An inelegant coup – Editorial Issue 89
Lessons from a most inelegant coup
The record shows that Malcolm Turnbull became the Prime Minister of Australia on 15 September 2015. He did so by beating Tony Abbott in a ballot held among the Federal Liberal Parliamentary caucus. Malcolm Turnbull resigned as Parliamentary leader, and hence as Prime Minister, on 24 August 2018 when the Federal Liberal Parliamentary caucus voted to spill the leadership.
Scott Morrison was the Treasurer of Australia from 21 September 2015 to 24 August 2018: he then became Prime Minister when he won a Caucus leadership ballot in which Peter Dutton and Julie Bishop were also candidates.
Peter Dutton was Minister for Immigration and Border Protection from 23 December 2014 (the name of the Ministry changed to Home Affairs from 20 December 2017). He resigned from the Ministry on 21 August 2018 after losing a leadership ballot to Malcolm Turnbull. He also lost in the Caucus leadership ballot of 24 August; nonetheless he was reappointed to the Ministry by Scott Morrison on 26 August 2018.
Julie Bishop was Foreign Minister of Australia from 18 September 2013 to 24 August 2018. She was the only woman cabinet minister in the Tony Abbott Government. She was also repeatedly elected as Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party and held the position from 29 November 2007 to 24 August 2018. She stood in the Caucus ballot for Party Leader on the 24 August but came third. She then resigned as Foreign Minister. She did not recontest the position of Deputy Leader. Unlike Malcolm Turnbull, she has remained in Parliament.
According to Malcolm Turnbull the events of the week of 20 August were ‘extraordinary’. He said, ‘It was described as madness by many and I think it’s difficult to describe it in any other way’. Moreover, ‘there was a determined insurgency from a number of people.’
Thoughts of deckchairs and the Titanic come to mind, but it seems more like a struggle that may well have ruined the victor. The Liberal Party had a person as Prime Minister who, according to the opinion polls, ranked highest in popularity. They have exchanged that person for someone who was ranked lowest. The Conservatives failed in their effort to make Peter Dutton their leader. Julie Bishop seems collateral damage and the Party’s reputation for the treatment of women sank even lower. The only consolation is that there might be some lucrative consultancies in teaching conservative liberals (and perhaps some moderate ones) how to count.
Some of the conservative members of the Liberal Party, especially those attached to the pro-coal ‘Monash Forum’, appear to have picked their fight over the “National Energy Guarantee” or NEG. More particularly, over that part of the NEG which restated the Australian commitment under the Paris Climate Accord. That is an emission reduction target of 26-28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. The emission reduction target and targets for renewable energy were sticks used by News Limited and Rupert Murdoch against Malcolm Turnbull.
Since becoming Prime Minister, Scott Morrison has formally abandoned the NEG but has stated he will not join Donald Trump in withdrawing from the Paris Accord. In early September he said to broadcaster Alan Jones that ‘I'm not a climate warrior one way or the other. What I'm about is getting people's electricity prices down.’ So, at this stage, while News Limited and their owner have been successful in getting Malcolm Turnbull removed; they will have to continue their campaign in support of coal and against the Paris Accord and against renewables.
The campaigners for coal have plenty of help within the Morrison Government. The new Environment Minister, Melissa Price, says she would support the construction of coal-fired power stations which she believes can be done with Australia meeting its targets under the Paris Accord. Resources Minister, Matt Canavan, has said
Australia does not need to quit the Paris climate agreement because our commitments are non-binding, and new coal plants can continue to be constructed,
The new Energy Minister, Angus Taylor, wants to ‘encourage new investment extending the life of existing coal and gas plants, and upgrading ageing facilities’. Separately, he told Parliament that, ‘the renewable energy target is going to wind down from 2020 ... and we will not be replacing that with anything’.
All of which is in direct contradiction to the advice from the Australian Electricity Market Operator (hardly a radical green source) that the most economical replacement for the ageing coal fleet is not new coal, but ‘a portfolio of utility-scale renewable generation, storage, distributed energy resources, flexible thermal capacity, and transmission’. In addition, on 14 September the Guardian covered a report from NDEVR Environmental which convincingly argues that Australia is not on-track to meeting the Paris target and that 2018 is the third consecutive year for record-breaking emissions.
