How Australia became Italy with crocodiles

The country is orderly, prosperous and well-governed, but poisonous infighting has resulted in a chaotic prime ministerial merry-go-round

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Australian Paramedics no longer ask people suffering suspected concussions “who is the Prime Minister?” The country’s depressing prime ministerial carousel means few people can be relied upon to know.

The country has had five PMs in eight years — six if you count Kevin Rudd twice — which is enough to make anybody’s head spin.  Australia’s baffling transformation into Italy with crocodiles began in late 2007, when John Howard’s centre-Right Liberal-National government was dying on its feet. He’d been PM for twelve years and in 2004 had achieved the rare double of a majority in both houses of Australia’s parliament. As often happens, power went to his head, and unpopular union-busting legislation (“Workchoices”) blew up in his face. On November 24th, Kevin Rudd’s Labor Party won in a landslide. Howard lost his own seat, only the second PM in Australian history to do so.

I’m a national of Australia and the UK and have lived and worked in both as a senior adviser to an Australian senator and engaged in assorted policy-wonkery in the UK. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the political question most Brits ask me is: “What’s with all the PMs? Is there something in the water down there?”

My answers have been as unsatisfactory to me as to everyone else. There is no overarching explanation for Australia’s political revolving door. Many accounts overstate how much is structural, blaming everything from the country’s confrontational political culture (British visitors are horrified by the swearing and naked hostility of Australian question time) to an over-reliance on Newspoll (the country’s leading pollster).

In fact, we’ve had a number of PMs who weren’t good at the job for different reasons and Australian politics is brutal when that happens. Once a precedent was established, it also gave ideas to those who followed. But like Tolstoy’s families, each felled prime minister was unhappy in his own way.

Australia is a peculiar country. Similarities to the UK are more apparent than real, something Brexit has thrown into sharp relief. Australians look on in bemusement when seeing Britain’s civil service, the Tories, and Labour trip over themselves and fall down separate flights of stairs. Australia, by contrast, is orderly, prosperous, and well-governed. It came through the 2008 global financial crisis unscathed. It has the highest minimum wage and lowest unemployment in the OECD. Alone among western liberal democracies, it has few populists of either Left or Right, despite admitting multitudes of immigrants. Over a quarter of Australians were born abroad, double the number in the US or France. It has enjoyed 28 years of uninterrupted economic growth. Younger Australians have no direct experience of recession, and even middle-aged Australians only remember one with clarity (1991).

This oddness stems from Australia’s political system, which is like that of no other nation. It has compulsory voting (enforced rigorously), Saturday elections, and a written Constitution only alterable by referendum requiring a majority of the electors in a majority of states. Its House of Representatives — despite being elected using “instant runoff” or what locals call “compulsory preferential” — isn’t hugely different from the Commons. It’s based on constituencies and marginal seats determine which leader commands a majority. The Senate, however, could not be more different from the Lords.

The Senate can reject all bills, including budget and appropriation bills, initiated by the government in the House. It’s also elected differently, using what’s known as single transferable vote or Hare-Clark — a blend of preferential voting and proportional representation modified to suit local conditions by Australia’s greatest electoral systems reformer, Catherine Spence. The proportional aspect inevitably gives rise to a “crossbench” of one or more senators from minor parties unrepresented in the House. Australians are proud of this system, to the extent that Spence appears on the five-dollar note. It’s thus a distinctive hybrid of Westminster and US bicameralism: two houses, alike in dignity and power, in chilly Canberra, where we lay our scene.

By mid-2007, I was in Oxford. I missed Rudd’s “Kevin 07” campaign. Nonetheless, even from afar I noticed how he rode into office at the fag end of Howard’s extended reign and proved adept at hiding his private character from the Australian people. It’s difficult to convey just how stratospherically popular he was for the first two years of what should have been a three-year term. He was young-ish, bright — a diplomat before entering politics, he spoke fluent Mandarin — and had an extraordinary rags-to-riches life story; his parents were poor share-farmers from country Queensland. Cartoonists drew him as Tintin, complete with quiff.

