Monday, June 28, 2010

An Excellent System (Part 2: A Good Government Losing Its Way)


An Excellent System (Part 2: A Good Government Losing Its Way)

On Friday I spoke about our Westminster Parliamentary System of democracy after many people expressed the feeling that the manner of Kevin Rudd’s departure from the position of Prime Minister was in some way wrong. As I pointed out, we the people do not elect a Prime Minister, we elect a Party to Government, and it is the Party which decides who fills what job. Nonetheless, there is a valid argument that when a Party goes to an election with a particular individual selected as Leader, then the people should be entitled to vote on the basis that he or she will continue to be the leader. That’s why, even though we do not directly choose our Prime Minister, many people nonetheless feel cheated by last week’s events.

As I pointed out, our constitutional arrangements actually provide an important safeguard against any single individual attaining too much power, by ensuring that any leader must continue to enjoy the support of his or her colleagues. It is good democratic practice. However, despite the soundness of the structure of our system of government, there is another question which arises. It might be an excellent system, but is it also a system that can be or has been abused? Despite the value of having a mechanism whereby a Party can remove a Leader who has either fumbled or failed, is there also a risk that those who are making such decisions might be tempted to misuse or abuse that power?

The short answer is yes. Of course it is possible, and already the comparison with New South Wales has been made by many commentators, pointing out that the desperate manoeuvers of the Party Executive battling against plunging opinion polls has seen a revolving door installed in the State Premier’s office, while that Government has lurched from one crisis to the next. All the while, plans and policies are announced, only to be shelved again and replaced with new plans, often at great expense. The lesson from the New South Wales experience should be clear, and the idea that the same malaise should infect the Federal sphere is unsettling. The fact that one of the key power brokers in Rudd’s downfall, Senator Mark Arbib, was the New South Wales Party Secretary is no coincidence. Of course, the Federal Opposition is already running this line of argument, but what makes it interesting is that the past victims of this process including Former New South Wales Premier Maurice Iemma have made the same criticism.

In his departing address to the Caucus, former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd firmly made the point that sometimes good policies and necessary reforms which are in the best interests of the nation can be unpopular, and if a Party dumps a leader every time the polls take a turn for the worse, no brave but necessary decisions will ever be made. It is a course of action which can lead to a moribund “do nothing” Government, too frightened of losing the next election to actually do anything important, which of course could very well be a description of exactly what has happened in New South Wales. But this is where we find the Catch 22 of Australian politics, especially as it applies to the Labor Party where respect for an incumbent leader is more readily dumped in favour of preserving the good of the Party itself.
The Members of Parliament, elected by the people, and appointed to their Government roles by the Party, have a primary responsibility to govern for all Australians. They have the responsibility to devise and implement good policy in the national interest. The Party powerbrokers on the other hand have a different responsibility. Their priority is to win elections. How they do that is secondary, and as Graham Richardson famously said, they will do “whatever it takes”. Presumably that includes dumping good leaders, and overturning good policy. In the end of course, the fundamental problem is that no Government can deliver good policy if they lose the election, so winning at all costs becomes the priority.

Unfortunately, that also means that instead of winning being the means to the end of serving the national interest, it easily becomes the end in itself. When that happens, a good government really does lose its way.

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