The phrase "disunity is death to political success" is a popular political saying. It certainly applies to Australian politics and our political parties are exhibiting plenty of disunity in this election year. The alternative slogan, "in unity is strength", is an equally well-known positive aspiration.
Disunity is a negative because it can make parties look as though they don't believe in a common cause. It can also make them look disorganised and open to the jibe that if you can't govern yourselves you have no right to govern the country. It can make leaders look weak, even cowardly, for lacking the strength and ability to convince their closest followers.
Disunity is never entirely absent, of course, because parties encompass a broad church of ideologies and personalities, but at least for appearance's sake a united front is necessary for a party to look strong and purposeful.
Each of the three governing parties is regularly troubled by disunity. The lid is on this disunity at the moment, but it could bubble over to the detriment of a party at any time. Of the three leaders, only Scott Morrison, the Prime Minister, is absolutely safe in his position until the election later this year. Michael McCormack, the Deputy Prime Minister, remains in a fragile position within the Nationals and is on constant alert against challengers. And Anthony Albanese must continue to perform at a high level to ward off the doubters within Labor.
"Mavericks" is the kindest description that can be applied to those who won't toe the party line and who cause trouble. Their supporters defend their right to freedom of speech. Dissidents and troublemakers are the critical terms used by those who are sick of their destabilising contributions.
Morrison rid himself of most of the disunity within the Liberal Party during the clean-out which followed the leadership struggle and the subsequent 2019 election. But he is left with two remaining types of disunity.
The most public are the right-wing dissidents like Craig Kelly and George Christensen, who see it as their right to promote publicly their extreme views on subjects like climate change and COVID-19 matters even when they are at total variance with party policy, not to say mainstream public opinion. Kelly and Christensen have supporters in the media and even within their own party. This makes them virtually untouchable within the party and Morrison had to be dragged kicking and screaming before he ventured to criticise Kelly for promulgating misinformation on COVID-19 vaccines.
The more senior potential causes of disunity are those who were defeated in the leadership struggle. Prime among them is Peter Dutton, Minister for Home Affairs. The evidence of his untouchability is the free rein he is given within the government to comment widely on matters both outside his portfolio and outside his state. He remains his own man on various strategic and policy matters, like pork-barrelling, seemingly beyond the reach of the Prime Minister, and his aspiration to be PM himself is just on pause for the moment.
McCormack is the weakest of the three leaders, and regularly stumbles. His problem is not just his own limitations, but the fact that on his small backbench he has three powerful figures who dispute his leadership and believe they should be on the frontbench. Barnaby Joyce is the disgraced former deputy prime minister. Matt Canavan is the rising star who stepped down from cabinet after backing Joyce in a leadership challenge. Bridget McKenzie resigned as deputy leader and as a cabinet minister after the sports rorts affair.
The balance within the Nationals could change at any time and the prizes on offer, the deputy prime ministership and cabinet positions, are huge. Coalition unity on matters like climate action is unlikely while McCormack must be wary of the threat to his position posed by dissidents within his party.
Anthony Albanese desperately needs a unified Labor Party and security in his own position if he is to advance confidently to the next election as alternative prime minister.
Like Morrison, Albanese has two types of dissidents and potential dissidents surrounding him. The most public is Joel Fitzgibbon, the former cabinet minister who resigned from the frontbench after months of voicing his disagreement over Labor's climate change policy. His stance, born out of the party defeat at the last election and the big swing against him in his own electorate in the Hunter region, caused the removal of Labor's climate change spokesman and the party's newly cautious policy on emissions targets. The power of his dissent is clear.
Albanese also has to be alert to potential leadership challengers without looking defensive. Former leader Bill Shorten won't ever be resurrected. He has had two tries and failed. But he is an example of a senior shadow minister whose every challenging word can be interpreted by the media as reflecting badly on Albanese. Other potential leaders like Tanya Plibersek and Jim Chalmers are just going about their jobs and undoubtedly carefully watching how Albanese is performing.
Disunity within political parties has many causes. It can be based on electoral disappointment, ideological differences or frustrated ambition. It can just be an irritation to a party leader or it can be deeply destabilising. Whether its impact is on policy or the presentation of the party to the electorate it is usually a negative.
Voters don't like disunity and political opponents can exploit it during election campaigns. The job of political leaders is to paper over such disunity, especially in an election year, or it could cost them their jobs.
- John Warhurst is an emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University and a regular columnist.