The abandonment of the NEG seems hardly sufficient cause for the deposition of a Prime Minister. But there are very few other changes. Perhaps a shift from prime Eastern Sydney waterfront to the beaches of Sutherland Shire: dulcet tones have been replaced by folksy, rugby league wisdom: light hand Catholicism superseded by a more explicit Pentecostalism.
Public reaction might be muted but is evident; one aspect is that the behaviour of politicians is increasing public disenchantment with politics. A second aspect (and somewhat contrary to the sense of disenchantment) is the contention that voters should be involved in changing the Prime Minister. Thus, 60 per cent of respondents to an Essential Poll, reported on 11 September, agreed with the statement ‘The new prime minister was not elected by the people and has no legitimacy. He needs to go to an election as soon as possible’. Only 37 per cent disagreed.
The issues of disenchantment and illegitimacy seem linked. In the ‘Westminster system’, Parliament (actually the House of Representatives) decides which group ‘has its confidence’ to form Government and hence, who will be Prime Minister. Like so much of the political institutions taken from the British, the process is one of convention not constitution.
In practice, the system is structured around political parties given weight by process like preferential voting, proportional voting in the Senate, public funding of parties and so on. None of these are a formal part of the Westminster system that emerged in conventions in the C18th and C19th and in the decade and a half before WW1. They are not in the Australian Constitution.
Elections are conducted on the rules in the Electoral Act; these are periodically changed by Parliament. After an election, the leader of the majority party, or the leader of the party that negotiates a formal or informal majority coalition, forms government. Australian electors understand that they are not voting directly for the Prime Minister but for a party whose leader could become Prime Minister. “Presidential-type” electoral campaigns have made this even more evident.
But in voting for a party, they are not giving licence to the party to change the Prime Minister at will. Only the first named in the sequences of Rudd-Gillard-Rudd and of Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison were the choice of electors. The ALP and the Liberal (and effectively the Nationals who campaign in coalition) have broken the contract they make with electors in saying ‘vote for us’ and “x” (their leader at the time of the election) will become Prime Minister of Australia. Indeed, it may well be that Bill Shorten’s continuing unpopularity with respondents to opinion polls has much to do with his role in helping Gillard depose Rudd and then Rudd to depose Gillard. (The Liberals Mitch Fifield and Mathias Cormann were at least consistent – they abandoned Turnbull in both 2009 and then in 2018).
Direct election of the Prime Minister would need a substantial revision of the Constitutional and a positive referendum. The energy needed for this would be much better put into providing an Aboriginal voice to Parliament as requested in the Uluru Declaration from the Heart. Energy should also be saved to provide for an Australian Republic. However, there are substantial possibilities within the electoral laws. As already noted, these are completely within the purview of Parliament.
A series of legislative changes could be made that would require political parties to have much more explicit regard for voters (and even their members!). For instance, requirements could be placed on the rules of political parties as a condition of registration with the Electoral Commission. Registration is required to be named on the ballot and to receive public electoral funding. It should not be difficult to require rules that limit the circumstances in which a political party can change its leader and also set out voting rules for such changes. These rules could involve individual party members and not just members of Parliament. They could involve supporting organisations (unions in the case of the ALP; conservation organisations in the case of the Greens).
The rules could provide for votes for registered supporters (this is done with the British Labour Party and the US ‘primaries’). There could be quotas for women, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people and, perhaps, other heritages. Likewise, a change to the Electoral Act could require that people elected on a party ticket have to resign their Parliamentary seat if they resign from the party or change parties. This would remove what is almost an abuse in the current parliament with replacement Senators changing their allegiance.
The Liberal Party might well oppose such changes because Labor has already implemented some of them. This is a distinct possibility since some Liberal are opposing quotas for the election of women precisely because Labor has got them. The nonsense needs to end; politicians of all stripes need to understand that they are contributing to the decay of effective democracy and advancing the chances of a more authoritarian system.