The Aus­tralian Sick­ness

The Amherst News - - OP-ED - Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Grow­ing Pains: The Fu­ture of Democ­racy (and Work)’.

I hap­pened to be in Can­berra re­cently, speak­ing to a room full of jour­nal­ists at the Na­tional Press Club, when the news came in, half­way through lunch, that Aus­tralia had a new prime min­is­ter. The mod­er­a­tor pointed out that the year is al­ready two-thirds gone and it is “only three prime min­is­ters till Christ­mas” – and the China Daily’s head­line read “Aus­tralia changes its prime min­is­ter again, again, again, again, again.”

The new prime min­is­ter, Scott Mor­ri­son, is the third leader of the gov­ern­ing Lib­eral (i.e. con­ser­va­tive) Party since 2015. In the five years be­fore that, there were three prime min­is­ters from the La­bor Party. Only twice were those prime min­is­ters chosen by the vot­ers; in the other four cases, the changes were driven by in­tra-party coups – “spills”, in the Aus­tralian po­lit­i­cal ver­nac­u­lar.

Mock­ery is ap­pro­pri­ate, and it was not in short sup­ply when Prime Min­is­ter Mal­colm Turn­bull was over­thrown by

his own party last week. “In the fu­ture ev­ery­one will be Aus­tralian prime min­is­ter for fif­teen min­utes,” tweeted ‘ Not Andy Warhol’. Another on­line com­men­ta­tor pointed out that “Game of Thrones is not an in­struc­tional man­ual.”

But it is, in Aus­tralia. Back-stab­bing is old hat; the new fash­ion in both ma­jor Aus­tralian po­lit­i­cal par­ties is “front-stab­bing”. Yet there are no great is­sues at stake, no na­tional cri­sis that must be over­come.

Aus­tralia is still the ‘ lucky coun­try’: 25 mil­lion peo­ple with a healthy econ­omy (they didn’t even have a re­ces­sion af­ter 2008), no en­e­mies, and a whole con­ti­nent to play with.

So what is caus­ing this weird be­hav­iour in an oth­er­wise fairly sen­si­ble coun­try? Is it just a pass­ing lu­nacy like the ‘danc­ing ma­nia’ of the late Mid­dle Ages in Europe (which was never ad­e­quately ex­plained) or the hula-hoop craze in Amer­ica in the late 1950s? And, more im­por­tantly, is it a com­mu­ni­ca­ble dis­ease?

Aus­tralian pol­i­tics wasn’t al­ways like this: be­tween 1983 and 2007 Aus­tralia had just three prime min­is­ters.

Elec­tions (in which ev­ery­one must vote or pay a $20 fine) hap­pen ev­ery three years or less, which is clearly too of­ten, but the po­lit­i­cal sys­tem was the same back when Aus­tralian pol­i­tics was far more sta­ble.

The fact that Aus­tralian politi­cians are never more than three years away from the next elec­tion cer­tainly en­cour­ages a short-term per­spec­tive, but it doesn’t ex­plain why they are al­ways chang­ing horses.

Maybe you have to add to the mix con­stant opin­ion polling and a 24-hour me­dia cy­cle that de­mands some new po­lit­i­cal news ev­ery day.

The opin­ion polls are read as a judge­ment on the party leader’s abil­ity to win the next elec­tion. When Mal­colm Turn­bull ousted former Lib­eral prime min­is­ter Tony Ab­bott in 2015, he said “We have lost 30 Newspolls in a row. It is clear that the peo­ple have made up their mind about Mr Ab­bott’s lead­er­ship.” And out Ab­bott went.

So when Turn­bull lost in 30 con­sec­u­tive opin­ion polls (they come out about ev­ery two weeks), he too be­came vul­ner­a­ble – and the Aus­tralian news me­dia, al­ways look­ing for the next big story, be­gan stir­ring the brew. The Lib­eral Party’s MPs pan­icked (again), and since the most ob­vi­ous way they could try to change the pre­dicted out­come was to change their leader, that’s what they did.

But other coun­tries have opin­ion polls and hyper­ac­tive me­dia too, and their par­lia­ments don’t act like that.

They may ben­e­fit from the fact that their elec­tions are less fre­quent (ev­ery five years for parliamentary elec­tions in Canada, Bri­tain and France), but they don’t act like that even in the last year be­fore an elec­tion.

The con­clu­sion is un­avoid­able: this is an es­sen­tially ran­dom and purely lo­cal case of ‘mon­key see, mon­key do’, like ‘danc­ing ma­nia’ and hula hoops. Ju­lia Gil­lard or­gan­ised a re­volt against the Labour Party leader and sit­ting prime min­is­ter Kevin Rudd in 2010, he re­turned the favour and over­threw her just be­fore the next elec­tion, and the game was on.

Rudd lost the 2013 elec­tion and the last three prime min­is­ters have been Lib­eral, not Labour, so the in­fec­tion can clearly cross party bound­aries.

Since there is an elec­tion due next year, which the polls pre­dict that Labour will win, there will prob­a­bly soon be yet another Aus­tralian prime min­is­ter.

But there is no sign, as yet, that the mad­ness can cross the oceans.

Gwynne Dyer The Dyer Re­port

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