Democracy of the Few

Gus Olwan

Senior advisor at the Saudi Cultural office.

Changing governments by the few will damage Australia’s reputation of great democracy, Gus Olwan writes.

Australia’s 30th Prime Minster Scott Morrison appears to have been accepted within his own party as leader after the most tumultuous week of Australian parliamentary democracy since John Kerr refused to see the Speaker to receive the House’s no-confidence motion in the Fraser Government in November 1975.

On 24 August 2018, the Liberal Party room meeting resulted in a change of leadership by declaring Scott Morison as PM and Josh Frydenberg deputy leader. The second leadership spill came after a failed spill two days earlier, which confirmed the former PM Malcolm Turnbull leadership. These unprecedented political manoeuvrings by politicians within the Liberal ranks has become quite common in Australian politics since the removal of Mr Kevin Rudd as Labor leader and prime minister by his own caucus in 2010.   

Politics of the few within the major parties’ caucus plays a dictating role on the look and shape of future governments, and upset decades of Australian traditions of governments’ formation. It is becoming quite concerning to the public how the nature of politics and politicians is emerging as a consequence of revenge, ego, and the ambitions of young and premature MPs who have all contributed to the demise of elected PMs, downing governments, and shutting down parliament. In addition, media outlets played a crucial role in the leadership battle in sabotaging democracy by a cult of opinion polls putting the political class in permanent fear of losing their jobs and the privileges of being a politician.

The downing of Turnbull’s government by its own members demonstrates how the personalities of Liberal MPs are ugly; personalities that see the political sphere as nothing more than a game of shafting people rather than concentrating on policies and the delivery of policies only. The landscape of the political class was pushed by revenge and ego to destroy opponents from within at whatever cost. Whilst the right-wing within the Liberal’s ranks is on the ascendancy, centrist voices of the party are becoming less influential and too forceful to represent mainstream politics. Rather, they become submissive to policies endorsed by young Liberals and do not offer any sort of defence to right-wing polices. A series of divisive motions such a selling the ABC and shifting Australia’s Israel embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem demonstrate how the right-wing faction’s power in the Liberal Party is growing.

Ambition for promotion to portfolios and better ranking among young MPs broaden the division of the party. The lack of policy depth and experience, and their ability to pull together a good team to govern is something that requires the party to reconsider. Its preselection process needs to be based on merit, experience, and skills.  In addition, they need to represent a diversity of voices in their constituencies. Reforms within the party should be taken as a matter of urgency to set new roles for promotion, to contest government policies, and to challenge leadership of the party. Furthermore, while all preselection decisions are left to branch delegates, it would be wiser to give the party base a say in how to run the party.

Policies over greenhouse gas emissions have divided MPs of both the Liberal and Labor parties since the Kyoto Climate Summit in 1997. In order to achieve sustainable energy in the future, bipartisan support is needed for carbon pricing, which translates carbon pollution into a price that the government, businesses, and customers can factor into their investment decisions. The clean energy industry want to ensure that strong and sustained investment in renewable energy and storage is doable as a result of the National Energy Guarantee (NEG) policy. The division of the left and right of the Liberal party over the NEG, the view of the oppositions that the NEG policy will present weaker carbon emission reduction targets will fail to support renewable energy. The tactic of relying partially on the NEG policy was used as a policy divider to destabilise the Liberal Party and proved a good working strategy by leadership plotters.

The media played a crucial role in contributing to the cracks among Liberal ranks and the downing of the government. The polls released by media outlets before the first spill undermined the PM leadership and urged those personalities to stand up against the PM. Poll figures taken before the first and second spill were used tactically and purposefully to undermine the government from within. The IPSOS poll published by Fairfax Media on 19 August, two days before the first leadership spill, ignited the division among Liberal MPs when the results puts Labor ahead of the Coalition on the two-party-preferred measure, 55% to 45%.

These polls urged the plotters to seize the moment by pushing for a challenge. Despite knowing they lacked the numbers needed by Mr Dutton to overthrow the PM, it was a smart tactic to create a crisis for the PM, showing that he does not have the majority support he needs, and to demonstrate that the party is on the brink of division. A tactic used as a pretext targeted the PM’s supporters to change sides to unite an already divided party and to replace the PM. The strategy partially worked by ending Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership but was short of putting Dutton as an incumbent PM.    

From now to the next election it is expected that the PM will need to invest in time to reverse the political divide among Liberal ranks, which had been reflected in many aspects. The chase of a new leader is needed to cement the legacy of Menzies who served as the longest unbroken leader of the party and as a PM, a leader who not only maintained the stability and discipline of fellow MPs, but also promoted values of which the Liberal party has emerged from.

The great Australian democracy is now tested by the demonstration and practices of MPs on both sides. Can PM Scott Morrison bring the party back and unite it behind him or it is just a matter of time before Australians wake up on the naming of a new Prime Minister?

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