There’s a lot that is depressing about Australian politics right now, what with the major parties trying to wedge each other on terrorism or pensionswhile neither seems perturbed by the latest allegations of sexual abuse in the offshore detention centres that remain open because of bipartisan support.
Political leadership has been reduced to either dog-whistling the worst prejudices of Australian voters, or policy timidity lest those very same prejudices come back to bite.
It’s bad enough that we have one political leader who can only communicate in jingoistic slogans like “Daesh is coming” and “anyone who raised a gun or a knife to Australians simply because of who we are … has forfeited his or her right to consider themselves one of us“; the other can barely utter a sentence without sounding like an amateur stand-up comedian waiting for the boom-tish. Both are so busy unleashing the hounds of prejudice against each other that they’ve lost sight of what is right for our society and the economy.
Without getting too nostalgic, it seems to be a while since we’ve had some “real” political leaders – people with the intelligence to know when it’s the right time to support or resist public opinion, the courage to do the right thing by the nation and not just key marginal seats, and the ability to convincingly explain why a decision was the right choice to make.
Granted, this combination of capabilities is a big ask and many politicians simply don’t make the cut, yet it is the responsibility of political parties to ensure potential leaders with these skills are recruited into the Parliament and promoted.
When the parties fall down on that responsibility, when they indulge in internecine warfare and factional trade-offs aimed at getting one of their own into the top spot instead of a capable leaders, then we end up with barely competent leaders like the two we’re currently saddled with.
The Prime Minister is a creation of the Liberal hard right, the conservative rump that would rather lose government with Tony Abbott than see a moderate like Malcolm Turnbull become party leader or PM. Some hardliners even claim Abbott’s leadership is on the line if he allows Liberals to have a free vote on gay marriage.
Yet if the conservative kingmakers were to dethrone Abbott, who would they install instead? The conservatives in the Liberal Party and some of the Nationals have made it clear Turnbull has little chance of uniting the Coalition, even more so since the Communications Minister resisted backbench enthusiasm for stripping citizenship from Australians involved in terrorist acts.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has wooed the hard right, and deftly stayed quiet on same-sex marriage, but was also in the Turnbull minority on the question of cancelling citizenship. Bishop also has the unfortunate disadvantage of being a woman, at a time when there’s no evidence that sexism in the Coalition, the media or the broader community has abated since the Gillard years.
Treasurer Joe Hockey’s leadership chances fizzed out like a wonky Catherine wheel when he mishandled the Liberal leadership contest back in 2009.
Scott Morrison’s image is benefiting from his time in the social services portfolio but he still lacks depth of experience, and when he attacks the Opposition he lapses into a level of nastiness that rapidly reminds voters of the extent to which he was prepared to go to “stop the boats”.
Other than the known “leadership aspirants” Turnbull and Bishop, there is not one other Liberal MP who could be considered competitive leadership material. Not Scott Morrison (yet) or Andrew Robb, who is a policy wonk and solid political strategist but lacks clarity in communication. Not Matthias Cormann, who knows the detail and his lines but can sound robotic (and is in the wrong chamber).
Looking to the other side, Labor’s stock of leadership talent isn’t that much more impressive. For a start, those involved in the Rudd-Gillard machinations might as well kiss any leadership aspirations goodbye after the recent screening of the Killing Season.
That includes two fairly talented but now tainted potential leaders-in-waiting: Tony Burke and Chris Bowen. Both men are articulate and smart, with Bowen doing a commendable job while holding down the leadership fort during the contest between Anthony Albanese and Bill Shorten to decide the new Labor leader. As Manager of Opposition Business, Burke is proving to be an emerging force on the parliamentary floor.
This week may be the traditional “Killing Season” although there is arguably enough time left for a party committed to improving its electoral fortunes.
Yet if either man was to become Labor leader, voters will be reminded by the Coalition come election time, repeatedly and unmercifully, that Burke plotted (in code) with Gillard before the “surprise” knifing of Rudd, while Bowen was one of Rudd’s key lieutenants during the destabilisation of Gillard. They may eventually live down their parts in the Labor civil war, but not in time for the next election.
Of the cleanskins, both Deputy Labor leader Tanya Plibersek and Labor leader in the Senate Penny Wong are ostensibly competitive leadership contenders. However both women have to contend with the small matter of their gender in a society that is in many ways still overtly chauvinistic if not sexist. Plibersek also has lost an edge by running hard on marriage equality, with some in the party now questioning the quality of her political judgement.
Wong like Cormann is in the wrong chamber to become leader, and while she is a formidable political talent (having overcome a tendency to drone when climate change minister), if the Australian community was uncomfortable with a woman in the top job it is regrettably not ready to put a gay Asian-Australian woman into the role.
That leaves three other shadow ministers. There’s the new ALP president, Mark Butler, who, according to another detailed account of Rudd’s campaign to bring down his successor, switched from the Gillard to Rudd camps but then contributed to the leadership speculation by refusing to confirm or deny it. Then there’s Mark Dreyfus, whose political judgement has been drawn into question over national security in recent days. And, somewhat counter-intuitively, there’s the Rudd loyalist Anthony Albanese, who seems to have emerged from the actual Rudd-Gillard wars as well as their retelling with his integrity and reputation intact. It was Albanese who warned that in moving to dethrone Rudd and install Gillard, Labor would essentially be killing two prime ministers.
This week marks five years since Albanese’s sage words were ignored, and two years since Rudd fulfilled his ultimate revenge fantasy.
Having thrown out Labor in 2013 for not being able to keep its house in order, voters are now faced with two reasonably tidy political houses led by deeply unpopular leaders.
This week may be the traditional “Killing Season” although there is arguably enough time left for a party committed to improving its electoral fortunes to make changes at the top.
For Labor, a leadership overhaul would involve the right accepting a leader from the left, and the parliamentary brawler Albanese finding his inner statesman.
A change for the better in the Liberal Party would require the traditionalists installing either a man they despise, a woman who they will inevitably think is considered not up to the task, or another man who is not yet ready to lead.
There is arguably enough time, but none of these changes are going to happen. The right installed Abbott and Shorten not only to retain factional dominance but because there was a dearth of viable options. It’s by default as much as connivance that Australian voters are currently saddled with two dud political leaders.