Forget Turnbull and Abbott. It’s April 1904 and Australia’s best ever Prime Minister is reigning. Alfred Deakin — whose mighty beard acted as midwife to Australia’s federation — is writing in his prayer book when he gets a knock on the door. Chris Watson, who is an oaf and leader of the Australian Labor Party, has indigestion and therefore thinks himself mighty enough to topple Deakin, whose Protectionist Party relies on ALP support to retain government. Instead of going to the polls, Deakin resigns — he would be returned to his rightful place as Grand High Prime Minister a bit over a year later — and Watson becomes Prime Minister. Watson, of course, couldn’t handle the immense pressure of being Prime Minister (simultaneously Treasurer) and his government resigns three months later.
George Reid (from the Free Trade Party) ascended the Prime Ministership but, like Watson, knew that he was a mere pretender waiting the return of the rightful king, Alfred Deakin. After nearly a year in the role, he lost the confidence of Parliament and resigned, returning Deakin to his glorious throne.
We carved through three different Prime Ministers, all from different parties, without once having to go to the polls.
So what’s going on?
Despite what you might have been told by cranks and blowhards, there’s no real separation of powers in Australia. The Courts, certainly, are jealously protective of the separation of judicial from non-judicial powers, but the legislature and the executive are all but fused. The Government — Cabinet — is a parliamentary committee (technically) appointed by the Governor-General at the request of Parliament. As Walter Bagehot put it:
The cabinet, in a word, is a board of control chosen by the legislature, out of persons whom trusts and knows, to rule the nation. The particular mode in which the English ministers are selected; the fiction that they are, in any political sense, the Queen’s servants; the rule which limits the choice of the cabinet to the members of the legislature — are accidents unessential to its definition — historical incidents separable from its nature. Its characteristic is that it should be chosen by the legislature out of persons agreeable to and trusted by the legislature.
Each election, we vote for parliamentarians to represent us in the House of Representatives. Until an election is held, we entrust them the power to legislate on our behalf and to elect a Cabinet. In my case, I have tacitly consented to Andrew Leigh representing me (even though I didn’t vote for him, there was a free and fair election and I consent to the outcome).
Importantly, my electorate entrusted Andrew Leigh to represent our interests in choosing a cabinet. Andrew Leigh’s preference for a cabinet might not be realised. I’m almost certain that his preference was not for Tony Abbott to be Prime Minister for two years, nor for Malcolm Turnbull to become Prime Minister today. But that’s not the point. The point is that Andrew Leigh is my representative in a standing electoral college to choose a cabinet and, even though his preference is not realised, we all consent to the outcome.
Somewhere along the way, we have fused two independent processes: the election of representatives and the election of cabinet. People seem genuinely — and I don’t doubt their sincerity — betrayed by the parliamentary system which has removed Prime Ministers. People want ‘stability’, but what could be more stable than a system which allows us to dismiss a dysfunctional Cabinet without having to go back to the polls? People want ‘democracy’, but what could be more democratic than a standing electoral college representing our interests?
Every few weeks, we hear people calling for more ‘policy debate’. Under our democratic system, perhaps what we want is more candidate debates. In the lead up to the 2013 election, I went to a few events which allowed candidates to have open discussions with the electorate. But it all seemed a bit pointless. First up, Leigh was going to win regardless of what he did. He could have set fire to a baby and he’d still win the seat. Second up, Leigh has a team of first rate political advisers and staffers. The other candidates simply could not match him for breadth of policy skill. And, finally, there are 138,047 people in my division and I doubt more than 50 rocked up to the discussions.
But if we were better at choosing our representatives, if we engaged with our representatives more meaningfully, would we feel as betrayed when the parliament elects a new cabinet?
It would be a disaster if we had to wait another year before we could get rid of Tony Abbott. Similarly, I’m conservative and prefer, ceteris paribus, the Liberal Party to be in power — should I be forced to wait until Abbott loses an election before the Liberal Party nominated somebody more tolerable (and less embarrassing) as Prime Minister?
Even sensible left wing people are concerned that the shuffling of prime ministers is eroding public faith in democracy. They correctly note that the public discussion seems more concerned with personality and popularity than with policy: parliament lost faith in Rudd and shifted to Gillard because she was more popular, then swapped back when she wasn’t, and has now lost faith in Abbott and shifted to Turnbull because he is more popular… It is not clear to the reasonable outsider that these changes saw commensurate policy changes. But, if anything, that is an indictment of the calibre of our politicians than of our political system.
Looking back on the events of 1903-1905, it is clear that our system is very clever. But most Australians don’t engage with our political history, so all of this ‘instability’ appears degenerate rather than designed.
On a final note: we want our best, brightest, and most brilliant people to become politicians. Parliament is a workplace and people should feel entitled to work in an environment that is safe. The Press — for better or worse — forms a significant part of that workplace environment and there is an obligation on them to ensure that they are promoting an inclusive, professional, and supportive place. Unless we want a political arena where only those with the privilege and fortitude to tolerate constant abuse are able to succeed, the Press needs to create a safe workplace environment.
Whatever you think of George Christensen — and I think he is a racist bigot who should be sacked by the LNP, and who has no place in Parliament, and is a national shame — he did not deserve to have Fairfax run an article where the opening line was: ‘George Christensen is a moron.’ We deserved better.