Prime Ministers

According to , Morrison has been flat out trying to hold his team together sufficiently to get through next week, the final three sitting days of this parliament, without looking like a rabble, and to propel his troops into the election that will follow hot on the heels of budget week.

When the Labor Party destroyed two of its own prime ministers, made itself an object of ridicule and handed power to its nemesis, Tony Abbott, what did the Liberal Party do?

Did it conclude that this was a terrible way for a political party to behave? Not at all. It decided that it was a brilliant idea. It adopted Labor’s tortured five years as an inspiring role model.

In the century to 2010, three Australian prime ministers were deposed by their own parties, as Rod Tiffen has pointed out. In the years since, the two parties combined have given Australia six prime ministers, including Kevin Rudd twice. It was astonishing to watch and debilitating for the nation to experience. Each party claims a superior right to govern, but both reveal they cherish precisely the same value above all else – a frantic self-indulgence, like looters stripping a palace before the legitimate authorities arrive on the scene. They cut down and replace leaders so quickly they sometimes completely forget about how to explain the sudden appearance of a new one.

Julia Gillard and Scott Morrison are good examples. Labor eventually got around to telling us that they had to install Gillard in a lightning coup because Rudd hurt the feelings of his colleagues.

As for Morrison, we’re still waiting for the explanation. A former Liberal strategist with a deep history in the party marvels: ‘‘These people have such extraordinary cultural arrogance that they will sit around a table and discuss the colour of an election campaign brochure without anyone even mentioning that they’ve just knocked off a prime minister.

‘‘Morrison and his people are all looking for some tricky little angle that will win the election for them,’’ – will it be tax cuts, or refugee boats, or One Nation preferences? – ‘‘while the whole country is looking at them thinking, ‘hang on, you’ve just knocked off two prime ministers who’d been endorsed by the people at an election’.’’

If our leaders represent our character, we are a nation of grasping egotists and scheming opportunists, dodgy concert promoters but without stars, used car salesmen but without even the most limited warranty on offer. Even a bomb with 150,000 kilometres on the clock comes with a three-month certificate.

The Endgame series published in the Herald this week attempted to give readers a better insight into the life and death of the Turnbull government. And to explain the unexplained – how Morrison came to be prime minister when half the country had never heard of him. According to a ministerial recognition poll by the Australia Institute last April, 54 per cent recognised his name.

The answer is partly because of Morrison’s personal ambition. He attempts an impersonation of a political Mr Magoo, the bumbling, good-natured cartoon character whose eyesight is so poor that he walks into one mess after another yet somehow always manages to find a happy ending. ‘‘What, I’m the prime minister now? How did that ever happen?’’ In truth, as one of his cabinet ministers puts it: ‘‘He’s been running for years.’’

If you want to be a leader … don’t be a lion.

At the Canberra apartment he shared with two of his closest acolytes, Stuart Robert and Steve Irons, Morrison for years presided over regular meetings of his personal organising squad. ‘‘The stated aim was not to actively organise but, should there be a spill eventually, to be ready.’’

And the answer is partly because he was able deftly to exploit the chaos that he knew was coming. One of the conclusions of Australia’s modern political history is that an act of regicide is a terrible crime that will be avenged. The cycle of vengeance, once begun, will finish its turn. The person who cuts down a serving prime minister may sleep soundly, but the victim will remain viscerally angry and unsatisfied until revenge has been dispensed. In Rudd’s case, he did it himself. In Gillard’s, the Australian electorate did it for her. In Tony Abbott’s, Peter Dutton delivered the fatal blow to Malcolm Turnbull, while Morrison emerged to snatch the prize at the last moment, just as it fell.

And one of the worst lessons to emerge from this endless, pointless scheming and counter-scheming is that the ultimate winner is neither the attacker nor the avenger but the lesser politician who can most cunningly exploit the furious contest between the greater ones. The clearest evidence? Both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition owe their jobs to their adroit manipulation of the instability around them. Bill Shorten was part of the plots that unseated Rudd and then Gillard. Morrison was part of the scheming that brought down Abbott and then Turnbull. Both enjoyed meteoric rises as a result of their skill in taking advantage of the disease that has so afflicted the political system. The lesson that emerges seems to be that if you want to be a leader, don’t aim towards developing a great vision for the country but to cooking up the sneakiest scheme and loitering until there’s an opportunity to launch it. Don’t be a lion, be a weasel.

But, of course, the weasels don’t create the opportunities. That’s the product of a much larger ecosystem, a culture of political small-mindedness and self-indulgence. Just as we’ve seen ambitious individuals put themselves ahead of their parties, so do factions put their narrow group interests ahead of the larger party interest. It takes a stampeding herd to open the way for the sneaky weasel.

But the problem is now solved, right? One of Rudd’s last acts was to change Labor rules to make it harder to change leader between elections. One of Morrison’s first acts was to do the same.We know that this is what the country wants. How? An Ipsos poll in 2017 found that 7 out of 10 Australians want a prime minister to be allowed to finish his or her term, even if the prime minister is unpopular. Unfortunately, the new rules are a nice gesture but not a structural protection. For the simple reason that, if you have a majority of votes in the party room for changing the prime minister, you have enough votes to change the rules themselves.

So the Liberal rules, for instance, demand that a prime minister can only be removed with a two-thirds vote of the party room. But you can change that rule with 50 per cent plus one vote. Australia needs greater change if it is serious about respecting itself and its leaders. The only true solution is a changed political culture. One that puts service above self, party above faction, country above party.

To embody the ideal, Australia needs fewer Sam Dastyaris, politicians who will sell anything they have to hand, and more Ted Macks. For those who’ve forgotten or didn’t know him, Mack was the mayor of North Sydney who opened all council meetings, proceedings and files to public scrutiny. He sold the mayoral Mercedes to buy community buses. Then, as a state and federal MP, he timed his retirement from both levels of government specifically to avoid qualifying for generous pensions that were then available. He quit State Parliament two days before qualifying for more than a million dollars’ worth, for instance. It was never about Ted Mack. It was about the community.

Is this too much to hope for? Probably. In the absence of a Parliament of Ted Macks, we’d settle for some simple restraint from our federal politicians. That’s the difference between a mere politician and a lawmaker – restraint. Until that happens, Australia can protect itself with stronger independent institutions. The country has continued to function in the face of the federal leadership fecklessness mainly because it has a good set of institutions that operate without direction from a minister or, heaven forbid, a prime minister.

But we can do better. A federal anticorruption body is a bare minimum. All the main parties are now committed in principle. The next Parliament should negotiate to create a strong and independent federal integrity commission. Other institutions are needed, too. Two obvious and essential ones would take control of aspects of federal government spending. The third-world backwardness of the politician’s pork-barrel is an abuse of the public trust, a waste of money and a form of corruption. Infrastructure Australia, now just an advisory body, needs to be reconstituted as an independent agency that allocates money to major projects on need, not political favouritism and marginal seat manipulations. And the overall level of federal spending can’t be left to politicians to decide because, as we will see again in next week’s budget, they can’t control themselves when they’re spending our money. Australia needs a fiscal reserve bank, independent of government, to decide the maximum ceiling of annual spending.

Unfortunately, the people who’d need to make these changes are the very same ones we need to be protected from. Labor’s Tony Burke summarised the mad convulsions of the Coalition leadership last year with this line: ‘‘All they know is who they hate.’’ The same has applied to Labor, of course. And while he was right, he wasn’t complete. All they know is who they hate, and where to send the bill.

Peter Hartcher is the Sydney Morning Herald political editor.

This article originally appeared in the 30th March SMH

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