There were warning signs, however. Rudd was intellectual and lacked a conventional background in the trade union movement or Labor’s “factions”. (Australia’s Labor Party has formal factions: “Labor right”, “Labor left”, “Labor unity” and so on.) The factions allow local branches to endorse candidates who are a political known quantity. Labor’s trade union talent feeder has also long produced patient and able negotiators. Rudd was a poor cultural fit in his own party and inscrutable to non-Queenslanders.

Meanwhile people in Queensland Labor didn’t like him, but were intimidated into silence by his intellect and his popularity. Rudd was aware of this widespread dislike. So before becoming leader he cultivated the media, going over the parliamentary party’s head and appealing directly to the people. Among other things, he secured himself a regular slot on the top-rating Australian morning television programme, Sunrise. Every week for six years, the Australian public — and especially stay-at-home-mums — saw a charming, bookish, clever-clogs with shiny blond hair on the telly. The result was that Rudd becames a household name while still a backbencher.

His personality became apparent to people in Canberra not long after he was elected, particularly among staff and the Press Gallery. He burned through staffers and had a reputation as a “swear bear”. Despite his diplomatic background, he was prone to astonishing rudeness when representing Australia overseas. Inexplicably, the Chinese — who liked and admired him thanks to his linguistic abilities — were often targets. “Those Chinese fuckers are trying to rat-fuck us,” he said within earshot of the Chinese delegation at the Copenhagen Climate Summit in 2009.

A micromanager who suffered from terrifying analysis paralysis and routinely tried to buzzword his way out of trouble, he presided over a chaotic office and notoriously demanded immense briefings at 2 am. These consistently went unread. When his staff started to spend weekends in nearby Bateman’s Bay — a pretty seaside resort and infamous mobile reception dead spot — he forbade visits to the town.

The work piled up. Cabinet ministers and staffers conspired to keep him busy elsewhere so they could deal with Deputy PM Julia Gillard. Governance was clearly only happening while Gillard was acting PM, but the bottlenecks Rudd allowed to build placed her under huge administrative pressure. Policies implemented late thanks to Rudd’s dilatory decision-making started to go badly wrong. A scheme to provide home insulation at reduced cost was so badly mismanaged that four installers (two tradesmen and two apprentices) were killed by unsafe work practices.

New governments often have rocky first terms as they learn governing is much harder than opposing. This was amplified because Rudd suffered from having followed a government that remained fundamentally competent. The electorate may have tired of his predecessor John Howard, but he had managerial skill, a trait prized in Australian politics across the spectrum. His predecessors Bob Hawke and Paul Keating were also competent administrators. Rudd, by contrast, was an exemplar of the incompetent managerialism dissected in Scott Adams’s Dilbert: Australia had the Pointy-Haired-Boss as PM.

Unlike Rudd, Gillard was a product of Labor’s Left faction and the trade union movement; she was a labour lawyer before entering politics. Gillard’s staff adored her and she was calm and disciplined. Cabinet ministers and Labor MPs (or the Labor “caucus”, as that party’s MPs are collectively called in Australia) started to conspire against him. Although Rudd’s incompetence began to be reflected in opinion polls, he still enjoyed considerable public popularity.

When Gillard deposed Rudd as party leader, the process was uncommonly swift and brutal, taking place over a single day, June 23, 2010. In the end, no vote occurred: Rudd realised he didn’t have the numbers and resigned with immediate effect. Caucus heaved a collective sigh of relief. After all, the usurpation merely formalised reality. Rudd begged Gillard for a spot in cabinet, which was denied. He sulked for a mere 23 days. Anxious for electoral endorsement, Gillard called a snap election for August 21, 2010.

Rudd had thumped Howard in 2007. The Liberal-National Coalition should have been out of office for a decade. However, Tony Abbott, the most effective opposition leader Australia has seen in many decades, now confronted Gillard. She was in the fight of her political life while Rudd watered his resentments until they grew into a tree bearing ugly, poisonous fruit.

During the campaign, he fed damaging cabinet leaks to friendly journalists. Questions about Rudd haunted Gillard daily. She couldn’t give credible answers without risking retaliation. Her popularity plummeted. Like Theresa May in 2017, Gillard relied on slogans and wooden, set-piece speeches. On polling day Australia returned a hung parliament, and she limped across the line with the help of Greens and independents. She had promised not to introduce a carbon tax, but doing so became crucial to secure Greens support. Abbott, of course, used this to full advantage.

