Malcolm in the Middle: The Rise of an Anti-Politician?

Charlie Shandil

Charlie Shandil is a student of the Master of Public Administration programme at the Institute of Governance and Policy Analysis

An issue arises for democracy when one side of the political fence equates to the other, and the notion of representation becomes so diluted that the citizenry feel they are voting for the same person no matter which party they opt for. This has been Australia’s story since the initial ousting of Kevin Rudd in 2010, and has caused a significant disconnect between politicians and the citizenry. Recently however, there has been a change in the wind with Malcolm Turnbull, a grammar educated son of a hotel broker, being promoted as Australia’s 29th Prime Minister – a self-proclaimed ‘Prime Minister of the 21st Century’,


“Today I'm announcing a 21st Century Government and a ministry for the future… It is vital to have a contemporary 21st century government and that requires renewal… We are living in the 21st century… [T]oday I've announced the team, the Government, the Ministry, a 21st Century Government. A Ministry that is ready to engage the future. Thank you very much.”


Prior to his political career, the Prime Minister was the managing director and then partner at Goldman Sachs, proclaimed for “bringing the internet to Australia” with his role at OzEmail, and also held a number of senior positions in internet companies such as WebCentral.  However, while the limelight is shed on the government, it is also important to mention the 21st century public service. The Treasury Secretary John Fraser, a man worthy of any top job himself, left the public service as Deputy Secretary of the Treasury in 1993 to eventually become Chairman and CEO of UBS Global Asset Management. Also, Michael Thawley, formerly Australia’s ambassador to the United States and before being appointed as Secretary to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, was a senior executive at the major United States funds management group, Capital Group. While these two most senior bureaucrats were brought in under the Abbott government, they will now have the opportunity to truly bring in their A-game – a game for the 21st century.

What is being witnessed in this 21st century public administration is a move away from career politicians and public servants, to not just high rollers in their own right, but individuals detesting the current ‘lifer’ model coming back into the game with the mindset of reform: reforming the perception of politicians, public administrators, and the construct in which they reside. It is with this rise of anti-politicians and anti-bureaucrats that we will start to see a connection between the citizenry and the political and bureaucratic construct as it evolves towards a 21st century mindset.

At a fundamental level, democratic representation holds three characteristics. First, representation invokes a principle-agent relationship where the representative stands for or acts on behalf of the represented. Second, the representative holds political power which can be exercised responsibly, and where the citizenry has some influence upon how the power is exercised. And third, the citizenry have a right to vote for representatives, thus providing a measure for political equality. However, this approach to standardising democratic representation has not evolved with contemporary democracies, which has led to political institutions becoming disconnected with the citizenry.

According to Dalton (1996), “An essential element of democracy is an involved public”. It is the notion that in order for democracy to function, it requires an active citizenry, where it is through public deliberation and involvement in politics that common goals are defined and implemented. Without public involvement in the process, however, democracy lacks in legitimacy and its ability to carry out its function. Putnam (1995) argues that western countries with voluntary voting have seen a 25 per cent decline in the last thirty years. Similarly, political membership in the UK has seen a 75 per cent decline, and Biezen et al. (2012) estimate that in the last thirty years France, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Switzerland and Ireland have seen a 50 per cent decline in party membership. Similarly, reports on Australian party membership numbers have shown that while in the 1950s ALP and Liberal parties held around 350,000 members, both parties currently have an estimated 50,000 members.

However, while voter turnout and party membership are important issues, the symptom should not be mistaken for the condition. The symptom, in this case, is the active participation in formal politics. While it is a concern that political disengagement is quite prevalent, this issue can be dealt with by surface-level interventions such as compulsory voting or incentive-driven membership. The condition, however, is the prevalence of an anti-political culture. Contemporary political disaffection is not driven by a sense of apathy towards politics or politicians, but rather by a culture of negativity towards them. In considering the first and second points of representation detailed earlier, anti-politics is driven by the notion that the exercising of power by elected representatives is not representative of the citizenry, which renders representatives incapable of standing for or acting on behalf of the represented.

It is this anti-political culture that Malcolm Turnbull is harnessing. He understands that politics is no longer ideologically driven, but rather led by the issues of the present day. New world politics no longer marries with old party-led models, nor does it map to traditional democratic processes or institutions. The traditional political landscape allows for structured debates between the representative and his citizenry, with the caveat that the representative chooses the topic of debate, where it is held and how it is conducted. Today however, citizen-led activism is anarchistic and endemic, where political debates occur on various platforms, at various times, and on an array of issues, with it being led by any one or group of people from any background or specialisation.

Thus, while some in the Liberal Party may argue that giving rise to an anti-politician such as Malcolm Turnbull sits outside the principles of conservative-led ideology; this in fact may be a good thing. By being an “anti-politician”, he is by definition dissatisfied with formalised political parties, and thus provides an alternate option for the citizenry from traditional party-aligned mentality. In a time where the concept of representation no longer adheres to the three principles outlined above, the rise of an anti-politician may reintroduce the rigour in representation long forgotten. 

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