Commentary | 24 August 2018

Liberal leadership spill: The democratic arc of instability

Originally published in Australian Financial Review. 

Originally published in Australian Financial Review. 

I have been a foreign-policy pundit with the Lowy Institute for 11 years now, roughly from when John Howard lost the 2007 election and Australia's era of political instability began.

At each election and after every leadership putsch since, I have been asked the same sorts of questions about what this all means for Australia's place in the world: does our reputation as the "coup capital of the democratic world" damage our international standing?

Are we a laughing stock among our allies? Are we worse than Italy now?

What these questions imply is that Australia is somehow exceptional. Granted, in the frequency of change to our national leadership, that is actually true (yes, we have had more prime ministers than Italy, at least since 2013).

But Australia's extended crisis of political legitimacy is far from exceptional, even though it manifests itself differently in other parts of the Western democratic world. In the US it led to the rise of Bernie Sanders and the election of Donald Trump.

In the UK it created Brexit, while in Europe it has seen the rise of fringe right-wing parties to the political mainstream.

Many observers have given this crisis a name: populism.

This explanation puts the emphasis on voters, and suggests there has been a major shift in the public mood about immigration, international trade, and perhaps even the commitment to democracy – in the 2018 Lowy Institute Poll, only 47 per cent of Australians aged 18-44 say "democracy is preferable to any other kind of government".

Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard summarised this view neatly earlier this week when she said that the rise of the right was a result of "people's sense of anxiety about the world".

She described a globalised elite which had benefited from economic liberalisation, but also a more localised, traditional and family-oriented group whose bitterness at being left behind was being exploited by right-wingers.

Apart from making voters sound rather gullible, this explanation also implies that the primary sin of governments such as the one she led was to pay insufficient attention to the needs of those left behind by globalisation.

Perhaps governments have been neglectful in that sense, but this explanation also understates the size and nature of the chasm that has opened up between the public and the political class, a chasm that cannot be breached simply by tinkering with policy.

Something has been slowly eating away at democracies in Europe, the US and Australia for several decades: the declining popularity of the big centre-right and centre-left parties, and the efforts of those parties to counter-act their decline.

These parties were created out of large social groups – unions, churches, small business – which gave them an identity and purpose. But all over the Western world the public has drifted away from tight affiliation with major parties.

The parties have lost their link with a clearly identifiable block of voters and thus they have ceased to be a way for a mass of politically aligned voters to influence the government.

Breaking point

The Irish political scientist Peter Mair argued in the 2011 book Ruling the Void that, as the public has withdrawn from politics, the parties have had to find new ways to preserve their influence.

In America this has led to the rise of wealthy private donors, whereas in Europe it has led to greater reliance on the state, such as public funding for parties which reach a certain threshold of votes in an election.

The other move made by Europe's political elites to maintain their influence has been to slowly shift ever greater political decision-making authority to an institution over which their voters have far less control and oversight: the European Union.

The result is a void at the centre of each Western democracy: while the public becomes increasingly indifferent and withdrawn, the political elite engineers a system in which they can work around that indifference.

But the Trump and Brexit elections suggest that this model is reaching its breaking point.

Australia is no exception to the trends being described here. We also have a two-party system in which both sides are bleeding members.

The Liberal and Labor primary vote has been in slow decline for decades as support for independents and minor parties rises.

So the question we should now ask is whether Australia, too, will get a Trump or Brexit moment.

Although the latest Liberal Party leadership spill is just the latest in a long line, what makes it so exceptional is that all pretence of it being about public policy or even popularity were stripped away.

If voters ever needed confirmation of the void at the centre of political life, this was it.

The conventional wisdom is that the beneficiary of all this instability will be Labor, but voters in Australia and around the Western world have steadily drifted away from major parties of the centre-right and centre-left.

For independents and minor parties, the ground has never been more fertile.