Ian Marsh. Revolving Prime Ministers.

Sep 18, 2015

As has been widely noted, Malcolm Turnbull is our fifth prime minister in as many years. You have to go back to the 1901-1909 pre two-party period for a roughly similar record. Then it was six leaders in seven years. But the analogy is only superficial. The protagonists – Barton (briefly), Watson (briefly), Deakin, Reid (briefly) and finally Fisher – rose and fell based on their ability to create parliamentary majorities for particular measures. The parties – Free Traders, Protectionists and Labor – differed fiercely. They represented the two variants of nineteenth century liberalism and twentieth century collectivism – fault-lines that persist to this day.

The results constituted some of the most creative in Australian political history. The measures then introduced, mainly under Deakin’s leadership, guided Australian socio-economic development to 1983. By the time of the Hawke-Keating government, the world had moved on. Change was overdue.

But over the previous 75 years, the basic framework was maintained by all governments. Save for White Australia, policy developments took place within it. By such means, Australia’s distinctive version of the welfare state and managed economy was created.

Malcolm Turnbull promises to advance economic reform by taking the public into his confidence. Frank speeches not slogans. Constructive argument not hollow rhetoric. He cited New Zealand’s very successful Prime Minister John Key as an example of what can be accomplished.

True as far as it goes. But this glosses over the structural foundations of Key’s success. These parallel Australia’s 1901-1909 experience. Since 1996, New Zealand has had a multi-party political system. Opportunistic adversarialism has been muted. Key’s Government lacks a majority in the single chamber parliament. It survives very successfully thanks not to coalition but to confidence and supply agreements with three minor parties. But particular measures still need to be negotiated.

Key has adopted the same approach as his Labor predecessor Helen Clark. On social issues, he typically gains support from the left. On economic issues he looks to the right. The whole New Zealand political system has taken a consensual turn.

This accords with contemporary circumstances. As in Australia, the main parties no longer differ on the basic direction of development. The market system has won. But they do differ on the detail of particular measures. Contemporary publics are also more pluralised and differentiated. The political structure in New Zealand aligns its more pluralised society with the formal political system. Australia in contrast remains stuck in the adversarial mould, the residue of a two-class era.

Yet Australia’s political system is almost purpose-built for a more consensual turn. The procedures that would be associated with such a transformation are evident in our own historic experience. Look again at the 1901 to 1909 period.

Governing required at least two of the three parties to reach an accommodation with each other on particular measures. Deakin, the leading political architect of the period, led minority governments. To create sufficient parliamentary support to enact contested measures, he needed to initiate a parliamentary (and hence public) conversation before the government’s own approach was determined.

To achieve this outcome, he turned to the tried and tested vehicle, committees of the legislature. Indeed the Australian constitution provided him with an ideal structure. The Senate had been conceived as an independent House on the American model. In its initial years most members acted in this spirit.

More recently, the (late) Liberal Senator, David Hamer, recommended converting the Senate to a Committee House. Ministers would cease to be drawn from this Chamber. Committee chairs would enjoy enhanced standing (as is occurring now in the UK). Senate committees could then become important agenda entry points for new and emerging issues. The adversarial culture, which is now often overcome in committee enquiries, could be equally qualified in broader Senate proceedings.

With an especial focus on emerging and strategic issues, committees could be agents of the legislature rather than the executive. They could recommend action – and the legislature would debate their recommendations. Ideally this would be free of the whips. But even with whipped or partially whipped votes, majority, cross-party support in the Senate would provide important guidance for the executive.

A more diverse expression of views in the legislature prior to executive decisions would give it more flexibility. Following debate, it would be up to the government to decide what to do.

Malcolm Turnbull believes speeches alone can carry the day. But his reference to John Key should give pause. The leadership that Key exercises so effectively is the product of a political system that is more closely aligned with its publics. The New Zealand parliament focuses on the desirability and detail of individual measures. Media reporting is less poll and personality driven. Of course it’s still robust. But the public experiences a wholly different political debate.

Circumstances are unpredictable. Malcolm Turnbull may outclass his opponent. Through craft and guile and compromise he may manage internal Liberal and National schisms. He may win the next election. But he will almost surely not win the Senate.

That outcome is one expression of the contemporary diversity of Australian society. Internal party tensions are another. Constructive speech making by party leaders can go so far. It is the primary battle line. But like this military analogy, the front line can only carry the day if its support systems are aligned.

In his citation of John Key, Malcolm Turnbull illustrates his own potential weakness and vulnerability. John Key deploys the persuasive power of effective speech in a wholly different conversational context. Would Turnbull be willing to change the way issues enter the public conversation here? Challenging though it may be to adversarial ways, it is also within his power.

Ian Marsh is a Visiting Professor at the UTS Management School. His study Democratic Decline and Democratic Renewal: Political Change in Britain, Australia and New Zealand (with Raymond Miller) was published in 2012 by Cambridge University Press.

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