September 02, 2018

Horse 2459 - The Festival Of The Thirsty Knife - 2018 - It's Actually Pretty Normal

If you've been watching Australian politics recently, you would have noticed that we have had a change in Prime Ministership, for no real sensible reason other than those based in revenge, ambition and survival. The thing that triggered off this particular leadership spill was that when Malcolm Turnbull ousted Tony Abbott back in 2015, he did so citing that Abbott had lost 30 Newspolls as preferred Prime Minster; when that completely arbitrary statistic arrived again and after the window had opened for a normal House of Representatives and half-Senate election arrived on the 4th of August, the spill motion arrived within three weeks.

There have also been suggestions flying around that somehow democracy in Australia is broken. Last time I checked, democracy was doing fine. If the metric of the longest continuously operating parliaments with no breaks is a measure of the stability of democracy, then Australia has the oldest five with New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania and Queensland all sitting continuously since 1855, 1855, 1856, 1856 and 1859 respectively.

People have also suggested that if democracy itself isn't broken, then maybe politics is. Again, the truth is somewhat different. A Premier or Prime Minister's tenure ends, at the exact second that either the people collectively vote them out of office, or the members of the parliament hold a successful vote of no confidence, or they lose the confidence of their own party. What we saw in the case of Malcolm Turnbull was the last of those three.

Malcolm Turnbull's deposition from office, was the answer to one of the late and great British Labour politician Tony Benn's questions to ask of power and powerful people:
What power have you got?
Where did you get it from?
In whose interests do you exercise it?
To whom are you accountable?
How can we get rid of you?

What we saw was the party getting rid of Malcolm Turnbull. Say what you like about democracy and politics, the fact that he was gotten rid of, is evidence that they are both in rude health and are alive and kicking.

Perhaps what people object to is some bizarre notion that they didn't elect Scott Morrison in as Prime Minister. Again, in a parliamentary democracy where we never elect the Prime Minister or Premier but they are appointed as leader of the party or group or coalition with the majority of members on the floor of the chamber which controls the purse, the notion is idiotic.

People remember that the last Prime Minister to lead a party to several terms of office, from one election cycle to another was John Howard, and while that hasn't happened since, they tend to forget that Australia periodically goes through periods of calm which is immediately followed with turbulence. People also seem to have this strange ability to telescope memory into a shorter distance that it actually is. John Howard lost his seat of Bennelong in the 2007 election which was 11 years ago; yet the commentariat seems to be acting like a herd of sheep, running around aimlessly.
If John Howard is your starting point, then the number of Prime Ministers that you have in a ten year period going forward, is six. If Scott Morrison is your starting point, then the number of Prime Ministers that you have in a ten year period going backward, is still six.
Six is not the most number of Australian Prime Ministers that we've have in a ten year period; in fact we've had more on multiple occasions.

From 01-01-1901 to 01-01-1911:
Barton, Deakin, Watson, Reid, Deakin, Fisher, Deakin, Fisher - Eight

From 06-04-1939 to 06-04-1949:
Lyons, Page, Menzies, Fadden, Curtin, Forde, Chifley - Seven

From 25-01-1966 to 25-01-1976:
Menzies, Holt, McEwan, Gorton, McMahon, Whitlam, Fraser - Seven

Since 1901 we have had 30 Prime Ministers, lasting on average for 3.9 years or an average of  2.5 Prime Minister per decade. These numbers look terrible in the here and now but in the grand scheme of Westminster parliaments, they almost look docile.

If we assume that the House of Commons has the traditional starting point of 1721, where the First Lord of the Treasury usually and unofficially held the status of Prime Minister of State, then the United Kingdom has had 60 Prime Ministers, lasting on average for 4.2 years or an average of  2.02 Prime Minister per decade.
The United Kingdom though has been through a more turbulent time and they can beat Australia's record of eight Prime Ministers in a decade.

From 19-04-1825 to 19-04-1835:
Jenkinson, Canning, Robinson, Wellesley, Grey, Lamb, Wellesley, Peel, Lamb - Nine

Australian domestic politics turns up the crazy a notch; with a Victorian Premier lasting on average for just 2.43 years or an average of  4.1 Premiers per decade. New South Wales fares not much better with a New South Welsh Premier lasting on average for 2.53 years or an average of  3.95 Premiers per decade.
New South Wales though can beat the record of nine, with the period right at the beginning of responsible government in the state, from 1856.

From 24-08-1856 to 24-08-1866:
Donaldson, Cowper, Parker, Cowper, Forster, Robertson, Cowper, Martin, Cowper, Martin - Ten

We can even do better than the record of Frankie Forde in terms of shortest tenure of a premier. Forde was Primer Minister for seven days following the death of John Curtin but George Fuller's first tilt at the Premiership of News South Wales last just seven hours.
Labor Premier John Storey who was Premier died on 5th October 1921 and was replaced by James Dooley. Dooley's Government lost a motion of no confidence and George Fuller ran up Macquarie Street to ask the Governor to install his Nationalist Party as the new government. That didn't last very long and Fuller himself had to give up the Premiership that evening after only seven hours, after losing another motion of no confidence and Dooley returned to office.

If we compare Australia to the six states and the UK and Canada, what we find is that the Australian Prime Minstership is actually more stable than all the states. It is less stable than the UK or Canada; but I can't find any particular reason why that should or shouldn't be the case. It isn't related to term length since the states have longer terms than the Federal Government does but all turn over Premiers more often.

Vic - 2.4yrs, 4.1/dec
SA - 2.4yrs, 4.0/dec
NSW - 2.5yrs, 3.9/dec
Tas - 2.9yrs, 3.4/dec
Qld - 3.3yrs, 3.0/dec
WA - 3.7yrs, 2.6/dec
Aus - 3.9yrs, 2.5/dec
UK - 4.9yrs, 2.0/dec
Can - 5.3yrs, 0.8/dec

Australia as a nation actually appears to be somewhere near the middle when if comes to replacing the leader of government. This is the general summary for average tenure and the average number of premiers in any given decade.

I think that it's only because we are in the moment that we think that this is some terrible brave new world we've entered but really, this is the way that Westminster parliaments have always been. We even forget that at state level, we're even more likely to change leaders. This also doesn't take into consideration the Leaders of the Opposition either, which appear to be running at 2.68 years and 3.73 per decade.

This period of time is not abnormal; it isn't even all that unexpected. There will almost certainly be an election before May 2019 and this change of leadership, is simply a case of the Liberal Party trying to make themselves more saleable to the public.

No comments: