Friday, June 25, 2010

An Excellent System

One of the immediate reactions to the leadership change of the Labor Party yesterday was the view expressed by many people that they had not voted for Julia Gillard to be Prime Minister. Many people felt that the had voted for Kevin Rudd in 2007 and that there was something wrong about the way in which a party can depose a Prime Minister by choosing to change leaders during the course of a parliamentary term. It was Kevin Rudd who was put forward by the party to be their leader in the 2007 election, and the feeling is that people voted on the basis that he would continue to be the leader. It is almost as if some people feel that they have been cheated of the opportunity to go to the election with Kevin Rudd in the position, even if it is only, in some cases at least, to have the opportunity to vote against him.

Of course, the fact is that we do not directly elect our Prime Minister, or any of the Cabinet for that matter. We all vote for our local members, who belong for the most part to one party or the other, and the party with the majority of seats becomes the Government. It is up to the party to decide who will fill what positions. In fact, after an election it is quite normal for a new government to shuffle portfolios so that a Shadow Minister might become a Minister for an entirely different portfolio. So why should it be any different with the Prime Minister? Even the very title of the job should make it clear that the PM is nothing more than the first among equals, rather than any kind of autocrat.

There is also some concern over the idea that the so called “faceless men” working in the shadows can determine who will and will not be Prime Minister. It is an image which really can be quite disturbing, giving the idea that dubious people with hidden agendas can pull the puppet strings with no accountability. Of course, it’s not really an accurate image at all. While the people who run the party, which in turn runs the government, are described as powerbrokers, they remain answerable to their own members. When it comes to mounting a leadership challenge, despite whatever influence they may wield, they cannot make it work without convincing a majority of the parliamentary party members to support it.

To some extent, political parties themselves have been responsible for promoting the importance of the leadership position by increasingly building Presidential style campaigns around the personalities they install in the top job. But ours is not a Presidential system. It is a Westminster Parliamentary Democracy, which in many respects is actually much better. Because the Prime Minister is not guaranteed a term in office, and must rely on the support of his colleagues to remain in power, it means our system avoids concentrating too much power in one person’s hands, and actively precludes the possibility of any leader becoming a dictator without staging a full scale revolution. In that respect, our system is excellent, and it might also offer a clue as to why Kevin Rudd no longer enjoyed the support of his colleagues.

As Winston Churchill observed, democracy is a terrible system of government but it is better than all of the alternatives.

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