Flog but don’t change a dead horse midstream


There is no use crying over spilled spill. What’s done is done and Australia has got its sixth Prime Minister in ten years. All done to the sounds of outrage and bewilderment across the country that once again the democratic judgment over a Prime Ministerial performance has been taken out the voters’ hands* by politicians in Canberra who seem to be more preoccupied with fighting internal battles rather than governing the nation.

Our parliamentarians have the mechanism to change the leaders at any time; the voters have the expectation they can rightfully do it at the election time. Someone will always be unhappy.

Personally, I tend to believe it’s generally better for Prime Ministers to serve their full term. On balance, I would have preferred Malcolm Turnbull to face the people of Australia in 2019. It’s not because I believe in Turnbull – I don’t – but because I believe in accountability and consequences.

Turnbull remains quite popular among large sections of the party base and the electorate. His messy removal will only contribute to the legend of St Malcolm who would have won the next year’s election against Bill Shorten but for the “stab in the back”; he didn’t lose, he was betrayed. There is an emotional appeal to this narrative, but it’s as credible as the original Dolchstoß German excuse exactly a century ago. Could Turnbull have won the next election? Possibly. But not probably. But because we will never know for sure it will be easier for his supporters to blame the internal instability and white-anting rather than the lack of direction, policy vacuum and failure to connect with more voters for the electoral wipe-out that has been on the cards for a long time if you believe pretty much all the opinion polls. If Turnbull went down in flames in 2019, the conservative wreckers would of course still be blamed, but it will be a lot easier to do so now that they have succeeded (in removing Malcolm, though not in replacing them with one of their own).

Herein lies the problem: Turnbull will now never have to own the Turnbull government and where it got the Coalition and the country. In some ways he is lucky; when he gets to write his insufferable memoirs it will be about how the Liberal Party didn’t deserve him and has let him down. Had he stayed in charge until next year, it would have been Australians as a whole who broke this Prime Minister’s heart. Turnbull’s three years in charge has been a disappointment, a failure and a missed opportunity. And he should have been judged on that basis by the voters. You break it, you pay for it (we all do, but that’s a different matter). There is a finality to the people’s verdict that also allows for a clean break with the past, change of personnel and change of direction.

Instead, there will be more recriminations and more instability. At this stage, my only hope is that after the Turnbull Dolchstoß  the Liberal Party has not just entered its Weimer years, because we all know how that ended.

* it should be noted that of all the “single use” Prime Ministers**, only Tony Abbott was completely denied the opportunity of facing the voters’ judgment, being removed from office during his first term. All others have faced the electorate at least at some stage in their top role (Gillard in 2010, Rudd in 2013 and Turnbull in 2016), if not at the end.

** this meme is generally true but for Kevin Rudd who after his first use in 2007-10 was recycled again briefly in 2013.