Gillard’s path to power was also ill-fated. Although she came from the Labor Left faction, most of her supporters in caucus came from the Labor Right, long associated with able, centrist governance. This faction includes Australia’s largest private sector trade union, the Shop, Distributive, and Allied Employees’ Association. The “Shoppies” are the last Australian union with a Catholic-dominated hierarchy, and while they’ve helped keep Australia’s minimum wage the highest in the OECD, they’re socially conservative, opposed to abortion and gay rights. The pound of flesh exacted for their support was public opposition to marriage equality.

This reached its apogee on September 19, 2012 when Gillard voted against same-sex marriage — the bill to introduce it was defeated in both Houses. Gillard was a public feminist who declined to marry her long-term hairdresser-partner because marriage was a state-run, patriarchal institution. Abbott made hay with the hypocrisy of it.

Gillard was hampered by her gender in a way someone like Margaret Thatcher wasn’t, simply because even soft left political traditions tend to see MPs from under-represented groups as representative of those groups rather than as individuals with their own politics. She had the impossible task of being all things to all women. Though capable and well-liked by her staff and caucus, she was unable to mesh this insider’s perception of her with the public’s view.

Like Rudd, Abbott was an outsider in his party. The Liberals and Nationals (commonly called The Coalition) have existed under various names since 1923. From the first they appealed to well-heeled business people, wealthy farmers, professionals, and Protestants. Over time they broadened their catchment to include prosperous tradesmen and small farmers and, as with the Conservatives here, became Australia’s natural party of government. Abbott was a conservative Catholic politically closer to the Shoppies who caused Gillard so much grief, and had occasionally voted Labor in his youth.

A Rhodes Scholar and boxing double-Blue, he was an aggressive anti-feminist and anti-gay campaigner in student politics while supporting an expansive welfare state and trade unions. On his return from Oxford he went to seminary to become a priest, but quit before ordination. Labor courted him, but he was disquieted by socialists in Australian unions and hated Labor’s progressive shift on social issues such as abortion and prostitution. It took years before he landed on the right (wing) side of the aisle.

And he hated Gillard, even when she did something with which he agreed — such as opposing same-sex marriage. Abbott treated Gillard with unvarnished contempt. His strategy was simple. He said no to everything Labor attempted to advance. His relentless negativity delegitimised her, and made her look stupid and whiny. His signature line, every time Labor sought to change anything, was to expectorate about “a great big new tax on everything”. In the background, meanwhile, Rudd continued undermining Gillard. During one particularly fractious question time, it emerged that Rudd called the Lodge — Australia’s official prime-ministerial residence and home to Gillard and her partner — “Boganville”. “Bogan” is Australian for “chav”.

Labor collapsed in the polls. Gillard faced catastrophic defeat. And Rudd saw an opportunity to return to the Lodge. Again, he mounted his campaign from outside parliament. He drew on his Queensland connections and Labor’s alarming loss of members to induce members of the Labor caucus to back him. He sold it as an attempt to save the furniture: to retain some marginal seats was enough, because Abbott was burning the government to the ground.

This time there was a leadership ballot. Rudd won 57-45. He then called a snap election for September 7, 2013. Abbott defeated Rudd, but not as badly as he would have defeated Gillard. Labor saved its furniture. The party then reformed its internal processes to make it impossible to depose the leader in a caucus coup.

Abbott was now Prime Minister. It’s safe to say he was terrible at it. His relentlessly negative style, so effective in opposition, became a severe handicap. He could not govern. Every policy he proposed — even sensible ones, such as maternity leave — had to be sweetened with lashings of other people’s money. For a centre-Right leader, he was astonishingly profligate. Australia started to run budget deficits.

By this point, I was Senior Adviser to Senator David Leyonhjelm and spending considerable time in Canberra. David was a classical liberal crossbencher at least notionally unsympathetic to Labor. However, we learnt how good Labor was at negotiating when helmed by someone with roots in the union movement. Labor’s new leader, Bill Shorten, was the insipid John Major of Australian politics, but he dealt intelligently with friend and foe alike.

