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Who needs an election when you can spill?

Jodi Morrell

In the last five years, it feels like our political representatives have been changing the incumbent of the Prime Ministerial position at the drop of a hat. The wind changes direction and suddenly we have to have a leadership spill.

Tomorrow we’re having a Liberal party leadership meeting because a couple of backbenchers got their knickers in a twist about something. It’s like high school with the added horror of the fact that these people run our country. What makes it worse is that both sides are doing it. It seems that it doesn’t matter who we elect, random replacement of our Prime Ministers seems to be developing as a political strategy.

We’re all going to have to move. Or vote our politicians off the island.

Our parliamentary democracy is a special little creature. Built on a written constitution backed up by conventions that have developed since foundation in 1901, it’s a delicate system. We discovered just how delicate it was in 1975 when a full-blown constitutional crisis occurred and we have repeatedly refused to mess with it since. Discussions of a possible Republic have been squashed, proposals to change the system have been denied and we have flat out refused to let go of our Queen come hell or high water. (Probably because she’s pretty awesome, but our refusal to embrace change in this area is well established). Yet it seems our politicians have become increasingly determined to push the boundaries of our system as far as they can.

In our system of government, the voting public doesn’t directly elect the Prime Minister. Instead we choose our elected representatives and they choose a leader to step into the Prime Ministerial role. This is how someone like Tony Abbot, who is broadly unpopular with the voting public, becomes Prime Minister. It’s a system that works within the political structure that has formed over time around our constitution. However, the way our politicians are behaving at the moment is like disgruntled schoolboys fighting over a ball. You don’t all get to have a turn at being Prime Minister. This is not children’s sport. You also don’t all get to walk away with a Prime Ministerial pension.

So if this is the way the system works, then what’s the problem with a few arbitrary changes in leadership if the party the general public elected to represent us are the ones making the decisions?

We elect and trust them to make all kinds of other decisions on our behalves, that’s their job and that’s what they do. The first problem is that a leadership spill is becoming a normalised way to deal with contention within party ranks. This is a big one because it means that a personality clash between two members of the ruling party can potentially lead to a change in Prime Minister, which is simply absurd. Learn to play properly with each other, children!

Perhaps just as concerning is how any change in leadership, especially if it’s done outside of the norms established within a political system, affects the stability of a nation. Repeated change in leadership means our closest allies and trading partners are never quite sure who will pick up the phone when they get in touch to make that next deal or to sign that next alliance.

Who will they be working with this time? Will it be the same guy as last time or will they need to forge a relationship with the new guy?

Within the parameters of an election, a change is one of the predicted outcomes and our allies and trading partners are prepared for it. Without any structure or expectations around potential changes in leadership, especially the person we send out to represent us to the entire world, the stability of our political systems are more easily questioned. As questions around our stability as a nation rise, our trading partners start noticing. Trade deals begin to be delayed as our trading partners wonder whether we will be stable enough to fulfil our end of the bargain, and investment in our nation decreases. So there goes our economy.

Whoops.

There’s also the fact that these random leadership spills create confusion in the voting public. We’ve been steadily moving towards using a Presidential style of election campaigning for years. Kevin Rudd’s “Kevin 07” was probably the pinnacle of this, with the entire Labor campaign based around Rudd and his personality. This has led many voters to assume that when they vote, they are choosing the person who will be Prime Minister. We’re forgetting that our vote lets us choose our elected representatives in terms of the entire party rather than one person. While these leadership spills are possibly a great way to educate the voting public, perhaps we could find a better way to talk about how our political system works than chucking out the incumbent Prime Minister and replacing him on an average Monday morning because some backbenchers read a poll and didn’t like it, so started pouting.

Finally, what’s really getting me about this particular leadership spill is that it is highlighting the fact that all of our politicians are completely inexperienced. They haven’t been in power long enough to work out how to work through disagreements; how to deal with negative polling data; and how to manage the public relations problems and policy issues that come up. As a result of their inability to deal with these fundamentals, they are resorting to highly dangerous leadership spills that challenge the stability of our nation and decrease the trust the Australian public has in their government even further.

The Liberal Party’s call for a leadership meeting on tomorrow simply highlights that they are in the same position as the Labor party. Both parties are allowing internal party politics to have a serious impact on the way our political system works. I realise that no one is voting right now, but if I had the opportunity to do so then my vote would be to getting in some of the experts, pro bono, to help our little pollies out. Howard, Keating, Hawke. These are all men who dealt with negative polling data, public relations issues, internal party politics and still managed to run the country without challenging our entire constitutional democracy. Let’s get them in as consultants, if only to tell our current lot that a bad poll is not the end of the world and to pull their thumbs out and do some work. Perhaps running the country properly might raise their approval ratings.

It’s just a thought.

Both parties are testing the boundaries of how our little parliamentary democracy works and if we’re not careful, they will drive us straight into the quagmire of another constitutional crisis. Then we will really have to think about how our political system works in practisc. Now won’t that be fun?

Feature image of Prime Minister Tony Abbott by Mykhaylo Palinchak and courtesy of Shuttershock

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Jodi Morrell

Jodi Morrell recently abandoned her long-term public service career to pursue her passion for writing full time. She is passionate about politics, federal and local, and loves to explore and understand opposing political standpoints. Jodi loves travel, good food and wine, fitness and obstacle races (the muddier the better) and books.

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  • Lyndal

    The way I see the recent pattern of spills is as a clarification of the job description. The Prime Minister needs to be a leader, one who can steer and work her/his team and to provide leadership to the nation on policy. Characters who fly solo with presidential style campaigns or fail to recognise the two boss system (public and party) will continue to come undone. Accountability occurs through the public vote, the ongoing opinion polls, feedback to local members and the party vote. To boot, I’m enjoying watching karma play out, let’s not forget how Tony got to the top job (by one vote) and his political sledging.

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