John Roughan: Swallow the leader Oz’s new national sport – New Zealand Herald


What’s wrong with Australia? From this distance Malcolm Turnbull seemed a transparently good and decent man, successful and respected in business before he went into politics, not for a career he needed but to lead his country if he could, because he cared for it.

That is the motivation for most people who go into politics but precious few go in with a first class business pedigree (which excludes Donald Trump). It is rare that a respected corporate leader is prepared to endure the nonsense of election campaigns but when it happens, voters should hang on to him for as long as he is willing to remain, as New Zealand did.

Successful business people, particularly in currency trading, know where the market is going. Turnbull’s problem was that he could not move his party to where he knew it needed to be. Even after he’d rolled Tony Abbott, he seemed captive to the hard line, climate denying, homophobic conservative core of the so-called Liberal Party and its smaller, even more conservative coalition partner.


The result of the referendum on same sex marriage showed just how out of step with Australian public opinion the governing parties have been. Since then the Liberals have drifted even lower in the polls, now 10 points behind Labor.

But who would want to lead an Australian government these days. Rudd, Gillard, Abbott and now Turnbull, have all won an election and then been dumped by their fellow MPs before the next election.

When a country suffers this level of political turbulence it is normally going through economic stress. It reminds New Zealanders a little of our politics in the reform era, the dissension in the National Government under Muldoon, the tensions in the radical fourth Labour Government, the Lange-Douglas split and the poisoned chalice of Prime Minister passing quickly from Lange to Palmer to Moore.

When National returned in 1990 Ruth Richardson rocked the party and the country with even more radical reform. Peters jumped overboard, National survived the 1993 election by one seat on a recount and Bolger dumped Richardson. Then we got MMP. Bolger formed a coalition with Peters. The following year National replaced Bolger with Shipley and the year after that she expelled Peters.

But the upheaval in Australia since 2007 can not be blamed on economic stress. In fact Australia liberalised its economy at the same time as New Zealand and it was a period of remarkable stability in Australian politics. Prime Minister Bob Hawke had a more personally ambitious Treasurer than David Lange did but Paul Keating waited eight years before challenging Hawke in a caucus vote twice and winning the second. By the time the Labor Government was defeated in 1996 it had been in power for 13 years and the next Government, John Howard’s Liberal-National coalition, lasted 11 years. Australia can do stable politics. So what has gone wrong since Howard’s defeat?

Maybe it’s the stability of Australia’s economy that creates a need, almost a desire, for political turbulence. Thanks to China’s appetite for it minerals and Australia’s banks, Aussies hardly noticed the global financial crisis, they can scarcely remember a recession. When economic worries recede from the public mind, other subjects come to the fore – environmental, social and “cultural” issues, such as immigration and gender and sexual diversity.

The same change has been seen in New Zealand politics since the “rock star” economy recovered in 2013. The difference is that John Key positioned his Government on the liberal side of most of those issues by comparison to the Australian Liberal-National coalition elected in 2013 under Abbott.

Abbott was, and still is, troublesome for a party of the centre-right. He is a poor retail politician but a very good wholesale one. He looks like a hick but appearances deceive. He is highly intelligent and fiercely committed to conservative principles that he holds to be immutable.

He has been called “Jesuitic” in his indifference to popularity and public opposition. He has the admiration of influential commentators on the conservative right and still has considerable support among Liberal MPs, enough to destabilise Turnbull this week.

Through all the leadership changes of the past decade, Australians have not materially suffered. They have had the luxury of treating politics as a game and they like to play games hard, as we know. Australian newspapers feast on politics. They analyse and snarl at inordinate length over any trifling embarrassment. The Australian public probably has no more interest in politics between elections than most other people but they can’t resist a spectator sport. Prime Ministers are fair game.

I don’t know how a Prime Minister survives over there. When I was there in April I picked up a hefty biography of John Howard. I’m going to get into it now.

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