Expect leadership instability to continue

By Dr Mark Triffitt. School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Melbourne

What's wrong with the following prediction? ‘Bill Shorten/Malcolm Turnbull led their party to a narrow win in the 2016 federal election and went on to lead Australia for two terms’.

It's not the first part of the sentence. Among the few certainties remaining on the current political scene is one of them will ‘win’ on 2 July.

That is, one will have enough seats to form government (although current opinion polls also point to the possibility of a hung parliament, which makes even that ‘certainty’ no shoo-in).

The problem is with the statement’s second part. The unspoken, yet very real possibility arising from this election is that whichever leader wins next month, neither will break Australia’s debilitating cycle of leadership instability.

In fact, in an uncharted political world where the last four Prime Ministerships have not lasted one full term, both are likely to become more fodder for it, whoever wins.

Voters Turning Against Turnbull

Turnbull was elected by his party to be Prime Minister last September based on his confident assertions he would vanquish the electoral demons of Tony Abbott whose pugilist style alienated many ordinary Australians as well as key sections of his own party.

Turnbull was warmly welcomed by the public who were keen to believe his assurances he would usher in an era of fresh, positive - and therefore durable - national leadership.

But nine months on and the PM’s popularity is steadily deflating. The pin in the balloon is that his promise of inspired and inspiring leadership appears hollow.

Malcolm Turnbull Liberal leader

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (right) speaks to a man, who had missed the earlier train but thought it was lucky because he met the prime minister, as they catch a train from Sydney's CBD to Emu Plains in the seat of Lindsay, western Sydney, Monday, May, 30, 2016. The prime minister is making a second visit to Penrith in western Sydney, this time with funding to link students with science and technology jobs. (AAP Image/Tracey Nearmy)

His strategy for re-election amounts to a series of scare campaigns and three-word Abbott-style slogans (think ‘jobs and growth’) to sandbag marginal seats and counter a resurgent Labor party.

So if his government wins on 2 July, it is likely to win ugly and narrowly. This will be hardly the decisive electoral mandate his party believed he would give them when they dumped his predecessor.

Growing numbers in the Coalition think if Turnbull cannot stamp his authority in this election campaign the likelihood is he never will. So even if he ‘wins’ in four weeks time, his prospects for long-term leadership of the Coalition - and Australia - will be effectively ‘lost’.

Hence, growing whispers within Coalition ranks of what seemed unthinkable a few short months ago – a return to Tony Abbott even if it is returned to government.

Shorten No Better Off

Bill Shorten on the other hand, appears to be having a good run in recent weeks. Yet a couples of month ago he was toast in the opinion polls.

Party chatter of him being replaced was never far from the surface. Thanks to some astute campaigning, he now looks more competitive.  

But his negative ratings remain high and are long-term, a trend which inevitably ends badly for every political leader. And he remains less trusted than Turnbull.

In sum, most of the opinion polls highlight no deep attachment to Bill Shorten while voters have fallen relatively quickly and potentially irretrievably out of love with Malcolm Turnbull.

Bill Shorten Labor leader headscratch Opposition Leader Bill Shorten on the campaign trail in Darwin on May 26, 2016. Picture: Mick Tsikas/AAP

Our Underlying Leadership Malaise

What has become clear over the past decade is that success or otherwise for political leaders increasingly turns on a dime. A leader can quickly become ascendant and seem unchallengeable for a period yet become terminally on the nose in the space of six months.

That’s nothing unique to Australian democracy.

It is the fraught nature of leadership generally in the current age where public opinion churns at faster and faster rates and has become more confrontational, thanks largely to internet-sped information and the instant scrutiny it brings.

Yet why are these dynamics being translated in Australia’s case into the now regular and abrupt decapitation of leadership? There are potentially three reasons to consider.

First, we have a political system now out of sync with itself, creating deep and potentially unresolvable tensions between leaders, their parties and the public.

Australia’s democracy is a parliamentary system. Leaders are elected not by the people, but by their party peers. Leadership authority is beholden, in theory, to the mandate of party and party solidarity.

Ye in this world of truncated media cycles and public expectations of instant, decisive decision-making, voters increasingly see and judge parties on the personal image and skills of their individual leaders.

Brisbane Australian Electoral Commission

The upshot is that our parliamentary system is increasingly presenting itself as a presidential-style democracy.

This leaves our leaders—particularly at a national level where scrutiny is greatest—caught in between: expected to be individually decisive and innovative, yet follow the party line. In the end, they are often seen as either strong-minded or collegial, undermining public confidence and ultimately party support.

Yes, but what about other parliamentary democracies like the United Kingdom where leaders have been discarded nowhere nearly as quickly in recent times? The second reason I believe why leadership instability is emerging in Australia is cultural.

We have no history or legacy of political or any other aristocracy. We revel in challenging authority.

So when we see a leader in trouble, we’re not likely to give them the benefit of the doubt, or a helping hand in perception terms. Instead, we’re much more than likely to bury them, quickly and, in some cases, with a barely-disguised sense of glee.

The third reason is precedent. Remember when the Abbott-led Coalition vowed to break the saga of leadership instability started by Rudd and Gillard? Then they added their own chapter by deposing Abbott.

The precedent, now firmly established, makes it easier and more defensible to wield the party knife against Prime Ministers between elections.

So if you think four Prime Ministers in five years sounds dysfunctional, maybe we should prepare ourselves for an even faster-spinning merry-go-around of national leaders in the years ahead.


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