The bigger issues that follow leadership turmoil

We should not forget all the systemic issues about our political system which were raised during the Liberal leadership scramble. Yet that is the temptation. Short-term thinking takes over from longer-term thinking once business as usual resumes despite the exasperation with the system revealed during that hectic week.

Malcolm Turnbull, Peter Dutton, Julie Bishop, Scott Morrison and Mathias Cormann.
Malcolm Turnbull, Peter Dutton, Julie Bishop, Scott Morrison and Mathias Cormann.Photo: Fairfax Media

The other bigger issues include the following: Has the time come when liberals and conservatives within the Liberal Party should split to form two parties? Are there endemic dysfunctional cultural issues within both the Liberal and Labor parties? Does the media play a healthy role in its coverage of federal politics? Should something be done to fix s.44 of the Constitution? Does Canberra’s location itself contribute to leadership instability? Should secret ballots be preserved in leadership contests? Should former PMs stay in Parliament or immediately exit? Should the formal coalition arrangement between the Liberals and Nationals be made public?

Liberals and conservatives will continue to co-exist in the one party. There are some existing alternatives for conservative Liberals on the right, including the Australian Conservatives, but they continue to struggle to grow. But there is no alternative to the immediate left of the Liberals and there is room for a centre party in Australian politics like the former Australian Democrats. That is the space that Nick Xenophon’s Centre Alliance is seeking to fill.

Both major parties are extraordinarily resilient, given the breadth of their ideological coverage. The two-party system reinforces itself. The overused notion of a ‘broad church’ tells us very little though, as the key point is which faction dominates within such a broad church.

There is dysfunction within our major parties and some of it is on show during leadership contests which reveal the parties at their worst because what is generally private is on public view. Some of that dysfunction produces bullying of the type revealed by Chisholm MP Julia Banks, who has chosen not to contest the next election.

Gender imbalance contributes to the bullying as it is part of a macho culture. The leadership contest, including Julie Bishop’s dismal failure, focused attention once again on the unacceptably low level of female representation among the federal Liberals. In a modern society 20 per cent is a reprehensible figure and must be rectified by the Liberals as a matter of urgency, beginning with an investigation of its political and sociological roots.

The threat to the secret ballot posed by Malcolm Turnbull in demanding a petition with 43 names before allowing a second party meeting, although strategically smart, was a form of bullying dressed up as accountability.

There was resistance to the role played by conservative shock-jocks in encouraging the undermining of Turnbull, but no attention was given to the broader role of the media. While the media coverage was generally excellent it is not beyond criticism.

The media thrives on a sense of crisis and instability and thus can fall into unnecessary exaggeration. The suggestion of a split within the government caused by one or two Nationals MPs threatening to move to the cross-bench was played up even though they had no intention of bringing down the government. Likewise, the consequences of Turnbull resigning to cause a by-election, which he has now done, were exaggerated given that the future of the government was never really in doubt. Like everyone else the media can get over-excited.

The 2015 and 2016 agreements between Malcolm Turnbull and Barnaby Joyce were part of the deal with the devil that hamstrung Turnbull throughout his three years as prime minister.
The 2015 and 2016 agreements between Malcolm Turnbull and Barnaby Joyce were part of the deal with the devil that hamstrung Turnbull throughout his three years as prime minister.Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Canberra itself suffers collateral damage at such times. The apparent isolation of Canberra is played up by talking about Canberra as a ‘hothouse’. Leadership instability has nothing to do with the location of Canberra as the history of stability since 1927 shows. If there is a hothouse it is Parliament House, wherever it is located. Even if Parliament House was in Sydney or Melbourne most MPs would be just as far from their electorates. Feedback from the community these days comes from social media rather than direct personal contacts with constituents.

Turnbull chose to leave Parliament and believes that should be the norm for former PMs. Yet there can be no general rule and no reason, other than personal convenience, not to remain at least until the next election. Immediate exit is an attractive concept, given the havoc wreaked by ex-PMs Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott, but in other circumstances there may be a useful role for a senior figure who chooses to stay in parliament. And there would have been no second Menzies government if the exit rule had applied.

Section 44 should be amended. Peter Dutton’s possible eligibility problems because of his business interests shouldn’t be forgotten. The whole section, including the citizenship question, should be reviewed and taken to a referendum.

The final stage of the elevation of Scott Morrison came when he negotiated the Coalition agreement with the Nationals. These agreements formalise the terms of engagement between the two parties and should always be made public. The 2015 and 2016 agreements between Turnbull and Barnaby Joyce were part of the deal with the devil that hamstrung Turnbull throughout his three years as prime minister. It is amazing that there has not been stronger pressure in the past for public revelation of such deals as happens as a matter of course with Labor-Green agreements. Transparency in government demands it.

John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University

First published in the Sydney Morning Herald.  Thursday 6 August 2018.


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