These spills leave a stain

The Weekend Australian - Magazine - - Society - By Bernard salt ◖ mag­a­zine­feed­back@theaus­tralian.com.au ◗

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.

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