It may be laughable, but Kookaburra politics is no joke. Our politicians are making a mockery of our democracy.

I love the infectious laughter of the Kookaburra. It is the epitome not just of the Australian bush, but of the larrikin Australian. The ones that don’t take themselves too seriously. But lately the joke is on us, our politicians are making a laughing stock of our country, and for all the wrong reasons.

From Auckland to London, Johannesburg to Washington, the news-wires are comparing us to Italy, a country which has the unenviable record of having had 50 Prime Ministers in 50 years. We’re a long way from that, but with six changes of Prime Minister in less than ten years we’ve been made to look like the banana republic Paul Keating once warned about. And not just because of the frequent changes of Prime Ministers, but because four of those changes were not the results of an election, but internal ‘coups’ within the ruling party.

Such changes have happened before, of course. Paul Keating himself wrestled control over the Labor Party leadership from the enigmatic Bob Hawke in 1991 and became Prime Minister. He managed to win the following election against all the odds. Voters never quite forgave him for toppling Hawke – some say the most ‘ocker’ of all our Prime Ministers.

Voters didn’t quite forgive Gillard for toppling Kevin Rudd, either, and although Malcolm Turnbull was rather more statesmanlike than the man he replaced – Tony Abbott – he too could never quite get rid of the traitors taint.

What comes around goes around and last week Turnbull was replaced by Scott Morrison after an unsavoury spectacle that saw two leadership challenges within the space of four days. It is more than unlikely that the new Prime Minister Scott Morrison will be there beyond the next election.

Although there have been different circumstances leading up to each of these changes, there are common themes with all of them, and the precedent was set almost 27 years ago.

When Paul Keating challenged Hawke in December 1991 it was prompted by a broken promise by Hawke to hand over the reins after the previous election. It was a promise the electorate was never privy to, and a change they didn’t vote for. Keating had a right to be miffed about the broken promise, the public had a right to dislike not knowing about it, and Paul and Bob never quite kissed and made up.

Keating came and went and lost his second election in 1996. After the relative stability of the John Howard years, Kevin Rudd came to power in a surprise election win in 2007. Kevin07 was a brilliantly executed political marketing campaign that even had non-labor supporters mesmerised for a while. But after a few calamitous years where his actions never matched the rhetoric, he was successfully challenged by Julia Gillard who managed to scrape by winning the next election in 2010.

Then the musical chairs started in earnest. Gillard was toppled by Rudd in an act of vengeance and then he lost the next election a few months later (in 2013) to Tony Abbott – a brilliantly negative opposition leader who proved destructive and utterly ineffective as a Prime Minister. After famously losing 30 opinion polls in a row he was challenged by the previous Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull. Turnbull had lost that leadership to the same Abbott in opposition a few earlier.

Are you confused yet? It gets worse.

Last month Peter Dutton, a senior Government Minister, challenged Turnbull for the leadership, spurred on by a vengeful Tony Abbott who just won’t let his grudges against Turnbull rest. Dutton failed, but four days later he challenged again and Abbott could hardly contain his glee. It didn’t quite go to plan, either. Dutton failed again and former treasurer Morrison – who only the day before had declared his undying loyalty to Turnbull – became the new leader of the Liberal party and thus our sixth Prime Minister in 8 years (five if you only count Rudd once).

If this was a soap opera, the script writer would win a Logie!

But it is not. It is about the leadership of this country, and not once in this sorry sage did I have reason to mention policy. Not once did I state that these leadership changes were a result of a real crisis. Not once did I say that any of those toppled leaders had lost an election.
Some of those that make a living out of analysing the politics of Canberra may disagree, but every single one of these changes was about personalities. Gillard didn’t get along with Rudd, Abbott hates Turnbull’s guts and Morrison stumbled into the job like Olympic skater Stephen Bradbury crossed the line – but not because he stood upright, but being the lowest common denominator. The Liberals had a candidate much better suited to take over – Julie Bishop – but that’s another story.

This is what politics has become – a game of positions. It is not about leading the country, but about being the leader. It is not about the vision, but about winning the election. It is not about good governing, but about holding on to power.

Our Westminster system of democracy has always had this flaw at its core – being by definition adversarial in nature. Policy is so often defined not from a considered debate about what is the right way or the best way, but from disagreeing with the ‘member opposite’. We see it in the ridiculous mud-slinging that goes on every day Parliament sits.

The experienced and well respected political columnist Michelle Grattan recently took a group of 72 ordinary people to spend the day to see how Parliament works. Afterwards every one of them was so appalled by what they saw that they wrote a letter to their respective MP’s and demanded that they behave themselves as adults when in Parliament.

We all see and hear it when politicians are interviewed. To the degree that any questions are answered at all, it is invariably littered with references to the flaws of whatever the opposition thinks about an issue. Politicians generally talk more about that than about their own positions on policies.

Most Members of Parliament are career politicians, most have never had a job outside of politics. Politics is what they know. The result is that we now have a system where the politics of an issue is more important than the issue itself.

The recent debate about the National Energy Guarantee (NEG) within the Liberal party proves the point. Ostensibly about how to manage electricity supply it became a straw-man for the leadership of the party. Those wanting Turnbull gone used the debate as a way of maneuvering him into an untenable position as a leader. At no time was the NEG about effective policy, let alone about alternative energy sources – which is what it should have been about.

It is typical of how the political discourse works. The really big issues of our time – such as climate change, the failing war on drugs, education reform, growing economic inequality, housing affordability in our cities, homelessness, job security, immigration and our handling of refugees to name a few – are just not being addressed.

It’s all too hard. Proposing changes is risky, so it is avoided. Preserving the status quo while making shallow promises appealing to people’s hip pockets and exploiting their fears is the safest way to win the next election.

All because we have allowed the parties to usurp control over democracy. The party system and the adversarial nature of the policy discourse is the root cause of why people are losing faith in the institutions that are in place to preserve our freedom.

And if we, the people, don’t start to demand changes, the joke really is on us.

kookaburra politics

Australian Parliament House for the Federal Government in Canberra


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Why Democracy is Broken

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