The Greasy Pole

Future shock
How did Australian leadership get so unstable?

So what the hell happened? The Chosen One has finally fulfilled the prophecy. But Malcolm Turnbull’s ascension to the prime ministership marks a coda on one of the most bizarre and turbulent periods in Australian political history. With five prime ministers in five years, the country joined a select group of developed nations, like Japan and Italy, where leadership change is an annual festivity. The difference: these are places where instability was introduced deliberately, to flush out inertia. Here, it developed without design, and no one is sure why.

In the aftermath of #libspill, someone added this to Australia’s Wikipedia entry: “the main national sport is the Leadership Spill which fixates the nation on a random but regular basis.” I’d felt that kind of fixation once before, in Thailand. There, during one of its many coups and crises, I made a comment to a friend about the system breaking down. “You don’t understand,” he said. “This is the system.”

So is this our system now? I’m not so sure. And if it is, I’m not so sure that’s a bad thing.

We can now collate a mini-genre of ex-prime ministerial speeches, delivered on the flagstone killing floor of Parliament House. Here is the common thread. The media works too fast, and 24 hours a day. It is too adversarial. It is too negative, in fact “relentlessly negative”. This thirst for dark energy is exploited by treacherous and ambitious politicians, who do everything they can to undermine their wavering leaders. Between the crushing jaws of News Limited on one side, and the latte-industrial complex of Fairfax and the ABC on the other, serious debate and something called “real reform” have become impossible. The lonely mantle of leadership has never weighed so heavy.

Pretend, for a moment, that this isn’t rubbish, and magnify the parts that are true. Imagine you are the politician, faced with an accelerating and often hostile media environment. What is your strategy? How do you adapt to this uncertain terrain? Tony Abbott often liked to invoke the rhetoric of war. But his generalship looked over this opposing army of insurgents and infiltrators armed with smartphones, and decided the best response was to build a medieval fort.

He wasn’t alone in this mistake. The long-knives period of Australian politics sprang partly from the meeting of two incompatible forces. One was the inevitable spread of information technology into everyday life. The other was the belief in political circles that this tide could be somehow be controlled. It manifested in different ways: Abbott believed he could control information, Gillard believed she could control rhetoric, Rudd believed he could control everything. But the result was the same – chaos, and the violation of public trust.

Part of it came from the quirk and genius of Australia’s compulsory voting. After all, politicians in other countries haven’t behaved this way. Barack Obama didn’t spend his first term saying “yes we can” over and over again. But Australian leaders don’t have to energise their base. A belief developed that elections could be won by saying as little as possible, and saying it to a narrow band of swing voters in marginal electorates. This became a fatal tendency to say things these people wanted to hear. A tendency to lie, in other words.

That tendency now invokes severe punishment, as it should. Voters went to two federal elections on false pretences. So they responded by calling real elections, through the blunt instrument of opinion polling and leadership challenges.

There’s justice a to it: political manipulators reached their moment of greatest ascendency and greatest weakness at the same time. And the politicians seemed to be not even listening to themselves. When Labor spinners named their own strategy “the vomit principle” – that’s using a slogan until you wanted to vomit – how did they think things were going to turn out? With voters loving vomit?

Perhaps the track record of the soothsayers should have been scrutinised more closely. Take John McTernan. From 2005 to 2007, he was media advisor to Tony Blair, a period which saw the British premier became a public pariah and finally resign. He then turned his unique talents to Julia Gillard, converting a previously popular politician (even Alan Jones liked her) into a malfunctioning robot. Not content to rest on his laurels, he masterminded a Scottish Labour campaign where the party lost every single seat north of the border except one. Broadsheets still carry his radioactive insights.

Political insiders are always cynical about the “punters”, but careers like this make you wonder who the real rubes are. (Even snake-oil salesmen get run out of town eventually.) But the lesson that spinmeisters haven’t meistered anything at all must be eternally re-learnt, especially by the ALP. The Crean, Beazley, Latham, Rudd and Gillard eras all proved that focus groups are for scaffolding, not building with. Now Bill Shorten is proving it all over again.

Watching a recent Shorten presser, I was bugged by a strange familiarity. Who did he sound like? But it wasn’t really a who at all: it was David Tench, the animatronic tonight show host Channel Ten experimented with a decade ago. Like Tench, Shorten’s speech is a kind of wikified team effort and, like Tench, a product aimed at pleasing everyone ends up pleasing few.

The Labor leader already sounds like a throwback to the time when politicians and their cohorts thought they could hoodwink their way through a period of complex change. We’re about to find out if he can adapt to the times. And if he can’t, the consequences couldn’t be clearer.

Richard Cooke

Richard Cooke is The Monthlys contributing editor. 


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