Few politicians want to take bold or risky decisionsOct 25th 2018Print edition | Special report
THAT AUSTRALIA has not managed to institute a sensible, durable policy on a subject like climate change strikes many as a sign that there is something wrong with politics. “This lot couldn’t manage a jar of five-cent bits,” fumes Mr Keating. It is a common complaint, and not just from the opposition.
It is clearly the case that governments do not last as long as they did (see timeline). Many also believe that they achieve less. The Grattan Institute, a think-tank, counts 15 big economic reforms in the 12 years that Messrs Hawke and Keating were in government, eight during Mr Howard’s 11-year stint and six in the decade since.
There is also a view that politicians used to be more able to rise above partisan politics and defy their supporters. Nowadays, the argument runs, politicians of either stripe are too busy poring over the polling data or looking over their shoulders to do anything remotely risky. If so, they would be right to: Rod Tiffen of the University of Sydney points out that, at both the state and federal level, “spill motions”, meaning internal challenges for the leadership of a party, have become much more common. And one of the most common excuses for mounting such coups is that the incumbent trails in the polls.
In some ways, Australian politics appears more stable than that of other rich countries. Insurgent parties are not displacing the established ones, as in Europe, nor are populist candidates taking control of political machines, as Donald Trump has in America. But Australia is not free from discontent; it is just insulated from it by its electoral system.
No matter how disaffected Australians are with their choices, they must vote, and are fined if they do not. This helps to keep politics grounded squarely in the centre. It also favours the big parties, since those who might not be interested in politics seem unlikely to plump for an obscure option.
Moreover, when they vote, Australians do not just pick one candidate for each office. They rank them in order of preference. When the ballots are counted, the one with the least first-choice votes is eliminated. His or her votes are then redistributed to whichever candidate was listed as the second choice, and so on, until one has more than half of the vote. This also favours the two main political forces (Labor and the Liberal-National coalition) since even those who select a small party as their first choice tend to list a big one below. Only five out of the 150 members of the lower house (the House of Representatives) are from neither the coalition nor Labor.
But just because the system is stable does not mean that it is loved. Public esteem for politicians has declined markedly. In 1969, 51% of people polled by the Australian Election Study, a long-running survey, agreed that “people in government can be trusted”; in 2016, only 26% did. Whereas in the 1980s more than 90% of voters selected one of the two big parties as their first choice for the House of Representatives, at the most recent election, in 2016, only 77% did. Voters report ever less interest in elections and their outcome, and ever less confidence that their vote will make any difference. More and more think that politicians are in it for themselves and that special interests have too much sway. Only 60% say they are satisfied with democracy.
The constant churn of prime ministers is fodder for these feelings of disillusionment. Four of the past five changes have come from spill motions, not from elections. Parties keep presenting one person to voters as their prime-ministerial candidate, only to boot him or her out after a year or two. It is natural for voters to feel deceived. And no party that has turned on its own PM in the past decade has done better at the next election than at the previous one.
Mr Tiffen argues that spills will only fall out of fashion when it is clear that voters will punish a party for resorting to them. Proof may be coming soon. After the latest one, in which the Liberals ejected Mr Turnbull in favour of Mr Morrison, the party did not even see a brief bump in the polls. One government MP called the petition for a spill a “suicide note”; another was so enraged that he moved to the crossbenches, depriving the government of its majority in the House of Representatives.
The infighting, in other words, is clearly impeding the business of government. And even if Mr Morrison wanted to pursue bold reforms, he does not have time before the next election, which is due by May. Figuring out where Australia should get its energy from or how warmly to embrace China will have to wait yet another six months, at least.
It is easy to imagine a cycle in which the constant changes of leadership make policymaking even less consistent, further sapping faith in government and making politicians even more timid. That is especially alarming because the trend of rising incomes which marks Australia out from the rest of the rich world is running out of steam, and the consensus around policies that underpinned it, such as openness to immigration, is eroding. If politicians do not sort themselves out, Australia risks becoming as troubled as everywhere else.