Home » Columns

We’ve lost faith in pollies. Only Abbott can stop the back-stabbing.

20 April 2017 37 views No Comment

IN the recent NSW by-elections, 23 per cent of the electorate ­either failed to vote at all or voted informal. At last year’s federal election, 23 per cent voted for minor parties or independents, 5 per cent voted informal and 9 per cent didn’t turn up. That’s well over a third of the electorate that ­declined to vote for the two big parties that have governed Australia, in one form or another, since Federation.

It’s hard to recall a time when people have been so disillusioned with politicians. This matters because state politicians ultimately call the shots on our public schools, public hospitals, transport systems and police. And federal politicians ultimately call the shots on media and banking regulation, economic management and national security. If we don’t trust the people who are running our country, it’s hard to be confident for the future — yet confidence is essential for all of us to go about our lives effectively.

Why have people lost faith in mainstream politicians and in the big political parties? The leadership churn has a lot to do with it. It’s hard to support governments that don’t ­believe in themselves. NSW has had six premiers in a decade. The commonwealth has had six prime ministerships in a decade. Only once in NSW during that time and twice for the commonwealth have the people changed their leaders. In every other case, change has been by internal coup.

If politicians treat each other so badly, how can we trust them to treat ordinary citizens any ­better? If politicians are ruthless and self-interested with each other, why would they be any better with voters?

But properly speaking, prime ministers and premiers are elected by the people and should be dismissed by them too. Almost nothing is more corrosive of public trust than voting for one leader and getting someone else.

Even when an incumbent is no good, the moral right to dismiss belongs to the people rather than to frightened or ambitious parliamentary insiders.

There are explanations for the ­revolving door leadership: Morris Iemma and Nathan Rees fell foul of the unions. Mike Baird and Barrie O’Farrell had had enough. Kevin Rudd alienated his Cabinet. Julia Gillard was going to lose in a landslide. Tony Abbott was stalked by Malcolm Turnbull.

The bottom line, though, is that politicians are being utterly beastly to each other.

At the federal level, Labor has tried to stop the internal bloodletting by new caucus rules that the leader can only be removed by a vote of 60 per cent of the caucus. As yet, the Liberals have no rules against political cannibalism and, in my judgment, are likely to face a new bout of it sometime this year because Turnbull has so ­obviously turned out to be a dud.

In politics, there’s no such thing as an “honourable loss”. Politicians will do whatever they reasonably can, within the system, to win elections. As they should; after all, if they’re not fair dinkum about winning, we the people can hardly take them seriously. But they need ways to win that build trust with the public rather than erode it.

Apart from saving seats that otherwise would have been lost, Rudd’s final legacy to his party was the rule change that has allowed Bill Shorten to develop his line and length as Opposition Leader.

Shorten has been safe as leader, despite Anthony Albanese’s positioning, because it’s almost impossible to get 60 per cent of the caucus vote to roll an incumbent, ­especially (in Labor’s case) when the incumbent has locked in union support.

And for all his faults Shorten ­deserved to get a clear run for a term and now merits another shot at the top job, especially given that he almost won last time.

The Liberals’ task is to engineer something like the same change. Turnbull can’t do it. If he tried to change the party room rules or the party constitution after deposing a first-term-elected prime minister, it would look like a thief trying to avoid due process of law. In fact, the person with the best standing to call for and ­institute such a change would be the person most wronged by the existing rules, namely Abbott.

I imagine that a “no challenge” rule, at least when the party is in government, would be one of the preconditions for Abbott to agree to resume the leadership.

Abbott is still the best chance the Liberals have. Unlike Turnbull, his energy levels are high and his ability to explain things simply to the public is clear.

As his writings for ‘The Daily Telegraph’ show, he’s used his sabbatical on the backbench to think about policy.

Whether he merely saved the furniture at the next election, like Rudd, or pulled off an improbable victory, he could force the Liberals to give up their addiction to the back-stabbing and intrigue that voters hate.

Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University, Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 39 books, including the political/sexual satire ‘Going Out Backwards: A Grafton Everest Adventure’.

The Daily Telegraph (Sydney), April 20, 2017, p 22.