The Politics    Friday, May 29, 2015

Out of their control

By Sean Kelly

Prime ministers have less influence than they’d like you to believe

It’s easy to believe politics is dictated by what political parties and their leaders do. The truth is that other factors, largely beyond the control of politicians, often have a much greater impact.

But our human tendency is to cling on to the stories of individuals, be those people heroic or fatally flawed, and those stories often win out over the tedium of structural explanations.

Chief among those oft-ignored external influences on political success is the economy.

Gough Whitlam’s government was disastrously affected by global economic troubles following the world oil crisis – though the prevailing narrative of Gough’s decline is of his hubris and chaotic management.

Bob Hawke’s government was assisted enormously by the ending of the drought of the early ’80s – though we only ever hear about his courage for reform and his man-of-the-people demeanour.

John Howard’s government reaped huge political windfalls from the mining boom – but mostly we’re told only his political genius mattered.

The fate of each of those prime ministers should not be – but often is – separated from economic forces they had almost nothing to do with.

Currently, Tony Abbott is facing an awesomely difficult economic situation.

The Bureau of Statistics has just announced it expects business investment to be slashed over the next year. Financial services giant UBS has said the outlook has shifted “from bleak to recessionary”.

Some of the public and corporate pessimism stems from Abbott’s overegging of the magical effect the election of a Liberal government would have on confidence, and some of it comes from poor governing, but a lot of it is based on circumstances outside Abbott’s purview.

Now a poor economy might yet have different political impacts. It may cause voters to reject the current government. Or it may cause voters to shift their support further to the Liberals, who are the party traditionally more trusted on the economy.

Whichever it is, it’s worth remembering, as we commentators pore over every detail of every action the prime minister takes, that many of the things that will dictate the result of the next election have nothing whatsoever to do with the man nominally in charge.


Bill Shorten has released details of his same-sex marriage bill. Some disagreement on what discussions between Liberal MP Warren Entsch and Labor MP Graham Perrett actually involved. Fifty of Australia’s biggest companies took out an ad in the Australian today supporting gay marriage.

Waleed Aly on why refusing to accept ISIS defectors back into Australia will only help the terrorists.

Some pressure within Labor to attack the protected species of Australian politics, negative gearing.

Gina Rinehart has lost control of her family trust, but is still the richest person in Australia. Barnaby Joyce vs Gina’s children. A former compiler of rich lists on why they’re rarely accurate.

A possible inquiry into the purchase of Ayers Rock Resort. (That’s its name, not me forgetting the indigenous name Uluru.)

Christopher Pyne admits he’s unlikely to succeed in his push to make maths or science compulsory for Year 11 and 12 students.

The “wife bonus”.

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.

@mrseankelly

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