We have had six prime ministers in just over a decade and we are about to suffer our seventh. They move into the top job. They have no idea what they are doing. By the time they do know what they are doing, their colleagues hate them. Mock them. And then tear them apart. That’s even before Australian voters have marked their ballot papers. Or not long after. Infuriating.
There is zero preparedness to lead. Leading has two elements: knowledge of the field and the ability to unite people with differing values, with widely divergent beliefs. We have had no-one in charge like that since Howard.
The professor of politics at the University of South Australia Carol Johnson makes it clear: “The last few attempts to get rid of a leader have not worked. They lack legitimacy. Rudd-Gillard-Rudd didn’t work – it was a disaster. Getting rid of Abbott didn’t work in the longer term. It’s not clear that 'Trump-lite' [Dutton] working on crime, security and immigration will work and I am not sure why these politicians think it will save their seats. This is a toxic combination of ideological difference, personal fears and ambition.”
Time after time, politicians get parachuted into the top job with little qualification, especially the one qualification that really matters – they were leading their parties when they last went to voters. I’m sick to death of the lot of them and I’m a person who lives and breathes politics. I can only imagine how normal people are feeling. Actually I know how they feel. They too are sick to death of the circus. The bloke who does my hair asked me if I thought politicians actually cared about voters. Australians.
The answer is, probs no. What they care about is this, as told to veteran political commentator, Peter Hartcher: “A lot of our people are facing the fact that they are in the last six months of their political careers," says one worried backbencher. "They've got houses, school bills, cars that they've set up for themselves on the basis that they're earning $200,000 plus. What do they do if they're suddenly out of work?"
There have been many, many quotes on and off the record but nothing has made me feel like spewing quite like this one. It’s the base self-interest instead of the national interest, just as Johnson says.
What we need is at least two Australian political parties which are clearly differentiated, parties which can put together a group of politicians who genuinely are conviction politicians and not election politicians. And then those parties need to set about advertising those - united – convictions to voters. Instead, we have homewreckers akimbo, people who seek to divide and destroy, who exploit disagreement and turn it into chaos. Take Tony Abbott, who took homewrecking lessons from Bob Santamaria (who destroyed the Australian Labor Party for decades by turning former allies against each other with his anti-communism hocus pocus). Now it’s happening at a time when the political process is much more transparent than it ever was, where reporting of the political process happens by the minute, by the second. What Bob Santamaria could do in secret, no-one could ever do again. Now we know who does what, about five minutes after it’s happened.
I’m not sure how much, in Abbott’s case, is actually driven by gaping maw of neoliberal ideology or by the gnawing need for revenge, but I fear it’s mostly the latter. Whatever the driver, I doubt the Liberal Party will recover for a long time. It’s been Santamariaed. The bitter, now public, infighting infuriates voters, just as it did after the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd catastrophe. After all, how can voters believe you can run the country if you can’t even run your own cabinet, whether it's Bishop, Dutton, Morrison, or whoever. Seriously, in terms of order, you'd have to put your money on Bishop to create some kind of discipline.
Australia has been here before. In the war inside the Australian Labor Party, the deep ideological divisions made it unelectable until 1972. The beliefs which Abbott and Dutton cling to are losing their power, even among their own. It’s not just that the market will not and cannot provide everything. It’s also that even conservatives are beginning to grasp that climate change is real and that we must do something about it. Father Bruce Duncan, an authority on Santamaria, says he thinks Abbott has forgotten that Santa was akin to a greenie, that he believed we also needed to look after those who couldn’t look after themselves.
“Even members of the Liberals and the Nationals are complaining that they are faced with the consequences of global warming but it’s not reflected in the policies of the coalition parties. This disillusion is something we haven’t heard on this scale before . . . there is an urgency and intensity.”
As Duncan says, Abbott’s neoliberalism is central to this. He and his kind can’t unite across the ideological divide in a party so riven with conflict. There is also a group which coalesces around hatred; hatred of the different, the poor, the outsiders, the others, ignoring that, with the exception of First Australians, we were all this once.
Which takes me back to the beginning. Parties must unite internally. They must do a better job of selecting candidates whose values are congruent with the values of the party, to get on with each other, to learn to collaborate instead of trying to dominate. Those parties need to train those candidates to be leaders.
Because one day, they just might lead.
Jenna Price is a Fairfax columnist and an academic at the University of Technology Sydney.