Australia’s political instability damages the national interest

| September 10, 2018

A key element of Australia’s national interest should be the specification of a medium-term objective in relation to the country’s desired position in the Asia Pacific region, followed by the development of a public policy framework consistent with achieving that objective.

Australia’s standing in the region is defined by how well its democratic political system is perceived to operate, the effectiveness of its government and the economic, social and environmental policies it implements.

It should come as no surprise then that the country’s ‘revolving door’ of prime ministers and consequent changes in government and bureaucratic personnel over the last decade have left many in the region somewhat perplexed and bewildered.

The lack of substance and consistency in Australian public policy has led to the overall result that important challenges don’t seem to have been met and opportunities are seen to have been squandered.

Especially surprising is the global media’s widespread interest in the demise of Malcom Turnbull and his government, especially following on from the Kevin Rudd to Julia Gillard and back again experience and the rise and fall of Tony Abbott.

Basically, they ask: ‘Exactly, what did Turnbull do wrong?’. The economy seems to be doing well by global standards — some 27 years without a recession, and having avoided the full impact of the Asian financial crisis, the dotcom bust and the global financial crisis. Turnbull also seems to have looked and performed well as a leader internationally in key bilateral, regional and global meetings and forums.

You can imagine the disbelief and disappointment when informed that the recent events were driven mostly by ego and revenge, rather than substance or policy.

Turnbull had clearly not performed as well and as decisively as he was expected to do — as indeed he had ‘promised’ to do on seizing the leadership from Abbott in 2015. But he had not really made any serious missteps either. The Liberal–National Coalition had been line-ball with the opposition Labor Party in recent polls, and Turnbull had consistently outperformed Opposition Leader Bill Shorten as preferred prime minister.

Abbott had simply never accepted the loss to Turnbull and despite his assurances at the time of ‘no sniping or undermining’, he did little else. His ‘end game’ was to regain the leadership. He slowly built a momentum of insurgency, bringing others in behind him by threatening that the insurgency would continue until Turnbull was replaced.

His ‘front man’ was the ‘hapless’ Peter Dutton who he was using as something of a ‘Trojan horse’ to ensure his own return to the Australian Cabinet. The only question is how long it would have been before Abbott had turned against Dutton in an attempt to regain the leadership.

The Coalition government has paid an enormous and perhaps irrecoverable price. The immediate post ‘madness’ polls have seen a significant collapse in their primary vote — a 12-point gap behind the Opposition on a two-party preferred basis and new Prime Minister Scott Morrison some six points behind Shorten as preferred prime minister.

The Coalition is already strapped for funds to finance the next election and these events won’t encourage much generosity — Turnbull himself had been the largest donor to their last election campaign.

These leadership skirmishes are the latest manifestation of a longer-term decline in Australian politics, which has become increasingly short-term in its focus, opportunistic, populous and sometimes very personal.

It is now little better than a daily ‘game’ of point scoring, blame shifting, sound bites, stunts and slogans. Policy challenges and problems have not been met or solved, but rather just ‘kicked down the road’.

Good evidence-based policy development and implementation, and therefore good governance, has been eschewed.

So, rather than being able to ‘lead’ in the region, on so many fronts recent politics has seriously damaged Australia’s regional reputation for political stability.

The accelerating drift to short-term political ‘expediency’ across the country’s public policy and the consequent drift away from good governance is further compounding the erosion in Australia’s national standing.

Issues such as climate change and energy policy, housing affordability, rising costs of living in a climate of depressed wages, sustainable budget repair and poor national productivity are not being adequately recognised and addressed. In time, this too will reflect in the country’s poorer economic, social and environmental performance, and further erode Australia’s regional standing.

Of course, many other countries in the region have experienced their own form of political instability and political ‘power plays’, a lack of adequate policy focus, and a failure to meet their own structural policy challenges.

But Australia had been admired by many, and for several decades, for having avoided the worst of this. From the point of view of the country’s national interest, it is now an imperative that its political leaders step back a little, take stock of the damage that has been done and factor a remediation strategy into all aspects of Australia’s future regional relationships and initiatives.

This article was published by the East Asia Forum.

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John Hewson

John Hewson was a former leader of the Australian Liberal Party and the federal opposition. He is an economic and financial expert and is now Professor and Chair of the Tax and Transfer Policy Institute at the Australian National University.