol­icy ei­ther side of the 2010 elec­tion. She as­sured vot­ers there would be no car­bon tax un­der the gov­ern­ment she led, then

Once a gov­ern­ment splits there is no point pre­tend­ing nor­mal pro­gram­ming can re­sume for the re­main­der of the par­lia­men­tary term.

Scott Mor­ri­son and Mal­colm Turn­bull. © Alex Elling­hausen / Fair­fax Me­dia

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