Peter Smith

The Prime Minister we deserve?

Why are particular governments and political leaders in place? I know why, in the sense that they were elected to office. My question is how they ever got to be elected in the first place. It was prompted by the BBC reporting the Irish finance minister, Brian Lenihan, saying that he felt “no sense of shame” over his country’s economic record. The Irish government is presently cap-in-hand waiting to be bailed out by the EU, the IMF, and anyone else with a spare quid. Its budget deficit was over 14% of its GDP in 2009, and is projected to be over 30% this year as a result of having to bail out Irish banks. What would it take for Mr Lenihan to be at least somewhat embarrassed? Who knows; politicians have crocodile hides. Do the Irish have the government they deserve is another question that springs to mind.

Do we in Australia have the government we deserve? Did we deserve to have over $16 billion dollars splurged on over-priced and unnecessary school buildings? Did we deserve the bodgie batt scheme? Do we deserve a government unwilling to protect our borders from illegal boat arrivals? Do we deserve a government intent on massively increasing electricity prices in some futile quest to cool the planet, or spending $43 billion on an untested grand vision of putting fibre in every home? I would hope not, but I don’t know. How about the prime minister we deserve?

“Our two countries are great mates, as we say in our terminology”, our “dulcet-toned” Prime Minister said to President Obama at the recent G20 affair. I inwardly groaned – how did the Australian body politic arrive at this point? While there have been hiccups in the past, I can’t recall anyone elected to office looking so singularly out of their depth, and I include Rudd. Menzies, Howard, Fraser (remember he didn’t lose his pants until he’d lost the prime ministership), Whitlam, Hawke, Keating; agree or disagree with them, in their time, they strode the stage with some aplomb.

I was watching a recent session of parliament on TV. Sans the usual sartorially-challenging pants suit, I could see the upper part of the Prime Minister’s thigh as she was seated at the “Table of the House”. For modesty sake, I fixed my gaze elsewhere. Would we have ever caught a glimpse of Mrs Thatcher’s upper thigh in parliament? Sure we have seen Mr Abbott’s upper thigh. That was regrettable enough but at least it was on the beach. He has not, so far as I know, acquainted parliament house with regions of his body best covered. I assume we would be shocked, surely, if the Governor General started referring to visiting dignitaries as mate with her skirt riding up.

If it were only pantsuits and presentation it might be bearable; it goes much further. The real Ms Gillard gives every sign of being incompetent – the BER fiasco is not a one-off. Among a long list, there is the matter of sending along a staff member to national security committee meetings; the citizens’ assembly; and the East Timor solution. And she is too clever by half with the truth. Among other things: the chicanery of claiming that only $1.5 billion would be lost by replacing the RSPT with the MRRT; and her unconvincing denial of opposing pension rises “because pensioners didn’t vote Labor”.

But this is not really about Ms Gillard. It is about the electorate. Apparently now in Australia you can orchestrate the most incompetent of policies, play fast and loose with the truth, be largely without redemptive style, and still get elected to the highest elected office in the land. Sir Robert may be turning in his grave. What is going on?

I thought of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness to explain it. Basically Taleb’s theory explains why Frank Sinatra made it and thousands of singers with equal or even more talent didn’t. It was just random. It was just Frank’s lucky day. On the other hand, Frank had talent and style so he put himself in potential position to become the chosen one. At this point, randomness as an explanation becomes a stretch. An incompetent government, led by an incompetent prime minister, ought not to be in position to benefit even from randomness.

A clue might lie in the rising Green vote. Some 12 per cent of the Australian electorate gave their first preference to the Greens in this year’s House of Representatives election; up 4 percentage points. Increasing numbers of people, lots of them university educated apparently, are voting for a party whose pie-in-the-sky socialist, anti-business, anti-development, inefficient green energy, policies would impoverish us all if they were ever put into effect.

Maybe an intelligence sapping virus is abroad. “Yes I voted for the Labor party, they deserve another go at wasting our money”. “Yes I voted for Gillard, she has red hair do you see”. “Yes I vote Green, Bob Brown keeps them honest or was that Mr Chips; oh I get so confused these days. I look normal but my IQ has inexplicably plummeted”.

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