Month: August 2018

How to fix the flaw at the heart of Australian politics

I recently returned from four years serving as Australia’s ambassador to Israel, a country known for its fractious politics and unstable, coalition governments. During my term, I dealt with only one Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. But I served four different Australian prime ministers – Julia Gillard, Kevin Rudd, Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull.

To lose one prime minister may be misfortune. To lose two may indicate carelessness. But to cycle through four prime ministers in four years, and be on the brink of yet another defenestration of a sitting prime minister, suggests something more profound – a structural flaw at the heart of Australian politics.

There are several easy targets to blame for Australia’s new-found fondness for political instability.

There is the relentless and unforgiving poll-driven media cycle and its class of political journalists: demanding a response to every bad poll, forever fuelling leadership stories, and predisposed to analysing politics as a football match – calling the game without any reference to the substance, merit or contest of competing ideas.

There are the politicians themselves: increasingly careerists for whom politics is a profession, not a public service, and whose instinct for self-preservation readily overrides broader appeals to party unity, party discipline, and the expressed will of the electorate.

Then there is the voting public: impatient, ephemeral in its loyalty, readily bored with politics, and demanding of the next big talent.

Finally, there are the institutions themselves. A prime minister who is elected by his or her party, not by the public; a system where the party room can depose a prime minister, without reference to the electorate; and a political term that is short (three years) and not fixed in duration.

Each of these factors bears some of the blame for the situation we find ourselves in today. Most are out of our control: the product of changing times and changing norms. But one element stands out as susceptible to reform, and that is the political system itself.

Australia’s current constitutional system did not proceed from any grand design. Constitutional conventions were held to draft it prior to Federation, but on the whole our system of government largely imported the Westminster model. There were not the ferocious arguments about how to construct good government in a republic and avoid a tyranny of the majority, such as those which characterised the debate during the development and adoption of the United States Constitution, for instance. Australia’s constitutional evolution was incremental, rather than revolutionary.

Australia has always been a pragmatic nation. When national circumstance or values have changed, we have been prepared to update our constitutional arrangements accordingly. During the Second World War we allowed the federal government to assume sole authority to levy income tax, recognising that a secure revenue base for the federal government was instrumental to the war effort. In 1967 we amended the constitution to grant full and proper rights and recognition to Australia’s Indigenous population.

Racked as our current system is by instability, to the detriment of good government, we should be prepared today to make similarly far-reaching changes.

Part of the problem is that the prime minister of the day holds no direct mandate from the Australian public. The public sees the prime minister as its own property, voted into office by it at the election. Hence the outrage when a sitting prime minister is dumped without having faced or lost an election (now the normal means of a transfer of power in Australian politics). But our constitutional system means that the prime minister is simply first among equals, the holder of an office which is bestowed – and can be removed – by his or her political party.

Part of the problem is that the term of the federal parliament is both short and not fixed in duration. With only three-year terms, Australia is almost unique amongst liberal democracies. In Canada and Germany they have four-year fixed terms. The UK has five-year fixed terms, as does France. But in Australia, an election is always just around the corner, meaning members of parliament are forever focused on their electoral survival – and less so on the national interest. The steady drip of opinion polls and the relentless media cycle exacerbates the short-termism.

Successfully amending the constitution in Australia is no small feat, and it should not be undertaken lightly. But our politicians, by proving themselves so willing to depose sitting prime ministers without reference to the electorate, have shattered a norm on which much of the stability of the Australian political system rested. Perhaps it is up to us – the voting public – to repair this damage.

Neither a directly elected head of government nor longer parliamentary terms – both options which warrant serious examination – are unusual for liberal democracies. The challenge for Australia would be to conduct this debate above the realm of politics-as-usual. A blue-ribbon, bipartisan commission, involving former senior politicians, from across Australia’s political spectrum – and at both state and federal level – would be a start. While at it, they could address some other anachronisms of our present constitution, including the dual-citizenship prohibitions, the lack of Indigenous Australian recognition, and imbalanced federal-state relations.

If our political system is broke – and it surely is – then we should be prepared to fix it.

Published as an opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald 23 June 2018.