Short, nasty, brutish — and extremely effective

The year only recently begun has been a bad one for leaders of Australian political parties. Liberal leaders have been dispatched in South Australia, Victoria, and the Northern Territory – with the long-distance execution of Northern Territory chief minister Terry Mills by phone taking the biscuit.

Lately we’ve been treated to the March madness of the farcical federal Labor non-spill, with Simon Crean’s apparent career suicide, Julia Gillard’s tactical routing of Kevin Rudd and the appalling aftermath of Rudd supporters walking the plank, one after the other, in the Blue Room of Parliament House.

With federal and state MPs ruthlessly determining the fates of major party leaders and their challengers, no wonder the BBC’s former Australian correspondent Nick Bryant asked whether Australia has become the “coup capital” of the world.

Our way certainly differs radically from the other large Westminster democracies, Canada and Britain.  Major party leadership is determined there by electoral colleges of MPs, organisational wings, grassroots party members and supporters, and affiliated organisations like unions.  Candidates mount sophisticated election campaigns which, thanks to 24-hour news cycles, are staged like a US presidential primaries, with televised debates, pollsters and the whole hoopla.  In Canada, the whole show culminates in big American-style leadership conventions.

British Labour’s leadership selection is a complex interaction of the parliamentary party, grassroots members and unions, and in 2010 uniquely came down to a knife-edge result between brothers Ed and David Miliband.  Still traumatised by Margaret Thatcher’s destruction by her own MPs in 1990, the Conservative parliamentary party now selects two leadership candidates to be voted on by all eligible party members.  In both the UK and Canada, caretaker leaders mind the shop while contests drag on, impotent seat-warmers with no legitimacy of their own.

Canada’s recent experience is particularly instructive.  In May 2011 Stephen Harper’s Conservatives won an absolute majority in a general election.  The Liberal Opposition was not only trounced by Harper, but ran third behind the trendy-lefty New Democratic Party.   Among many Liberal MPs who lost their seats was their leader, aloof intellectual Michael Ignatieff.

A seatless parliamentary leader being as useless as a teat on a bull, Ignatieff resigned immediately.  Yet it’s only this month, almost two years later, that the Canadian Liberals are finally holding a convention of party members and supporters to elect his successor!  While the leadership seat has been kept warm by a respected caretaker, Bob Rae, the likely winner is the charismatic but untried Justin Trudeau, son of former PM Pierre.

The "Grits’s" (don’t ask me why they’re nicknamed the Grits, but they are!) NDP nemesis also had their own 2011 leadership vacuum after their popular Opposition leader, Jack Layton, suddenly resigned and shortly afterwards died of cancer, just months after the apogee of his political career.  After six months of ineffective interim leadership the NDP held its own leadership convention last year, electing little-known Quebec MP Thomas Mulcair as permanent leader.

All the while Harper’s government has sat pretty with ineffectual opposition, while the Liberals and the NDP spent months and years arguing among themselves.

While merely damaging in opposition, for incumbent parties such contests are explosive.  When the leadership of Canada’s governing Progressive Conservatives fell vacant in 1993 the contest between two leading candidates was vicious and tore the party apart.  Like Julia Gillard, outgoing PM Brian Mulroney was electorally toxic due to broken promises, poor economic management and internal scandals, but unlike the Terminator-like Gillard he quit to try and save his party from electoral annihilation.

Instead of a coronation for Mulroney’s anointed successor, insurgent MP Kim Campbell stole the convention vote and became Canada’s first female prime minister.  But her government’s internal divisions and enmities were so deep that the general election a few months later reduced the Canadian Tories to a mere two seats, destroying them forever as a national political force.

In Britain, prime minister David Cameron’s leaders staggers on, despite internal Tory rumblings and the ambitions of highly popular London mayor Boris Johnson.  However vulnerable Cameron is, under party rules he can’t simply be deposed as he could be in Australia. A prolonged Tory leadership contest would destroy Britain’s tenuous coalition government, and the fear of these consequences keeps a weak leader in place.  His government’s political and policy paralysis continues as the British economy continues to struggle.

Canadian leadership circuses and the Cameron conundrum simply wouldn’t play in Australia.  Here, a viable challenger would simply secure their party room support (or at least ring Simon Crean to tell him to pull his head in!), then strike. We happily condemn the Gillard-Rudd show, the revolving door Liberal leadership between John Howard’s defeat in 2007 and Tony Abbott’s unexpected triumph over Malcolm Turnbull in December 2009, and Labor’s leadership abbatoir in New South Wales in its last term of government there. But the Australian way of hatching and dispatching leaders is nasty, brutal and, mercifully, short.

In Australia the party room speaks and the body parts are picked up afterwards.  There is no unstable limbo of legitimacy as in Britain and Canada. The quality and electoral prospects of Australian governments are hurt by leadership tensions – as federal Labor’s dire history since Gillard knifed Rudd in June 2010 shows – but their certainty and continuity are not. The king is dead and long live the queen, so let’s just get on with it – until next time.

After leadership bloodlettings people (invariably on the losing side of the challenge) from both sides of Australian politics call for participatory party democracy.  Heaven forbid they get their way.  Let’s continue to entrust our MPs with choosing prime ministers and premiers, surely that’s one thing they’re there for.  Labor and Liberal parties should preselect quality parliamentary candidates who are either foreman material or will discharge their selection responsibilities wisely.  While external party and factional figures (faceless men, anyone?) will always throw their weight around, they still have no votes:  unlike the British-Canadian models, keeping leadership contests in the party room reduces the ability of external figures to hijack them for their own ends.

The BBC’s Nick Bryant rightly concluded that Australian politics has a coup culture, but so what?  Typical precious Pom. Sure, the way we choose our leaders is brutal and bloody, but compared to alternatives elsewhere it works well – and it offers a "fight night at the Colosseum" gladiatorial spectacle to the rest of us.

Ave, populari, te morituri salutant!

Terry Barnes is a social policy consultant and occasional columnist. He blogs at www.cormorant.net.au

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