I understand the frustration that many, many Australians feel over the leadership change that was implemented for the Liberal Party last week.
Most people are not able to see it from the perspective of a conservative political pundit. Most see it through whatever lenses they are presented with by their preferred media outlets. As such, it was confusing and surprising, and built on a decade of our politicians establishing themselves as wannabe Shakespearian tragedies—from Gillard’s “Is this a dagger I see before me?” through to Turnbull’s final gasp of “Et tu, Corman?” It has convinced everyone that there are now two professions for which one has to sell their soul: being a lawyer, or a politician. And it certainly isn’t helping that so many of the latter were once the former.
Personally, I get frustrated with the Machiavellian antics! Politics died for me when three independents held the entire country to ransom trying to get the “best deal for them” from Abbott or Gillard, in return for their support to form government. They complained that Abbott showed an unwillingness to compromise; at the time I thought, “Good, neither should he compromise, he went to an election on those policies and got seventy times as many votes as you.” Abbott was better off being in opposition than compromising too much, as I think history proved. Nevertheless, the rhetoric over the next year, from him included, could have put anyone off politics for life. They all appeared to be playing a game, tit for tat. Virtue-signalling. Guilt-signalling. Can’t they grow up?
However, I know that looking through the media filter at the actual people and personalities involved is very difficult. So I try to presume that the reality is not as sensational as the narrative and encourage a cool head. Here are some things my cool(er) head thought.
First, parties have to be able to change their leader. It seems obvious, but parties need to have the ability to change leader, if not then our system has a very serious flaw. The value of democracy is to cap the power of the individual, which means an individual can be toppled.
Despite bewilderment among many, the party had a reason to oust Turnbull and it was a long time coming. As a fairly eloquent centre-left politician who toed the lefty-line on social issues and blew around with the wind on economic issues, he had a reasonable level of public support. But he enjoyed less and less party support. The elected party-room carry the democratic mandate that establishes the government, and it is right that they expect the government formed by their party should reflect the party’s values.
This was perhaps inevitable for a leader who leans left of his cabinet, who lean left of the party-room, who are more left-leaning than the party membership, in what is apparently a centre-right party! There was a gaping hole in voting options for a moderate-right voter; either launch to the right with the minor parties, many of which (Australian Conservatives excepted) are a bunch of unstable in-fighting nuts and whose only hope is to control the Senate cross-bench, or launch to the left with the labour party and sell your soul. Or just sway to the left with the liberals, wondering what the heck is happening to their apparent value platform.
I think that to the conservatives in the liberal party base, Turnbull was as bewildering as Mark Latham being a leader of the Labor party was. Some may even wonder if he was similarly a plant by the Chasers. I can’t count the number of times I hear that the two major parties are “basically the same anyway”. Well, if that’s your complaint, then you might be glad of this leadership spill. This leadership spill was the liberal party-room agreeing with that assessment.
Second, though many people say that uncertainty is very destabilising, some things are more important than “certainty” and “consistency”. You can be “consistently” stupid and “certainly” on a bad course. Someone falling off a cliff isn’t glad for the certainty of their impending doom, for instance.
The certain doom that I think the liberal party saw on the horizon was two-fold. Either Shorten gets in, which really is a horrible prospect, or Turnbull gets back in, which is status quo, and not a great prospect either. Turnbull may have been checked and balanced by the cross-bench, the Nationals, his own cabinet, and those “rebellious backbenchers”, but the leader is still the leader. The party shouldn’t have a leader that they have to rein in; a party should have a leader they let loose, who supports and defends their cause.
I don’t view politics from the same proximity as some writers on this site, but Turnbull always seemed like an insipid, common-denominator politician without a solid values basis. His interference in the National leader’s embarrassment, his introduction of the bonking ban (which unnecessary response showed a big-government mindset), and his condescending, hackneyed rhetoric about Islam after Senator Anning’s speech (not that I agree with Anning, but at least acknowledge there’s a discussion to be had), and many other things, cemented my diminished view of his perspective and leadership. But he’s positively benign compared to what an unchecked Shorten might be. Shorten who claimed he’d have male, female, gay and transgender quotas for his cabinet. Shorten of the “let’s tax all the multi-millionaires” gaff.
Yes, the revolving door of prime-ministerships creates uncertainty and it’s not good for the risk-averse business-world. However, guess what—we hold a vote once every four years to change the entire government! That’s our system. Certainty about the future does not really exist in any form.
So rather than complain about uncertainty, the business world needs to use the appropriate processes and channels to make their interests in the political sphere known. If the new government is proposing legislation that will undermine the endeavours you set out on in response to former legislation—then use the public comment periods, respond to the white-papers, lobby, prepare statements. Engage. Even governments with a consistent leader will have some inconsistent policy; get over it.
So, though frustrated, I ultimately think that the Liberal party ended up with a reasonably good outcome, and that the timing was right, and that they were within their rights to do what they did.
However, I do wish the parties would establish a better succession process. It’s not healthy that the only mechanism we have for replacing a leader is to stab them in the back. We can’t always have the sitting prime-minister fail to win in his own electorate, or have the Governor General sack him, and we can’t always expect to lose an election and then change leadership while in opposition.
What if at the end of every parliamentary term, nine months before the next election, the Liberal party held a vote for the new leader. Then, while the current leader completes their tenure as PM up until election day, the leader-elect would prepare their policy platform, and campaign. This would provide the party with a means of planning their proposition for the next election, without betraying the proposition they took to the last election and compromising their mandate. The current leader could always stand, and may be voted back in. This would provide some certainty—it would at least become generally understood that the leadership is only a four-year contract; before each election the party chooses the right leader for the times ahead.
Maybe that’s not the answer, but if the “broad church” of the Liberal party gets any broader, something will need to be done.
Nick Kastelein is a Christian and a conservative who grew up and lives in Adelaide where he works for an engineering consultancy.
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