Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Farewell, Tony

So, it's kind of strange to find that once again our government has changed leaders.

Not because it was a surprise.  Abbott has already been challenged once since he became Prime Minister, and put on notice that he needed to do better.  He didn't.  Rumours have been flying for weeks, Cabinet has been leaking like a sieve, polls have been plunging.

What is surprising is that Malcolm Turnbull is prepared to take the job.  When Julia Gillard deposed Kevin Rudd in the midst of his first term it went really badly.  She couldn't criticise a government of which she had been part, nor claim it did a great job in the light of the fact she had deposed its leader.  She was left clinging to the rocks as the waves of negativity battered her from all sides.

Why have our recent Prime Ministers (and indeed, Opposition Leaders) had such a short shelf-life?  One possibility is that politics these days is not a very attractive career choice, so we don't have the calibre of people we once had.  There is no Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke, Keating or Howard in the current parliament.

This may be true.  Our current leaders are not an impressive lot.  The shallowness of their pronouncements on important issues, their inability to focus on anything beyond the 24 hour media cycle, is a constant source of frustration for anyone who cares about where our country is headed.

I suspect this is a symptom, rather than the problem.  No one person can grasp the complexity of the issues that face a national government.  Good governance requires a team, a group of people with different skills, backgrounds and training who work together.  Small things need to be delegated, big things need to be dealt with collectively.

Rudd, Gillard and Abbott all forgot this, and tried to solve problems on their own.  Of the three, Abbott was the worst at it because he was the stupidest of the three by a long distance.  He made absurd calls on things he should have left well alone, like knighting Prince Philip.  He took policy positions to Cabinet that had not been properly researched, and tried to force them through without discussion.  He continually acted like his job was to destroy his opponents rather than govern the country.  When people asked him difficult questions about the economy he just talked about something else.

Yet, even if he had a brain the size of the planet, being a one-man-band still wouldn't have worked for him.  After all, look what happened to Rudd.  I know I bang on a lot about presidential politics and the Westminster System, but at last we have a Prime Minister who agrees with me.  Here is what he said in his first press conference after taking over the leadership.

The culture of our leadership is going to be one that is thoroughly consultative.  A traditional...a thoroughly traditional Cabinet government that ensures that we make decisions in a collaborative manner.  The Prime Minister of Australia is not a President.  The Prime Minister is the first among equals.

Music to my ears!  At last, a Prime Minister who understands how the system is supposed to work!

Still, I'm not getting too excited.  To begin with, for this approach to work the team needs to be reasonably united.  They don't have to love one another, but they have to be capable of working together.  There are 44 people in the Liberal Party who didn't want Turnbull to lead them, You can bet your bottom dollar that people like Joe Hockey, Matthias Cormann and Cory Bernardi will not just quietly fall into line behind Turnbull.  The leaks and destabilisation will go on.

Nor is Turnbull's record that encouraging.  After all, the last time the Liberal leadership changed hands was in 2009, and the issue was that Turnbull had unilaterally decided to support the Labor-proposed Emissions Trading Scheme over the heads of his own party members who were implacably opposed.  What has he learned from this experience?

The other reason I'm not very excited is that whether they work together or fight like cats in a bag, they are still a bunch of Tories.  Turnbull may be a more reasonable, articulate Tory, but that's as far as it goes.  They'll still be cutting welfare, screwing the workers, promoting the interests of big business, trashing the environment and imprisoning innocent asylum seekers.  Who cares if they are doing it collegially?
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