Why Australia’s prime ministerial musical chairs should not shake faith in democracy

Bo Seo says Australia’s latest leadership reshuffle is not democracy’s finest hour but still offers a glimmer of hope in the outgoing prime minister’s insistence on individual responsibility during the vote

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 29 August, 2018, 4:01am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 August, 2018, 6:25am

It has been a bruising few years for democracy. From the top of one branch of the American government, President Donald Trump has dominated another and has waged an attack on the independence of the third. An angry Britain quarrels over Brexit negotiations while a tired Europe beats back succeeding waves of far-right political insurgencies. In political science, the titles of the season put the writing on the wall: How Democracies Die, The People vs. Democracy, How Democracy Ends.

In this grey climate, Australia should be a reliable tick in democracy’s “win” column. Australia has not had a recession in 27 years. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development concluded that, despite modest growth and rising inequality, “GDP per capita is high and well-being indicators compare favourably”. It is an effective two-party system, consisting of a Labour and Liberal Party that, in various forms, have governed since federation in 1901.

Despite these promising conditions for political stability, Australian politics is in disarray. Last week, the ruling Liberal Party voted internally to overthrow then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and replace him with his treasurer, Scott Morrison. This was only the latest in a series of internal rebellions that plagued both sides of Australian politics: Morrison is Australia’s sixth prime minister in 10 years.

On its face, the Australian example confirms the suspicions of those sceptical of representative democracy. These arguments are most forcefully articulated in China, where President Xi Jinping has long favoured a “consultative democracy,” shielded from electoral accountability.

Watch: Scott Morrison named new Australian prime minister

Scholars like Tongdong Bai and Daniel Bell make the case against liberal democracy, at least as a model for China, on Confucian grounds. They charge that representative democracies prioritise popularity over competence. Bai writes that it inspires a “radical individualism and anti-intellectualism” that elevates populists, and trades long-term vision for electoral gains.

It is tempting to believe that recent Australian politics confirm these critiques of democracy. But this would be a mistake.

Australia’s most recent leadership change was undemocratic, and this is its defining feature. The “spill” was orchestrated by internal party factions, away from public insight or consultation. Three senior ministers precipitated the vote by claiming that Turnbull no longer enjoyed majority support in the party. But it was only their actions that justified their beliefs: the spill motion was carried by a few votes.

Some might maintain that this is just a feature of our Westminster system: we vote for the party, and the party votes for its leaders. But even a strict proceduralist cannot escape the fact that our democratic process has produced a profoundly unpopular result. According to one poll commissioned by the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union, the Liberal Party deposed the candidate most preferred for party leader in favour of the least preferred.

The cause of Australia’s leadership instability is not an overreliance on representative democracy, but a departure from its ideals. Our present crisis has no tether to the communities that make up this vast country; it was cooked up in the unventilated corridors of Canberra.

There, at the base of it all, is Australian politicians’ disengagement from their voters. From the left, David Marr writes of the “myth of the Liberal base” – a working assumption about heartland voters that overestimates their influence or misunderstands their politics. On the right, Alan Jones and Andrew Bolt were adamant that the Labour Party, in its period of leadership unrest, had abandoned the interests of its voters. They showed no such clarity when it came to their own party.

In the events of last week, I saw a glimmer of hope. In one final act of resistance, Turnbull refused to call a vote until he had received a list of the 43 names calling for the vote. He then asked the party whip to verify each signature with the member’s confirmation.

It was a masterstroke straight out of Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power. Canetti described the crowd as a frenzied, anonymising mass in which “differences between individual heads and arms are irrelevant”. Our best chance at curbing the madness of this mob was to reimpose individual identity and responsibility.

This most democratic act could not save Turnbull’s prime ministership. But it could save this government and the political system on which it rests.

Bo Seo, a Schwarzman Scholar, is a journalist covering Australia and Asia