Why Australia can’t keep its prime ministers

Enter our new Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull. Let's be clear: the right's program will not change now that its leader has.

Josh Wyndham-Kidd
14 September 2015
Malcolm Turnbull votes in the 2013 federal election.

Malcolm Turnbull votes in the 2013 federal election. Demotix/Adam Masters. All rights reserved.Australian political life has been bewildering for international observers lately. The cruel, mean-spirited, and downright bizarre things our leaders have said and done over the last two years don’t fit with our generally carefree reputation overseas - or our obligations under international law.

Our politics really have taken a worrying turn, especially in our treatment of refugees. But the part that has most attracted international attention is our odd habit of evicting prime ministers. As I write, the unsettling Tony Abbott has just been replaced by the smoother Malcolm Turnbull after just under two years in the job. Before Abbott won the 2013 election, Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd lasted almost one full term before being deposed in favour of his deputy, Julia Gillard, who was herself deposed three years later - by Rudd, who then lost the post in less than three months.

It’s a disease that has afflicted both of our major parties, the centrist Labor Party and hard right Liberals. I think its sources are a little different from party to party, though.

The Labor Party's leadership instability reveals its lack of moral core. The last two Labor Prime Ministers, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, had remarkably similar policy outlooks. Their feud that consumed three years of government was never about a greatly different vision for Australia, nor was it about building a fundamentally different Labor Party. That's true for the endless parade of Labor leaders in our biggest state of New South Wales, too. (To give you an idea of the quality of their policy debate: the first act of the latest NSW Labor contender was to announce tax breaks for greyhound racing.)

If you looked at Australian Labor's negotiating position over a piece of legislation, it was as impossible to figure out their position on it under Rudd or Gillard as it is now under their current leader Bill Shorten - unless you were looking at calculations of political advantage. Once you do that, it makes much more sense.

The work of the Labor Party, in opposition and in government, is all about presenting a kind of program that 'goes beyond ideology', the sort of politics by manager that attempts to look like it's above 'reasonable' criticism. Keep welfare down, keep an increasingly dysfunctional economy on roughly similar tracks while the world rebuilds itself around us, introduce new policies that look like they're doing popular things while mostly leaving the status quo in place and/or opening it to private companies.

Of course, this Labor program is hugely ideological, but if you speak to any of the people in charge of building it, they'd reply that it was about a balance between principles and governing and blah and who cares. That's what makes it possible for them to negotiate with anyone in Parliament about anything to pass anything. It's all a balance, for the cameras, in the service of a general goal that they feel can be achieved by any means. It's the politics of politics, which means that it doesn't matter who the leader is, beyond who can sell this unconvincing kind of politics most convincingly. There's nothing left to fight about except who sits in which office.

With the Liberals, though, it's fundamentally a different problem. They have a clear program. It is more extreme than previous iterations of this program, because they've been made bold by the right's success in places like the UK and, to an extent, here in Australia. They, with the active participation of 'labour' parties, have moved the economic debate far enough to the right for their policies not to look totally outlandish - so now they're off to build Australia in their own image.

Hence (former) Prime Minister Tony Abbott. He was a leader who represented the real nature of the modern right wing: cruel, quick, thrusting (ugh), and inexplicable, except through slogans that don't stand up even a moment once you have the evidence. His entire program had to be sold with lies, because the whole idea behind it was a lie; namely, that disadvantage only exists when people have brought it upon themselves; that nobody deserves help except those already given help by a fortunate birth; and that governments have no place telling all the bright white guys running big, thrusting companies what to do.

Abbott suited this program. Coming from him, imprisoning refugees in unsafe prison camps, cutting billions of dollars from health and education, or putting paramilitary forces into Melbourne’s streets to check pedestrians’ immigration papers, was shocking, but not surprising. Australians largely responded with widespread horror, then with mobilisation and a determination to vote him out.

This is why the leader of a hard right party really does matter. If you have a leader who looks anything like the program itself - an Abbott - you end up with catastrophic swings against you. If you are a modern right wing party, you need a leader who looks like they do not agree with what your own MPs are voting for.

Enter our new Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull. Let's be clear: the right's program will not change now that its leader has. The Australia he wants to build in government is not so different from any other Liberal’s vision. We know this because he helped craft programs that confirmed it, and voted to pass them, every single time. Budgets to punish the poor and reward the filthy rich, prison camps for refugees, the end to public spending on anything that isn't a road for private cars or a mine for private coal profits. And damn the rest.

I'm sure that the new leader will make a symbolic change, to prove to the country that the switch was worth making. He might postpone the Liberal drive to end public healthcare by introducing a Medicare co-payment, say, or allow a conscience vote on same-sex marriage.

But this will be a distraction. He has already confirmed that he’ll follow Abbott’s line on refugees and global warming. The Turnbull Government will not stop breaking asylum seekers. Turnbull and his party will not stop demonising the poor and leaving them to live half lives. They will not stop their plans to keep education from the rest of us. They will not stop for even one moment the drive for fossil profits that is, right now, making our little planet a more dangerous place to live. They will keep on driving their program forward because they are not capable of accepting that it is their views that are rejected by most of the public, most of the time. They just think that they need to sell them better, and we'll fall into line.

They may not be wrong. The Liberal leadership contest matters, because the person that a small group of privileged people just selected in the Liberal Party Room in Canberra is now our Prime Minister. That's a position of important authority to try to sell a vision for the country, and it’s one they’ve already used to great effect. Policies that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago are now part of mainstream debate, from ending universal healthcare to deploying an Australian Border Force to check papers on our streets.

Turnbull’s last attempt at leading the Liberal Party did not end well. He may quickly turn out to be an uninspiring salesman for permanent austerity and international cruelty. But he may not.

If they have indeed picked a better salesperson, Australia’s hard right may still have a shot at continuing to ruin the country after the 2016 election. Between now and polling day, it’s our job not to let them get away with it.

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