Australian has lots of nasty fauna. Crocodiles. Sharks. Spiders.
Then there’s that dangerous, unpredictable species—the Oz politician, a breed that catches and kills its own, frequently and ferociously.
Tony Abbott’s demise has prompted angst about the toxic and tough nature of Oz politics. We’ve had four prime ministers in just over two years. The nation that misplaced a PM at the beach now culls them at extremely close intervals.
Australia has ever been tough on its politicians—nearly as tough as they are on each other. But just as the sharks and the crocs aren’t getting any nastier than previously, neither are our pollies. They’ve always been a threat to each other.
The claim that the system today is harder than ever before is misleading on several levels. Not least because it becomes a self-serving excuse for the pollies: it’s not my fault, it’s all too hard—I didn’t fail, it’s the system that’s broke. The Rudd-Gillard years produced many versions of this lament-cum-excuse.
Ditto now for the just-terminated Abbott era.
In his farewell, Abbott offered a fine version of the lamentation:
‘The nature of politics has changed in the past decade. We have more polls and more commentary than ever before, mostly sour, bitter, character assassination. Poll driven panic has produced a revolving door prime ministership which can’t be good for our country. And a febrile media culture has developed that rewards treachery.’
Ah, mauled by the modern media monster. Have pity on a defenceless PM.
As Annabel Crabb commented, Abbott ‘will be remembered as this country’s most talented fomenter of poll-driven panic.’
The febrile media whinge is best answered with a long-ago quote from Enoch Powell: a politician complaining about the press is like a sailor complaining about the sea. Rank this with Powell’s other classic: all political careers end in failure.
Leaders tend to exit in tears. Reach high, fall far. Play enough zero-sum days and you’re guaranteed to lose. Political leadership is one of the toughest gigs going because the stakes are always big. Australia is entitled to judge its pollies as critically as any elite footy team or test side—score or be dropped. And these days, the opinion polls give the pollies continuous score updates.
Dispose of the ahistorical claim that it’s harder to do politics now by considering the two ultimate stress tests that have confronted the Commonwealth—WW1 and WW2. In both wars, governments fell because MPs in the House of Representatives started stabbing each other in the front as well as the back.
In WW1, the great military conflict had its political counterpoint in the huge argument over the government effort to introduce conscription. The Labor Party shattered and lost government, the sectarian divide between Catholics and Protestants deepened, yet the country voted—twice—to reject conscription and shun the pleas of its Prime Minister. If you think pollies today are devious, frantic schemers, go view the myriad light and dark sides of one of our greatest, the PM who was rebuffed: Billy Hughes.
In WW2, the Coalition government tore out its own vitals and cast out Bob Menzies as PM. Shortly afterwards, the minority Coalition government was felled in the budget debate on the floor of the House of Representatives. A successful censure vote as the nation faced existential crisis—now that’s Oz politics as blood sport.
No wonder Winston Churchill was moved to say to Menzies: ‘My goodness, you Australians do seem to play your politics with a fine 18th century flair.’ Churchill was appalled and contemptuous that unlike the Brits, war didn’t force the Australian parties to form a government of national unity.
If Oz politics is no harder than in days past, it’s true that the system has changed in important ways. Our leaders have grafted presidential prerogatives onto the prime ministership.
The presidential PM gets the power. He or she thus gets even more of the blame. The way the system culls presidential PMs is brutally efficient. The US takes nearly two years to select a new president. Last Monday, the Liberal Party got the job done in an afternoon.
Here is the Dobell Theory on Killing PMs. We’ve shifted from party splits to leadership spills. The transition from split to spill was made at roughly the mid-point of the 20th century. In the first half of the century, the big parties responded to crisis and internal pressures by blowing themselves up; in the second half, Labor and the Liberals blew up the leader instead.
In the first half, Labor split three times—over conscription, the Depression and Communism. Each split condemned Labor to the opposition benches. The conservatives, by contrast, destroyed their existing parties to get or retain power. The conservatives blew up their parties—renaming/reforming parties and creating coalitions—to renew their right to government.
In the second half of the century, the Coalition and Labor parties have been extraordinarily stable as institutions. The professionalisation of politics—the ascendancy of the apparatchiks—reinforces party structures. Machine men and women, by definition, tend the machines.
The periods of stable, long-term leadership—Menzies, Fraser, Hawke-Keating, Howard—aren’t the whole story of how the system operates. Bursts of instability punctuate the equilibriums as ambitions clash and egos soar.
In the decade from 1965, for instance, the Coalition was led by Menzies, McEwan, Holt, Gorton, McMahon, Snedden and Fraser (all but one of those as PM). After the long period of Menzian rule, Australia churned through leaders. After the long period of Howard rule, we have had the same experience.
Culling is brutal business with a high purpose. Australia is entitled to the best years of the best leader on offer. There’s just the matter of getting the right leader. Politics, the most inexact science, builds from failure as much as success. A bit of brutal efficiency is Australian pragmatism—dynamic Oz democracy getting the job done quickly. This is the country that eats both of the animals on the national crest. We treat our pollies no worse than our emus and kangaroos.