Guest Notes

Australian notes

7 November 2015

9:00 AM

7 November 2015

9:00 AM

Australia – the new Italy?

There are lies, damned lies and statistics as often referenced. To this I would add a new descriptor, namely there are misleading Prime Minister tenure statistics in at least three OECD countries: Australia, Italy and the United Kingdom. This is particularly so relating to the illusive aspect of stability in democracies, especially during times of severe economic reversal and turbulence.

What might be a useful benchmark for judging Governmental stability for the sixty years post World War Two ? In fact two full length Federal Parliamentary terms in Australia would make six years and in the UK ten years. On the basis that for a Prime Minister and his or her Government to be in power long enough to make a difference, it has to do several annual budgets and win reelection at least once, even better twice. So I contend the magical figure is seven years. In practise stability and generally the orderly change that flows from stability, dictates this be seven years of continuous service. Some might contend this is a high setting of the bar, seven years continuous service by the Prime Minister of the day, but since 1945 Australia has had four such PMs (Menzies, Fraser, Hawke, Howard); the UK two in Thatcher and Blair but MacMillan, Wilson and Major came close; even Italy had one and no it was not Silvio but Alcide De Gasperi 1946 to 1953 (7 years 38 days).

What has stirred recent interest is that seemingly politically stable Australia over the decades has now had five different Prime Minsters over less than eight years, indeed four Prime Ministers and four different Federal Treasurers over the last four years. Since 1945 in terms of Prime Ministers, the score is Italy with over 30 winning the dubious honour hands down, then Australia with 15 and the UK with around a dozen or so. Whilst you could argue on many occasions the change of Prime Minister did not involve change of the ruling coalition or party, it still always means cabinet reshuffles and a degree of policy change and general upheaval. Instance Churchill to Eden and Rudd to Gillard.

There are a mix of new factors and trends in play in the democracies of Australia, Italy and the UK in recent decades, impacting durability and stability in Government leadership. Many of these relate to the intensity of media coverage in recent years, the 24/7 media cycle and with this the detailed scrutiny of the leaders, including their personal lives. Silvio Burlesconi’s ‘Bunga Bunga’ parties were well known, the antagonism between leaders and their deputies filled acres of newsprint in recent times: Hawke v Keating and Howard v Costello and of course Blair v Brown.

The result is that when the sitting PM is turfed, it takes on a hugeness and intensity that simply was not the case pre television, it creates political shock waves that adds to conjuring up more perceived instability than there actually is. However on each occasion of PM change in Australia, Italy and the UK the basic rules have remained in play, the numbers or lack of numbers have had sway with one maybe two exceptions, arguably Australia in 1975 when the Governor General terminated the commission of then Prime Minister Gough Whitlam (who still had a lower house majority but not supply) and the more complex overthrow of James Callaghan albeit by one vote on the floor of the House of Commons, in 1979.

The second overarching factor is the emergence of a large educated middle class doing reasonably well and so breaking down tribal influences. As John Howard has observed, we have gone from twenty per cent undecided electors to a lot less rusted on major party supporters, more like forty per cent undecided electors. The complexity and diversity of modern issues maybe adds to this.

If Australia was actually breaking the written Constitutional rules and the various unwritten precedents in Italy and the UK were being chopped and changed, then recent PM turnover might be of more concern; but all in all Australia remains more stable than Italy. Yes there are the occasional bursts of short term Prime Ministers, including in the middle of both World Wars. The truth is Australia does have outbreaks of Prime Ministerial rapid turnover but generally interspersed with years of political stability, periods of at least seven years and this is unlike Italy, at least until now. It should be noted that October 2015 saw the Italian Senate vote for a reduction in size (to 100) but also a reduction in powers to more closely resemble the UK House of Lords. The Italian people will now be asked by referendum to approve the proposal. Most pundits would judge this as a step towards greater stability for Italian politics, so maybe a kind of Westminster stability will even emerge in Italy.

For now Australia is not some kind of Italian political copycat – new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has the prospect of doing 12 years if he gets the first 12 months right. Equally, Italy could be entering a new political mantra. Meanwhile, the UK has handled a term of Coalition Government without the wheels falling off the political system, although it is helped by the lower house five year term. Execution corridor junction or ‘Execution corner’ in Parliament
House Canberra, where Whips announce Government leadership ballot results, looks likely to be a quieter place for now.

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