Appearing in Spectator Australia, 11 February 2017
Once upon a time, Australian politics was known for its stability. Long periods of one party or another in office, and leaders tended to stay in the position until they felt like departing. But these days the leader’s chair is a dangerous place to be, and instant success is demanded. In fact, according to the count of Emeritus Professor Rodney Tiffen, there have been 73 involuntary changes of leadership at federal and state level since 1970, and the pace has quickened in the past two decades. There are probably a few other cases of leaders jumping before being pushed, and Tiffen looks only at the major parties. But the picture is clear, and the turnover is much higher than in comparable countries.
Tiffen explores this phenomenon from a variety of angles, especially the symbiotic relationship between media and parties. The development of polling as a media staple has also been important, playing up the horse-race aspect and shifting the emphasis from long-term strategy to news-cycle tactics. There has also been a pattern of the media casting about for new messiahs when the current leader slides in the polls. Alternatives are anointed even on scant evidence. At one point, Bronwyn Bishop – remember her? – was cast as the Next Big Thing when the incumbent sagged in the polls. Then the caravan moved on.
Of course, jockeying for the top job has increased as well. In earlier times, leaders were often given several chances at winning elections. Now, opposition leaders can only survive a losing campaign if they did unexpectedly well (Tony Abbott after 2010) and sometimes not even then (Andrew Peacock after 1984). In more than a few cases, an opposition leader did not get the chance to fight even one campaign, if their poll numbers showed they might not win. Several premiers have been dumped on the same basis. But Tiffen crunches the numbers and finds that changing leaders late in the day hurts more often than it helps, making the party look chaotic rather than refreshed.
It is hard to say whether the media has increased the power, and vulnerability, of the leader in the party room or if the increased attention is due to the drift of power to the leader’s office. They seem to run in tandem, and the relationship does not look like it is going to change any time soon.
Pragmatism – or desperation – is the most common reason for changes but there are plenty of other causes. Kevin Rudd was dumped by his party (the first time) because his colleagues came to the conclusion that he was, basically, a prick. Malcolm Turnbull lost his leadership to Abbott over a fundamental policy disagreement, although the later counter-switch was a mix of policy reasons, personal issues, and fear of an electoral wipeout.
And herein lies a serious problem with the book. Despite the large number of cases there is no standout theme underlying leadership changes. The case that Tiffen describes as the most bizarre, the switch from Joh Bjelke-Peteresen to Mike Ahern to Russell Cooper, is tied to the peculiar political circumstances of Queensland.
The revolving door of the NSW ALP leadership that ended with Kristina Keneally was likewise tied to the culture of the party in that state. The Rudd/Gillard/Rudd debacle was rooted in sheer bloody-mindedness.
Granted, Tiffen does a good job at the research (even this reviewer gets a cameo footnote), but this tends to underline the question of each case being different rather than answer it. It also means that much of the book is taken up by reiterating the run-up to a leadership change. Necessary for context, perhaps, but the effect is like tilling a well-ploughed field.
Tiffen does not chance his arm on guessing how things might change. It might be the case, however, that if the quality of government has deteriorated in the past twenty years or so then it might be due to a lack of patience – on the part of party rooms, the media, and the community in general. After all, leadership is a skill that needs to be learned, and that can take some time. So maybe everyone should be ready to step back, calm down, and look to the longer term.
Likewise, leaders should have the self-awareness to know when the job is not for them, and go with dignity. The counter-argument, of course, is that staying with a proven loser is a path into the wilderness. Tiffen does not try to answer this dilemma, which makes one wonder about the point of the exercise.
This question of knowing when to quit sits at the heart of Kurmelovs’ The Death of Holden. It is a very nostalgic book, with Kurmelovs spending a good deal of time musing about how things were better in the good old days of subsidies and tariff protection. He mentions a few left-wing economists who argue that protecting industries by slugging consumers is some sort of ‘investment’ but nothing can stop the book sounding like a message from a bygone era.
Along the way, there is a re-run of the ‘infant industries’ argument and a number of swipes at the conservative parties. But the bottom line for the car industry is that after over sixty years of government support there was still no sign that it was ever going to be competitive. Surely there is a point where enough is enough, and throwing good money after bad is merely foolish. Not in Kurmelovs’ world, apparently. Well, he works for the Guardian, so perhaps a lack of interest in rational policy should be expected.