It won’t have escaped anyone’s attention that there is a more than usually febrile atmosphere in Canberra today, and that some folks are anticipating white smoke announcing “Habemus PM”… Whether there will be a vacancy is, as yet, unresolved.
I don’t want to write about the leadership question, but why we have leadership questions. If anyone wants to discuss the current leadership stoush/potential spill, they are most welcome to do so on the Overflow Thread.
I am going to take a number of propositions as predicates:
1. At all levels of government, leadership instability has become more prevalent. Labor and the Coalition both burned through leaders at a rate of knots (with some not contesting an election – Simon Crean and Alexander Downer come to mind) in federal opposition. It’s not quite fair to call the state phenomenon in government “NSW-itis” – think South Australia under the Liberals. But the removal of first term Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was the first time in recent political history that a party in government at the Commonwealth level has found its leader dispensable, and whatever other reasons were retrospectively adduced, it appeared at the time (and still appears to me) to be related to polls.
2. We also have more and more frequent polls than ever before, with a greater propensity for loaded hypotheticals (remembering that all poll questions are hypotheticals), and they are talked about much more often. It’s not just the MSM here – the rise of social media (twitter, psephological blogs, political blogs like this one, Facebook) also contributes to a focus on “who’s up and who’s down”.
3. While some might delight in chastising their fellow citizens about the fact that we don’t directly elect leaders (and I say that because there’s often a self-congratulatory and patronising tone to these remarks), the fact is that we all know that party leaders have never been more important to voting decisions – see the recent findings of political scientists. Yes, 2007 was a contest between Labor and the Coalition for Government, but in very many people’s minds, it was about whether Kevin Rudd or John Howard (or Peter Costello) should be PM. Most recent successful leaders have risen above their own party’s image, and transcended the sordid or apparently sordid aspects of the political game. That’s true of John Howard as much as Kevin Rudd, but it’s rarely been true of Julia Gillard.
4. Similarly, no matter what position anyone takes on the Rudd/Gillard contest, it’s incontestable that the manner of her ascension to the leadership laid the groundwork for claims of a lack of legitimacy (the election was supposed to fix that – that was her plan) and because it was clear to most that Kevin Rudd had not been informed of an impending challenge, perceptions that she was untrustworthy. (“Real Julia” didn’t help here either.) Eight days before the leadership change, when we now know she was planning her first moves as PM, she was emphatically professing loyalty to the PM.
5. Hence, there has been – in the public mind – a view that Kevin Rudd was wrongly deprived of the leadership, and that this deprivation was contrary to the democratic will of the people. It’s important to remember that the concept of democratic will goes beyond the results of elections.
6. The political system, politicians and the current federal Parliament enjoy little respect. It doesn’t matter how many bills have been passed. Voters don’t care about that. The scandals surrounding Craig Thomson and Peter Slipper hardly help, but the whole show is held in disregard.
7. Throughout society, there is increasing desire for for openness and transparency, among individuals and in institutions. Party politics seems to hold itself immune from this imperative, which I believe we should welcome.
My conclusion from all this is that it’s the political system that itself is broken.
Suggestions for internal party reform (particularly the election by party members not just caucus of the Leader) are welcome, but have stalled. There is a huge push for such reforms among rank and file Labor members, but vested interests work actively against its furtherance.
What we need to think about is something that is more true to the spirit of our original Constitution – a combination of the Westminster system and what was then thought of as best among federal systems.
We urgently need MMP in the lower house. We need to break the majoritarian habit, and to properly represent all shades of opinion that can achieve a certain threshold.
We could also consider a directly elected Prime Minister as well as a non-executive President. There are always multiple strands of view in any political party, and a need to be responsive to constituents. As in the US, there would be no harm in an executive branch that carries the party flag. We need to get away from the iron laws of solidarity and message discipline, the lack of transparent, honest and open debate and the risible lies we all hear far too often from pseudo-smart strategists. All those are a consequence of ancient ways of doing things – Westminster.
I would like to see a genuine movement for democratic change in this country.