I migrated to Australia in 2000, an economic exile from the land of the long white cloud. I arrived in a country brimming with optimism and opportunity. Having spent the second half of the 20th century shedding the historical baggage of cultural cringe, economic protectionism, and the white Australia policy, the lucky country had emerged into the new century with a growing sense of self-confidence. And nowhere reflected that better than Sydney, my new hometown, basking in the Olympics-enhanced glow of its global city status.
But as the years went by, I developed a nagging suspicion that I might have come on board just as the lucky country’s luck was turning. Sometime in the last five years that nagging suspicion evolved into a depressing certainty. Australia remains a vibrant multicultural society to be sure and continues to enjoy natural resources of continental proportions. It is still unquestionably one of the best countries in the world in which to live – a “lifestyle superpower” in the words of BBC journalist Nick Bryant. But something has gone wrong here since I arrived, seriously wrong, and that something is politics.
I’m not alone in my pessimism. As far back as 2010 The Economist magazine referred to Australia’s “desperately impoverished politics”. More recently, journalist Paul Kelly has written of “the failure of a political generation” and former politician Gareth Evans has described Australian politics as “second-rate vaudeville”.
Nothing demonstrates this country’s political plight better than the trail of slain prime ministers from the last decade. Australia has become the new Italy – for dispatching leaders not making cars or shoes. Journalist Peter Hartcher describes it as “the most febrile, restless and murderous political jurisdiction among parliamentary democracies”. Nick Bryant famously labelled Canberra “the coup capital of the democratic world”. That was back in 2014, before the Liberal Party acquired the Labor Party habit of liquidating Prime Ministers. He can drop the “democratic” now as it is difficult to think of any country, democratic or otherwise, that turns over its leaders like Australia – six changes of Prime Minister since 2007 (as of the time of writing), four the result of palace revolts and only two of voter choice. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, to lose one Prime Minister may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose four looks like trouble.
These regular beheadings have come as a shock to many Australia voters who think that they, not other politicians, should elect, and dismiss, prime ministers. Some voters have simply stopped noticing, leading to the story that paramedics no longer test an injured person’s consciousness by asking them to name the prime minister. The constant leadership changes have also surprised some of our allies. At the recent G20 meeting in Argentina, Angela Merkel was spied hurriedly scanning a biographical cheat sheet before meeting with Australia’s (latest) prime minister, the seventh during her reign as the German Chancellor.
Political scientist Rodney Tiffin’s book Disposable Leaders reveals that liquidating leaders is not restricted to the party in power or to federal politics – it is practised, not infrequently, by governments and by oppositions, in Canberra and in state capitals around the country. As our leaders come and go with frightening regularity, Freddie Mercury provides the perfect soundtrack for Australian politics – “And another one gone, and another one gone, another one bites the dust”.
Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd suggests that Australia is “beginning to establish new norms and slightly more terrifying norms of political behaviour”. Having been on both ends of the knife, he should know.
What has triggered all this bloodletting in Australia? There is no single answer. The rise of ‘presidential’ politics, the increasing short-term focus on opinion polling, and political party rules that made changing leaders relatively easy have clearly all been major factors. But, to paraphrase Tolstoy, happy political parties are all alike; every unhappy party is unhappy in its own way.
Julia Gillard’s unseating of Prime Minister Rudd in 2010 stunned most Australians. They went to bed with one prime minister and unexpectedly woke the next day with a different one. The reasons for the coup seemed to be personality conflicts and disagreements about management style rather than policy differences. When Rudd returned the favour in 2013, the reasons for removing Prime Minister Gillard were naked revenge on Rudd’s part and a desperate attempt to save the electoral furniture on the part of the Labor Party caucus.
Revenge has also played a part in the two prime ministerial assassinations during the current Liberal Party/National Party coalition Government. However, much deeper forces have been at play, forces that reflect a growing ideological rift within the Liberal Party between the small ‘l’ liberals and the conservatives. The ‘broad church’ that John Howard held together through a combination of political diplomacy and electoral success became a house divided between the warring factions of Tony Abbott and Malcom Turnbull. Issues as diverse as same sex marriage, climate change and asylum seekers have created irreconcilable differences within the Liberal Party and fed leadership instability.
The clear message from the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd train wreck was that disunity is death in Australian federal politics, but the message seems to have been lost on the Liberal Party. The voters look on in disbelief. Scott Morrison, the compromise candidate and third coalition prime minister in five years, is trying to hold his party together long enough to make a competitive race out of the next election, expected to be in May 2019. Unless he can claw back Labor’s current 10-point lead in the polls, Australia looks set to install its eighth prime minister in just 12 years. John Key’s advice remains apposite – “I don’t really mind who turns up, just wear a name badge so I know who it is”.