Belaboring the leadership

By | 2013/06/30

revolving door leadershipWithout a doubt, it’s been an odd few years in Australian politics. Back in 2010, we had a first for our country – a sitting prime minister was challenged and lost the leadership of his party in his first term.

Parties change leaders over time, and the various shenanigans of the challenge process that accompanies this has cropped up in Australian politics, both Federal and State. NSW Labor unfortunately made a mockery of themselves with their frequent changes, but at the Federal level, the Hawke/Keating challenges were quite memorable.

I think a lot of the people who have criticised Rudd taking the leadership back from Gillard have forgotten that one key word … back. I’m not excusing any/all behaviour in the entire three years, but the simple fact is that someone who seized the power in a challenge implicitly acknowledges the legitimacy of challenges.

I was always torn with Julia Gillard. She was an incredibly efficient prime minister, passing huge amounts of legislation in an extremely hostile parliament. In some areas she was obviously also incredibly caring and sensitive. Yet as a gay man, I found her attitude against same sex marriage incomprehensibly backward, and I found the changes her government enacted against asylum seekers to be utterly repellent and a disgraceful shame on our country.

Yet there’s been one thing that’s constantly amused me in the entire leadership debacle. (And it has been a debacle – both within the party, and within commentators.) It’s the quaint notion bandied about by people that in a Westminster democracy, people vote for parties, not prime ministers.

Technically, that’s accurate. It’s not a presidential system – we don’t elect a prime minister, not on the ballot forms. So it’s right, but it’s also wrong.

Another thing that’s right but wrong is the notion that Australians vote in parties. After all, the parties that win get more votes, therefore ostensibly they were voted in. Yet the reality has always been quite the opposite … Australians vote parties out. When we’re sick of a particular party being the government, when resentment has reached a critical mass, or when apparent corruption has exceeded an acceptable tolerance level, Australians gleefully march into the polling booths and kick the ruling party to the kerb.

New South Wales, at a state level, demonstrated how this worked though. Most of NSW were pretty fed up with the ALP state government in the 2007 election, but there was one key problem and the ALP stayed in. By 2011 though, that problem had been solved.

The problem? The leadership of the opposition party. In 2007, the LNP in NSW was still fractured and struggling, and Peter Debnam, the leader of the liberals, just didn’t strike the right chord with the voters. In 2011 though, Barry O’Farrell was able to strike that chord. By the time the election came through in 2011, the two ingredients for government change had been met – the in-power party were sufficiently loathed, and the leader of the opposition was sufficiently liked.

Back to Federal politics. Gillard vs Abbott presented a really odd problem for Australian voters – the Labor party was struggling to get affection, but the public overall equally ranked both Gillard and Abbott as unpreferred prime ministers. As competitions in Australian politics go, it was a race to who wants to be disliked the least?

With both leaders showing consistently average-at-best polling for who would be a better prime minister?, a lot of people ended up running around insisting that people don’t vote for prime ministers.


Australian political change seems instead to come from two key factors:

  • Has the in-power party irritated enough of the Australian population sufficiently to deserve retribution?
  • Does the opposition party have someone in charge who the Australian population sufficiently likes?

The likely electoral wipeout facing Labor under Gillard seems to have finally made at least a few people in the Labor party realise those above two facts, which is why Kevin Rudd got back in.

It’s going to be an interesting few months ahead.