Troy Bram­ston

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Troy Bram­ston

Dis­pos­able Lead­ers: Me­dia and Lead­er­ship Coups from Men­zies to Ab­bott By Rod­ney Tif­fen New South, 296pp, $34.99 The other day I watched an in­ter­view with PJ O’Rourke on a US talk show. He was asked to make sense of the global re­volt against the po­lit­i­cal es­tab­lish­ment, most no­tably man­i­fest in Brexit and Don­ald Trump’s elec­tion.

O’Rourke thinks the cur­rent cri­sis of democ­racy and po­lit­i­cal dis­rup­tion has roots in Aus­tralia. We have had five prime min­is­ters in five years, he said. We are, ap­par­ently, the coup cap­i­tal of the world.

Aus­tralia does not see it­self as the spark that ig­nited the rev­o­lu­tion. Some sug­gest the near-record vote for in­de­pen­dents, in­clud­ing for par­ties led by Pauline Han­son and Nick Xenophon, is a sign that Aus­tralia is be­ing swept along with over­seas events rather than lead­ing them. Yet Rod­ney Tif­fen’s book Dis­pos­able Lead­ers sug­gests our coup cul­ture is not only ram­pant but is gath­er­ing pace.

Since 1970, there have been 73 fed­eral and state party lead­ers put to the sword by their par­lia­men­tary col­leagues. Our pol­i­tics has be­come bru­tal. But it is a ruth­less­ness driven by in­sid­ers rather than out­siders.

Aus­tralia has had a run of short-term PMs be­fore. Be­tween 1901 and 1910, when gov­ern­ments of­ten rose and fell on the floor of par­lia­ment, there were seven changes of PM. From 1966 to 1975, there were seven PMs.

Tif­fen, an emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­sity of Syd­ney, says Robert Men­zies be­came the first PM to be re­moved by his party, in 1941. He also presents John Gor­ton as a par­ty­room ca­su­alty in 1971.

Yet Men­zies and Gor­ton fell on their swords to avoid a lead­er­ship spill. It was not un­til 1991 that a La­bor PM, Bob Hawke, was felled in a par­ty­room lead­er­ship bal­lot. And it was not un­til 2015 that a Lib­eral PM, Tony Ab­bott, was de­feated in a lead­er­ship bal­lot. La­bor has ex­e­cuted Kevin Rudd and Ju­lia Gil­lard and Lib­eral PM Mal­colm Turn­bull re­mains on death­watch.

Un­til the 1970s, se­nior­ity and suc­ces­sion plan­ning was the norm. Lead­ers in a slump were given time to lift their per­for­mance. To­day, lead­ers live and die by polls and their col­leagues are prone to panic. This is es­pe­cially the case in op­po­si­tion, where lead­er­ship coups are more fre­quent.

It may come as a sur­prise to learn that no other liv­ing per­son has led a party longer than Bob Carr, who was NSW La­bor leader from 1988 to 2005. No po­lit­i­cal leader would last that long to­day.

In this read­able, well-re­searched book, Tif­fen also casts a crit­i­cal eye over the me­dia. In the frenzy to be the first to call a leader’s demise or re­veal a new level of in­trigue, the me­dia can of­ten make a lead­er­ship change a self-ful­fill­ing prophecy.

This book un­der­scores the im­por­tance of lead­er­ship in pol­i­tics.

A PM or premier chairs cab­i­net, takes the lead in par­lia­ment, over­sees the bu­reau­cracy, rep­re­sents the na­tion abroad, man­ages the par­lia­men­tary party and works closely with its or­gan­i­sa­tional wing.

At a time of ide­o­log­i­cal con­ver­gence, a leader’s per­son­al­ity and val­ues help to de­fine a party. They are a sym­bol for their party. They are the party’s chief ex­po­nent and cam­paigner. The buck stops with them.

When a party be­gins to fal­ter, those who fear a loom­ing elec­tion rout of­ten look to an al­ter­na­tive leader who can turn their for­tunes around — a mes­siah. But a lead­er­ship change does not al­ways guar­an­tee po­lit­i­cal suc­cess.

Seven­teen PMs and pre­miers have been re­placed since 1970, but the only new lead­ers who went on to win re-elec­tion are Paul Keat­ing (1993) and Turn­bull (2016). Three sur­vived in mi­nor­ity gov­ern­ment (Gil­lard, John Olsen and Jay Weather­ill). But 12 lost the next elec­tion.

Ev­i­dently, chang­ing the PM or premier can be coun­ter­pro­duc­tive. The vot­ers don’t like it be­cause it is not the party leader they voted for. The for­mer leader can be re­sent­ful and venge­ful. The so-called trans­ac­tion costs can be high.

Tif­fen re­gards win­ning the next elec­tion as the key fac­tor in judg­ing whether the coup was jus­ti­fied. Cer­tainly Keat­ing’s 1993 elec­tion vic­tory, in­creas­ing La­bor’s pri­mary vote and its seats in par­lia­ment, is the stand­out ex­am­ple of a lead­er­ship change pay­ing a div­i­dend.

How­ever, the power­bro­kers who brought down Rudd are cer­tain he would have lost the 2010 elec­tion. Those who knifed Gil­lard are equally convinced that Rudd re­dux saved La­bor seats in 2013. The back­room op­er­a­tors who top­pled Ab­bott say he would have lost the 2016 elec­tion. The ends, they say, jus­tify the means. This book could not be time­lier. Turn­bull’s prime min­is­ter­ship lacks au­thor­ity and achieve­ment. The opin­ion polls are di­a­bol­i­cal. The Coali­tion is los­ing votes to right-wing fringe par­ties. Con­ser­va­tive com­men­ta­tors are bay­ing for Turn­bull’s blood. And Ab­bott stalks his lead­er­ship.

Turn­bull may soon be an­other tragic lead­er­ship statis­tic. But, as Tif­fen says, this is not healthy for Aus­tralian democ­racy or for our im­age abroad. In the past 50 years, no other coun­try has dis­posed of as many lead­ers as we have.

is a se­nior writer at The Aus­tralian. His lat­est book is Paul Keat­ing: The Big-Pic­ture Leader.

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