In a long and often bloody and tumultuous history of the Roman Empire, there are few periods like what has become known among scholars as the Crisis of the Third Century. In a fifty year period, from the assassination of Emperor Severus Alexander by his own troops in 235AD to the ascension of Emperor Diocletian in 284AD, some fifty Emperors proclaimed either by the legions or by the Senate attempted to rule the Empire. Some lasted only a few weeks, the less unlucky ones a few years; virtually all died violent deaths. None of them made a substantive contribution as the world of Rome became increasingly impoverished and ungovernable.
After eleven years of misgovernment, we’re still waiting for our Diocletian. I mean that metaphorically; I certainly don’t hope that the saviour of Australian politics will be a Croatian peasant-general who will persecute Christians and impose price controls enforced with capital punishment (if he were alive today, Diocletian would probably be a member of the Greens). On the other hand, I often think how nice it would be to wake up one morning and discover that the post-Howard years have been just one long bad dream. We might have better bread, but the ancient Romans had much better circuses.
Malcolm Turnbull has survived today’s leadership ballot. If recent history is any indication, it’s unlikely to be a long reprieve. With over 40 per cent of the party room against him, including a substantial number of ministers, the consensus is that Turnbull is now fatally wounded. For whatever it’s worth, I’m already hearing stories of two MPs listed in Dutton’s column by the media who swear they voted for Turnbull but also say that they will now vote for Dutton or someone else at the next spill. After all the missed opportunities of the past two years, it’s difficult to see Turnbull breaking his losing Newspoll streak; even the prospect of Bill Shorten as the Prime Minister doesn’t seem to scare off the majority of voters from a prospect of contributing to a Labor landslide. What has been saving Turnbull and what might continue to save him at least for a little while yet is the continuing lack of a viable replacement: a candidate who combines a modicum of policy respectability with a modicum of electoral appeal.
In the end, as the next election approaches, members in marginal seats will put their personal survival over any political loyalties – a roll of a dice beats a certain defeat and political death. When that time comes we might see our sixth Prime Minister in twelve years. If God does indeed have a sense of humour, Labor’s Rudd-Gillard-Rudd succession will be followed by Liberals’ Abbott-Turnbull-Abbott, and likely with a similar result. Abbott has been the best opposition leader the Liberals have had both in the opposition and in government. It will take a lot of desperation for the party to bring him back. Either way, the best case scenario for the Coalition seems to be minimising the wipeout rather than surprising everyone with the third term.
It’s not just the instability at the top, it’s the fact that it’s difficult to think of any meaningful and positive contribution that the post-Howard Caesars have made to our country. Since 2007, Australian government have accumulated over half a trillion dollars in debt with very little to show for it. No substantive reforms have been undertaken in any area; to describe big cash splurges like Gonsky or NDIS as reforms is to rape the political language. As to what to call monumental white elephants like the NBN challenges one’s imagination. The fact that the Senate looks and behaves like the bar in “Star Wars” doesn’t help, but it doesn’t let the leaders off the hook either.
Meanwhile, an inordinate amount of political energy has been spent trying to sacrifice our economic well-being for the sake of pretending that Australia will somehow singlehandedly lower global temperatures. Rudd’s first prime ministership and Turnbull’s first leadership of the Coalition ended smashed on the rocks of the ETS. Gillard’s ultimate fate was sealed by lying about a carbon tax. Turnbull’s prime ministership now totters over the NEG and Kyoto’s idiot child Paris. The basic lesson that any action by Australia in the absence of an enforceable international accord involving all the major emitters including the United States, China and India is quixotic and self-harming remains too hard for our political class to grasp. Like the Bourbons, they have learned nothing and forgotten nothing.
Where to from here I don’t know, but I’m not optimistic. The political giants of the Hawke-Keating-Howard-Costello quarter of a century, which so significantly reshaped and changed Australia for the better, are long gone, mourned but unreplaced. Isaac Newton had once famously said “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Sadly, all I see are political dwarfs who couldn’t even be bothered to climb. Please wake me up in a decade’s time.