These spills leave a stain
And so, we now have our sixth prime minister within a decade. Or is it five, considering Kevin Rudd’s two terms? I’ve lost track. I do know that prior to the global financial crisis, back in the pre-Twitter era, prime ministers seemed to be ensconced within our consciousness for the better part of a decade.
Same thing with premiers. Back then, they were voted out of office and then they would conveniently disappear. Not so today. The office of premier has morphed from one of life’s great achievements to a mere bullet point in a curriculum vitae, somewhere between union-something or staffer-forsomeone-quite-important and an impressive corporate gig, a trade envoy or, better still, a consul general. I’m not sure what a consul general does but if all the vice-regal appointments are snapped up it’ll have to do, I suppose. I bags being consul general in New York or Paris or London. Might give being consul general to Baghdad a miss.
The career path for ousted prime ministers is less well established. And we’re creating them rapidly – there are now seven living ex-PMs, ranging in age from 56 (Gillard) to 88 (Hawke). In the decade to 2018 the population of former Australian prime ministers increased by 40 per cent, which is three times the rate of growth for the nation as a whole. At this rate, at some point in the future all Australians will be former prime ministers.
When Bob Menzies retired in 1966 there were just three living ex-PMs: Frank Forde, Arthur Fadden and Stanley Bruce. Prime Minister Scott Morrison must navigate seven. How many public servants are required to manage the affairs, the entitlements, the commentary of seven former PMs? Perhaps Morrison might like to appoint a minister for former prime ministers.
When prime ministers come to office there is such hope and, generally, goodwill. We all so want this to work, at least until the next general election. Maybe this time it’ll work out, and then we will be officially through the post-Howard political malaise that seems to have gripped our nation. Otherwise, the inconvenient question: were John Howard and Bob Hawke really the only living people capable of managing our troublesome nation over multiple electoral cycles? In fact, I’d settle for just one electoral cycle.
I am sure being a politician is far more difficult now than it was even 10 years ago. Social media and the 24-hour news cycle have made the task of government so much harder. Still, I am sure there’s someone capable of governing the Australian people for years on end – it’s just that we haven’t found that person yet.
All along we’ve been convincing ourselves that it’s political self-interest and the bubble mentality in Canberra that have caused the troubles. This explanation might work in a world where leadership coups are seen once or twice in a decade; each side gets a crack. But when it happens time and time again… maybe it’s not them, it’s us.
We’re an impatient lot. We don’t do sacrifice. The idea of taking one for the team or the truly bizarre concept of “doing one’s duty” is anathema to modern thinking. And neither are we inclined to put aside past grievances; they’re now forensically collected, compared and argument-readied. If we want a political class with better values, maybe we should start by examining those we expect of ourselves.