Political science

The flag and mast above Parliament house, seen from below.

The flag above Parliament House changes direction less often than Aussie politics.

There’s a wonderful old Randy Newman song called ‘Political Science’, which was brilliantly covered by a favourite band of mine, Everything But The Girl. Its opening line goes: “No one likes us, I don’t know why/ We may not be perfect, but heaven knows we try…”

These words, and the song’s title, buzzed around my head this week as the landscape of Australia’s politics shifted following Malcolm Turnbull’s successful ousting of former Prime Minister Tony Abbott in a Liberal Party leadership challenge.

As a result, Turnbull became Australia’s sixth Prime Minister in ten years and its fourth in two and a half years. You might think that such brutal natural selection would mean an ever-raising standard in the PM’s office, but you’d be wrong.

The intellectual standard of political discussion in Australia would astonish most international observers. Politics here is a binary landscape of sniping and simple soundbites. I actually pity the journalists tasked with making sense of it all.

In that regard, Australia has a friend in its national broadcaster, the ABC, which offers prime-time political discussion and analysis, fronted by talented journalists who, frankly, run rings around the politicians they are tasked with interviewing. Just recently, erstwhile PM Abbott banned his MPs from participating in the nation’s foremost political panel show, Q&A, for an extended period, and has repeatedly criticised the broadcaster for – at various times, not supporting the country enough, and not looking for the positives.

If that’s hard to believe, while in opposition, he attempted to avoid a difficult interview question by embarking on a 28 second ‘silent stare’ at his interviewer. It is strange beyond belief and worth a view, however cringeworthy.

Such gaffes prompted the US TV host, John Oliver, to put together a stinging ‘tribute’ to Abbott in his weekly show.

But Abbott became history this week, so where now for Australian politics? Well, despite my earlier comment that Turnbull is Australia’s sixth PM in ten years, there could yet be a seventh. That’s because Australia holds a general election every three years, and Abbott was two years into the current term. So, there will be another election some time in the next 12 months with the possibility of current Labor party leader Bill Shorten replacing Turnbull, thus adding to the fast-lengthening list of PMs and, some might say, the country’s political instability.

It’s hard to imagine how the current environment can result in any kind of long term strategy for Australia, or that such a Machiavellian culture can result in considered political discourse. And outside of poking fun at Abbott and scratching one’s head at the likeness it all bears to a chimp’s tea party, that’s the real tragedy for this country and its future prospects.

So, while parliament’s odd-job person considers the possibility of installing a revolving door to the PM’s Canberra office, questions about environmental policy, marriage equality, infrastructure planning, immigration policy and more, get shoved aside as the battle of the egos supplants the battle of intellects and ideologies.

Perhaps Randy Newman had it right after all when he suggested: “Let’s drop the big one, and pulverise ‘em,” but that would probably require a coherent defence policy too, and that’s a big ask in the current situation. Nice try Randy, now, back to the soundbites.



2 thoughts on “Political science

  1. An observant post – and I note that as a lifelong Australian – our national politics is embarrassing. It has done Australia’s reputation abroad much damage that will take years to heal.

    It’s not always been like this though, and while many blame the 24/7 media cycle, I don’t think its quite that simple. Certainly the constant need to fill news on TV and other media increases the opportunities for more and regular exposure, but it takes a special focus on the negative to perpetuate the kind of situation we have seen in Australia over the past eight years.

    It hasn’t always been like this of course, we had a relatively stable government from 1996 to 2007 with John Howard as PM, and before that a long period of the Labor party in power with not many changes in leadership over a long period.

    I blame the last eight years of low level politicking firmly at the feet of Tony Abbott and his employed staffers. They started this nasty, simplistic, base brand of politics when in opposition and quickly transformed Kevin Rudd into a basket case (although Rudd’s management style added to the problem), then they relentlessly attacked Rudd’s successor, Gillard – who could have been one of Australia’s most impressive Prime Minister’s had it not been for the incessant sniping and dirty politics of Abbott and Co.

    And then finally when Abbott was successful at winning an election – after six years of dirty politics, he could not even govern. He could not rid himself of the need to rubbish the other side – something he was very effective at. As such he was a failed Prime Minister – and will always wear that legacy.

    I am more confident that Turnbull can bring the standard of debate to a more effective level – if allowed to by the opposition. Turnbull is no mug, and will realise that the electorate wants better from their elected leaders. Opposition leader Shorten should also realise this. I am confident this will lead to a better government (and opposition over the next four years). As long as both sides can keep their trolls in check (and they exist on both sides).

    it is way past time for us to have to continue to apologise for the parlous state of our political affairs.


    • I hope that’s true. I certainly recognise the pre-Millennium Australia that you describe. It seems to me that, perhaps up until the Sydney Olympics, ‘nation building’ was an actual policy rather than just a soundbite. With the population growth projections, you’d think it would still be a focus, but I don’t see that so much these days. As for a more grown-up style of politics, we desperately need it. Before posting this blog, I spent a few hours watching the TV coverage of parliament on one of the satellite TV channels. If anything, it made me realise that I’d probably been lenient rather than harsh — farcical posturing by the opposition, avoidance of giving a straight answer to anything by the government despite repeated warnings from the speaker of the house. It made me wonder what the hourly pay rate of all these people was and how that linked to productivity in the way that they, in turn, demand it from the health service, the APS and so on. Turnbull has a lot to do if he is to address that type of nonsense but he would win many friends if he did so. By coincidence, in parallel with writing about this topic, I’ve been watching Aaron Sorkin’s US TV drama ‘The Newsroom’ which, aside from being very good, illustrates that these issues are not unique to Australia but are perhaps endemic in politics all over the world, which is perhaps why people are either disengaging or radicalising to a greater extent (e.g., Trump in the US, Corbyn in the UK, Tsipras in Greece and so on).


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