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Australia's Pantomime Democracy

In Project Syndicate (Worldwide Distribution), 16 September 2015    

CANBERRA – Australia has a new prime minister – its fifth in just eight years. No Australian prime minister has served a full electoral term since 2007, and we have had four incumbents in the last 27 months alone. In June 2013, Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard was defeated in a party-room vote by Kevin Rudd, who lost the post in the general election later that year to the conservative coalition’s Tony Abbott, who has now in turn been defeated in a party-room coup by Malcolm Turnbull.

This latest turn in our prime ministerial carousel has left Australians trying, yet again, to explain to bemused colleagues around the world how this stable bastion of Western democracy, and the world’s twelfth-largest economy, could be engaged in such a pantomime. Is it something in the water that makes us want to treat our political leaders like disposable tissues?

There seem to be three different dimensions to the explanation. One is simply the local impact of the impatience that is becoming increasingly obvious in the world’s established democracies. The endless 24/7 media cycle and omnipresent social media are generating a taste for celebrity and an almost pathological preoccupation with current opinion polls, rather than serious political debate. Traditional parties and processes are finding it harder and harder to satisfy the demand for instant gratification.

A second dimension is Australia-specific: the tension created by peculiarities of the country’s political system. A ludicrous three-year electoral cycle, shorter than almost anywhere else in the world, makes it almost impossible to govern in a campaign-free atmosphere. And party rules have allowed for leaders – including serving prime ministers – to be torn down overnight by their parliamentary colleagues (although this has now changed for Labor).

The remaining part of the explanation is undoubtedly local and personal: the character quirks that have contributed to each leader’s dramatic rise and equally spectacular fall.

Gillard proved herself to be a highly competent transactional politician: ruthless in grabbing the ascendancy when Rudd seemed to be faltering in the polls; highly effective in negotiating with cross-benchers to keep her minority government alive; and successful in gaining huge local and international attention for her passionate parliamentary assault on her opponents’ perceived misogyny. But on almost every major policy issue, she was tone-deaf in sensing the popular mood, and seemed to have no guiding principles attractive to either her party or the wider public.

Rudd, who wrestled the leadership back from her, is intellectually brilliant and, when on his game, a great campaigner who succeeded in minimizing the scale of Labor’s loss in the 2013 election. But the wide respect he garnered internationally for his role in crafting the G-20 response to the global financial crisis did not help with his local colleagues, who saw him as too often incommunicative, obsessive, and lacking judgment in setting policy priorities.

The now-deposed Abbott, a muscular Christian alpha male with profoundly conservative social values, won the leadership of the Liberal Party, and the anti-Labor coalition, as the unexpected beneficiary of a three-way party split in 2009. But while Abbott was a spectacularly effective opposition leader as the Labor government unraveled, he proved himself utterly unable to manage his transition to Prime Minister, and was trailing badly in the opinion polls when he was ousted.

Abbott presided with slogans, rather than coherent policy, over a rapidly deteriorating economy. He was hyper-partisan, ran against public sentiment on issues like gay marriage and restoring knighthoods, and constantly alienated his ministerial colleagues with solo “captain’s picks” in support of unpopular people and policies.

Abbott’s nemesis, Turnbull, now Prime Minister, stands in sharp contrast: sophisticated, highly successful in his past lives as a journalist, lawyer, and investment banker, and very popular – across party lines – with the electorate. He is a superbly articulate communicator, a past leader of the anti-monarchist republican movement, and as liberal in his political instincts as Abbott was conservative.

Nonetheless, he was a flop in his brief earlier incarnation as opposition leader in 2008-2009, widely seen as arrogant, non-consultative, and prone to spectacular errors of judgment. But Labor’s hopes that Turnbull will fail to learn from his earlier mistakes – and that the prime ministerial door will continue to revolve – seem likely to be disappointed, at least in the short term.

Turnbull knows that the great majority of his governing coalition does not share his liberal instincts, and that he will have to tread cautiously and collegially on policy change. But he is also smart and articulate enough to know that if he maintains self-discipline, and argues rather than asserts his case, he can change the paradigms.

The hope for Australia is that this is a watershed moment, with both government and opposition realizing that dumbed-down sloganeering and races to the populist bottom may win short-term advantage, but are ultimately counterproductive. What most voters want is political leaders who have a coherent guiding philosophy, a persuasive policy narrative, and a genuine commitment to a decent governing process.

For all its apparent attachment to superficial policymaking and tabloid personality politics, it is becoming evident that the Australian public is fed up with the political circus of recent years, and wants adults back in charge of the major parties. With Turnbull, and Labor’s Bill Shorten, we seem at last to have leaders right for the long haul. We will have to see whether that hope is realized, but the signs are encouraging. And a lot of other democrats around the world will be hoping that we pull it off.


Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015. www.project-syndicate.org

This article is also available at http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/australia-new-prime-minister-malcolm-turnbull-by-gareth-evans-2015-09