EARLIER this week, former prime minister Tony Abbott declared “the era of the political assassin is over”.
But if you thought Malcolm Turnbull’s recent ousting marked the end of Australia’s leadership drama, we have some disappointing news. Mr Abbott was wrong.
Speaking at the Lowy Institute in Sydney last night, a panel of political experts warned Australia was “doomed” to continue the trend of ousting leaders — at least for the foreseeable future.
They said it stems from issues that have been brewing for decades, including growing disaffection with the major parties and a changing political culture in Canberra.
Declining support for the two major parties dates back decades, yet for a long time Parliament House maintained stability, with only three prime ministers between 1983 and 2007.
But since then, no single Australian leader has lasted a full term.
“Are we doomed to repeat this cycle? I think, emphatically, yes we are,” said director of the Lowy Institute’s international security program Sam Roggeveen.
Mr Roggeveen said part of why we’ve only seen the impact of this over the past decade is due to Australia’s voting system.
“The voting system in the House of Representatives is heavily biased towards the two major parties,” he said. “But the continuing decline of the primary vote of the two major parties means that now the unpopularity of the parties is starting to butt up against that natural advantage that they have.
“So increasingly we’re seeing a one-seat majority, we’re seeing a minority government — like in the case of Julia Gillard — and I think that is the future.”
He suggested that, going forward, we’ll be seeing a shift away from the “Liberal or Labor” mindset, towards shorter terms of government, more minority governments, smaller parties and more independents running the show.
Director of research Alex Oliver agreed.
“This isn’t going to change, and I think we are heading towards more minority governments,” Ms Oliver said.
“Both parties are competing for the disaffected vote, whether they be disaffected One Nation voters or disaffected people in the middle who don’t feel that parties moving to the right and left are representing their interests.
“It’s time now for the ‘Australian Moderates Party’ — a party that avowedly sits in the middle and is not being torn to the edges. I think we are going to see this happen over and over again until we resolve this problem of ‘What do we do with the great middle’? “Compulsory voting is a great thing because it makes the great middle turn out to vote, and it’s the only thing that makes the disaffected young voters enter the sphere of politics, because they have to vote. I think that’s a good thing.”
Another reason for the influx in spills is that they now hold tried-and-tested status. A move once considered extremely rare or unheard of became commonplace in Australian political culture.
Executive director Michael Fullilove said a “brutal and pitiless culture” had taken over Parliament House, and that political conventions had broken down.
Dr Fullilove described the ousting of former Labor leader Kevin Rudd in 2010 as a “gateway drug to a permanent addiction to this kind of behaviour”.
“Once you’ve done this kind of thing once, it’s suddenly conceivable, and people will turn to it.”
Senior fellow Richard McGregor added that, in the event of a Labor win at the next election, a party spill between Bill Shorten and Anthony Albanese would not be out of the question.
“Whatever you think of him, Shorten has been effective. He’s always set tests, he always passes them,” Mr McGregor said.
“But he’s not a popular person, so if that comes into play it’s possible.”
There are growing calls for the Liberal Party to change its leadership rules to minimise the knifing of prime ministers.
Last week, Mr Rudd called on the new Morrison Government to match Labor’s leadership rules, under which MPs and members elect a new leader over a 30-day process.
If the party decides a leader is not fit for the role, 60 per cent of the caucus must sign a petition to bring about a spill.
For the nation’s good, I’d urge Liberal Party to adopt a rule change to prevent rolling political chaos. Our 2013 rule change (requiring 50% vote of MPs, 50% of ALL party members) means you can’t just launch a coup at the drop of a hat. It’s helped give Labor 5 years of stability— Kevin Rudd (@MrKRudd)
But former Liberal prime minister John Howard does not agree, pointing out that Labor’s process could still be set aside if a majority of the caucus agreed.
“I don’t think changing the rules is a good idea,” Mr Howard said on Sunday at a Canberra Writers’ Festival event. “What’s the point of bringing in rules if, in any event, they can be set aside?”
But recent polling suggests the Australian public is sick and tired of leadership woes in Canberra.
The latest Newspoll, released after Mr Turnbull’s ousting, showed the Coalition’s primary vote plummet by 33 per cent.
At the same time, Bill Shorten was voted the preferred prime minister for the first time in three years, coming from trailing Mr Turnbull by 12 points to leading Mr Morrison 39 to 33.