By Invitation

Bad luck for the Lucky Country?

Australia has had five prime ministers in five years. Is it just a bad run or is there a fundamental shift to instability in its politics?

Has Australia become ungovernable? When Mr Malcolm Turnbull replaced Mr Tony Abbott two weeks ago, he became Australia's fifth Prime Minister in just five years. Since 2010 the country has been led by Mr Kevin Rudd, Ms Julia Gillard, Mr Rudd again and then Mr Abbott, before Mr Turnbull executed his deft party-room coup.

Even more strikingly, each of these toppled leaders suffered the crushing indignity of being removed after a short time in the job by their party followers, rather than by the electorate.

This is beginning to look less like a random series of disconnected incidents and more like an emerging pattern.

If so, it's a very different pattern from the one Australians have known hitherto. The five prime ministers before Mr Rudd together held office for a total of 35 years.

Not surprisingly, Australians are starting to worry that something has gone wrong with their political system.

The volatile politics of the past few years has inevitably displaced serious, responsible long-term policy in favour of short-term populism. And this is hardly something Australia can afford, at a time when it faces grave challenges in many areas - economic, social, environmental and strategic.

Long-serving leaders like Mr Bob Hawke and Mr John Howard did not just offer stability. During their long terms in office they built the political capital which allowed them to undertake hard reforms and make real and necessary changes. Voters knew them, and trusted them, to do what was needed, rather than just what was popular.

The volatile politics of the past few years has inevitably displaced serious, responsible long-term policy in favour of short-term populism. And this is hardly something Australia can afford, at a time when it faces grave challenges in many areas - economic, social, environmental and strategic.

Australia's friends and neighbours might be worried too. Populist politics and inexperienced leaders have done nothing for the quality of Australian foreign policy - from Mr Rudd's brusquely undiplomatic regional initiatives to Mr Abbott's insensitive management of relations with Jakarta.

CAN TURNBULL TURN THE COUNTRY BACK TO STABLE POLITICS?

So like Australians themselves, Australia's neighbours should hope that Mr Turnbull will break this recent pattern of Australian politics and return the country to stable, effective, policy-focused government. What are the chances?

That depends partly on what is causing the leadership turmoil.

One view is that the underlying conditions of Australian politics have changed, with a more intrusive and frenetic 24-hour media cycle, a more sceptical and uncommitted electorate, and more powerful and effective special interest groups.


ST ILLUSTRATION : ADAM LEE

All this, it is argued, squeezes the space for serious policy development and debate, leaving room only for bitterly partisan point-scoring and leaving even the most talented leader vulnerable to short-term fluctuations in the opinion polls.

Much of this rings true.

Australia seems of late to have followed the sad trend set by the United States, where serious policy debate has all but disappeared because reasoned analysis and argument is drowned out by glib and misleading slogans.

If this does indeed reflect deep structural changes in the nature of the political process, Mr Turnbull has little chance of returning Australia to good and stable government.

But there is another explanation for Australia's political malaise, which leads to a less gloomy estimate of Mr Turnbull's chances. Maybe Australia has simply had a run of bad luck.

There is always a big element of chance about who gets to lead in an open political system like Australia's, and maybe it is just a coincidence that those whose number has recently come up in the leadership lottery have proven unequal to the prime ministership.

This explanation seems to be supported when we consider the past three incumbents.

Each of them had real and evident weaknesses which go some way at least to explain their failures.

Mr Rudd was intellectually brilliant and at his best a superb political communicator, but he completely lacked the capacity for organisation, team-building, consultation and decision-making which is essential to good government.

Ms Gillard was consultative, but lacked policy convictions and elementary political management skills to make the government tick.

And Mr Abbott seemed incapable of managing Cabinet government, conducting policy debate above the level of three-word slogans, or avoiding needless and politically costly errors of judgment.

If Australia's recent leadership volatility is even partly the result of bad luck in our choice of leaders, then perhaps Mr Turnbull has a chance to buck the trend and become the long-term reforming prime minister Australia so badly needs.

From what we know of him so far, there are grounds for hoping that he will not display the kinds of weakness that contributed to his predecessors' failures.

Mr Turnbull is unquestionably a serious policy thinker, and a skilled and confident debater. He will be eager to raise the level of political discussion beyond mere sloganeering, and present detailed, analysis-based arguments for reform.

He is also an experienced and successful businessman, at home not just with big ideas but also with the detail necessary to turn them into effective policies. All this puts him ahead of any of his recent predecessors.

On the other hand, he does not have a strong record as a team leader, able to bring out the best in his subordinate ministers, by giving them the scope and support to shine themselves. Nor is the political support of his own party assured.

Mr Turnbull faces a classic Catch-22 situation here. He cannot lead effectively without the unconditional support of his party, but he will not have that support until he has proved himself a good leader and a sure vote winner.

Moreover, the machinery of government - that vital structure of processes, procedures and habits of business that are so essential to good government - has been badly damaged over recent years as dysfunctional prime ministers have stressed it almost to breaking point.

Mr Turnbull will not be able to lead a good government unless he can first restore this machinery. That will take time, and time is not something that modern prime ministers can take for granted.

Mr Turnbull has a lot going for him. He is bright, successful, engaging, articulate and forward-looking, with a clear sense of what Australia needs and how to deliver it. But this does not guarantee he will be a successful prime minister.

To do that he will have to master new skills and restore Australia's battered system of government. The most hopeful sign is that he seems to understand that, and be ready for the challenge.

  • The writer is professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University in Canberra.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 29, 2015, with the headline 'Bad luck for the Lucky Country?'. Print Edition | Subscribe