Abbott’s inability to articulate a positive case infected his cabinet colleagues. Ministers were at a loss as to how to sell policies that couldn’t be dressed up as stopping, banning, or repealing something. Leyonhjelm called it “a sort of anti-communication”. Every time Abbott opened his mouth, he convinced people of the merits of his opponents’ case.

Abbott also proved a weathervane,  reacting unthinkingly to the prevailing political wind. He reneged on promises such as  repealing Australia’s badly drafted hate speech legislation. He introduced punitive anti-terror legislation hoping Labor would reject it, allowing him to use this against them. They refused to be “wedged” and supinely let it pass. He lost 30 Newspolls in a row, often by large margins.

Malcolm Turnbull was waiting in the wings for his moment. A multi-millionaire banker and brilliant lawyer best known in the UK for giving MI5 a bloody nose by ensuring Spycatcher was published in Australia, Turnbull loathed Abbott. The feeling was mutual. Like Abbott, Turnbull was a Rhodes Scholar, but there the similarity ended. A more intellectually able man, he spoke beautifully and often wittily, and had wide interests in literature and the arts. Turnbull was also a more conventional Liberal. Socially liberal and economically conservative, he disliked Abbott’s fondness for welfare spending.

Unlike Labor, neither of the two Coalition parties had reformed their method of selecting leaders. In December 2009, while in opposition, Abbott and Turnbull had scrapped over the leadership. Abbott emerged the victor by a single vote, but the structural warning went unheeded. In September 2013, Turnbull overthrew Abbott, taking the bulk of the Liberal parliamentary party with him, as well as the charismatic deputy PM, foreign minister Julie Bishop.

Like Rudd, Turnbull initially enjoyed enormous popularity. A much better parliamentary performer than Shorten, he made the Labor shadow front-bench look like amateurs during Question Time. However, as with Gillard’s Shoppies-backed victory over Rudd, social conservatives who switched their support from Abbott to Turnbull also exacted payment: Turnbull was to put same-sex marriage to the Australian people in a non-compulsory postal plebiscite, rather than hold a parliamentary vote. But, Australians being Australians, they still voted in huge numbers — turnout was 80 per cent. And the vote in favour was an overwhelming 62 per cent.

This should have sounded a warning to social conservatives. But it didn’t. Australia’s centre-Right parties had become infected with silly ideas from the US about “getting out the base”. Conservative Christians (often Mormons) took over local branches. These people loved Abbott, but were deeply unrepresentative of the Australian population. Lack of representativeness has consequences, because Australia has compulsory voting. There is no need to “get out the base”. The base will vote for you anyway, and if it stays home it will be fined. Turnbull proved incapable of holding together the traditional Howard-style “liberal moderates”, and the new, US-style religious right.

Turnbull also had many of the same character flaws as Rudd. While he was popular with the public, among colleagues he was known for his tempestuous, expletive-filled rants and grumpiness. His failings and the Coalition’s internal divisions came home to roost when he scraped in with a one-seat majority in the 2016 election. His attempt to reduce the influence of the Senate’s crossbenchers by modifying Spence’s voting system also backfired. Thanks to years of practice, Australians understand their complex electoral system and how to manipulate it. Even more minor party senators were elected, and Pauline Hanson — Australia’s red-headed fish-and-chip shop owner turned leader of a populist anti-immigration party — made a triumphant return to Federal politics.

Lacking Labor’s union-based negotiation skills, the Coalition proved incapable of steering legislation through the Senate crossbench. Meanwhile, the hard right continued to undermine Turnbull from within. Parliament became shambolic, no more so than when authoritarian (and deeply unpopular) ex-copper Peter Dutton last year attempted to overthrow Turnbull, only for Scott Morrison to overtake him on the inside. Sold as a compromise candidate, Morrison is actually Australia’s first Pentecostal PM and suffers serious representativeness deficit. Across the political spectrum in secular Australia Conservative Evangelicals are the butt of jokes about snake-handling and speaking in tongues.

Shorten seems, in his unobtrusive way, to be maintaining good order as opposition leader. But if Labor wins May’s election, it will be interesting to see how long this lasts. It wouldn’t surprise me if he spends several terms in office. Australians are overdue some of the dull competence they like so much.