In the end, the tough man crumpled. For a fortnight Barnaby Joyce had resembled someone out in the snow who’d broken through the pain threshold, as he defied massive pressure and political common sense to try to cling to his job.
But as the scandal engulfing him tore at the government, he finally gave way; on his own account, a sexual harassment allegation that was revealed publicly only on Thursday was the last straw.
Most observers thought the saga had to come to Friday’s conclusion. The media stories weren’t going to stop. They were of two kinds. There were those surrounding the employment arrangements made for his former staffer and now pregnant partner Vikki Campion. The others were the various claims of inappropriate behaviour that kept surfacing.
His Nationals colleagues, despite their admiration for Joyce’s campaigning and other abilities, looked on aghast during the last two weeks, increasingly pessimistic about the way things were going. Never mind his enemies – by Thursday, even his loyalists could not see a way through.
Within the government, clearly the relationship with Malcolm Turnbull was gone after the prime minister’s extraordinary personal attack last week and Joyce’s counterpunch. The staged weekend meeting to suggest a patch-up was farcical.
The fact that Joyce informed Acting Prime Minister Mathias Cormann, rather than Turnbull himself, of his impending resignation announcement says it all. Joyce’s opinion of Turnbull now likely matches what Tony Abbott thinks of Turnbull. Abbott had a thinly veiled jibe in his tribute to Joyce, saying “part of the problem has been poor management at the most senior levels of government”.
Joyce’s departure to the backbench obviously brings immediate relief for the government and the Nationals. What it will mean beyond that is more difficult to predict.
Michael McCormack, from New South Wales, seems virtually certain to become the new Nationals leader. He’s a junior minister with a relatively low profile, and has sometimes been shielded in parliament’s Question Time by more senior ministerial colleagues. The party is moving in behind McCormack, because there is no real alternative, and in an effort to show it is regrouping.
Another NSW National, David Gillespie, has also put up his hand – despite still waiting on a High Court decision about his constitutional eligibility to sit in parliament. But he is not a chance.
McCormack might grow into the job, as leaders sometimes do. Tim Fischer (unkindly) likes to remind me that I wrote him off when he became leader, and then had to acknowledge how well he turned out.
But taking over in these circumstances will be hard going for the new chief, who must sell himself in the electorate as well as establish enough authority within the government to enable the Nationals to punch above their numerical weight.
In the parliament, the Nationals are a top-down party. They number only 21, so they need their leadership to be strong – ideally not just the leader but their other senior ministers as well.
They are eons from the glory days of John McEwen, Doug Anthony, Ian Sinclair and Peter Nixon. But Joyce, under whom the party performed well at the 2016 election, enabled it to hold its own in the Coalition.
His successor will step into a Coalition climate in which many Liberals are furious that the Joyce scandal and the Nationals’ failure to resolve it quickly wiped out the government’s good start to the year. Also, even before all this happened, the rural Liberals, looking for more bounty and kudos, were flexing their muscle against their Nationals colleagues.
Joyce (like Abbott before him) says he won’t snipe from the backbench. They all say that, the cynic might observe (especially a cynic watching Abbott’s run-up to Turnbull’s expected 30 losing Newspolls).
On the other hand, Joyce’s fall is different from that of Abbott. He was not knifed in a coup by his own party. Indeed, even on Thursday, some Nationals sources believed Joyce probably still had the numbers (whether they would have held in a spill is something else).
Joyce was brought down by his own behaviour, relentless media disclosures, and the reality that the government could not stand the damage being done to it.
Whatever he might say about being busy on other fronts, with the baby and all, discipline and quietness are not in Joyce’s nature. When he first entered the parliament as a Queensland senator, he crossed the floor countless times and caused many headaches for the Nationals’ leadership.
It would be surprising if, as a backbencher in the lower house, he keeps his opinions to himself, even if he eschews floor-crossing, given the government’s tight numbers.
It’s premature to judge how damaged Joyce is as a campaigner in regional Australia. Initial opinion polls are a limited guide. If it turns out he still has cache as a retail politician, it will be interesting to see how extensively the Nationals, under their new leader, choose to use him in the next election campaign.
At a human level, Joyce is the story of an unlikely rise and a self-inflicted fall.
Joyce – who garnered international publicity when he threatened to euthanise Johnny Depp’s dogs – has always been a larger-than-life politician, a distinctive brand.
When he arrived in Canberra in 2005, no-one thought he’d ever lead the Nationals. He punched through, overcame setbacks, and remade himself while retaining the characteristics that led people to regard him as authentic.
But then his personal flaws and indulgences cost him all he’d worked and schemed for, as well as bringing grief to many close to him.
In other times and circumstances, Joyce might have skated through, little harmed by the scandal. But today the personal can quickly become the political – something Joyce failed to understand.
Malcolm Turnbull was no doubt relieved when the prime ministerial jet lifted off from Australian soil yesterday, bound for the United States and his first formal round of discussions in Washington with an American president.
In Turnbull’s own words – applied to Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce’s domestic troubles – he will be hoping to leave behind a “world of woe”.
After a steadier start to the new year, the Joyce scandal, involving an affair with a political staffer, has cut the ground from under those improved prospects.
This has been reflected in the latest round of polling, which shows the Coalition slipping back against the Labor opposition. Turnbull’s own approval rating has taken a hit.
For these and other reasons, not least the need to establish a sound working relationship with a new administration, the prime minister will be looking to a circuit-breaker.
Whether Turnbull’s “first 100 years of mateship” visit to Washington – with state premiers and business leaders in tow – provides a diversion from his domestic woes remains to be seen.
The hokey branding for the mission refers to the centenary of American soldiers fighting under Australian command on the Western Front in the Battle of Hamel in 1918.
In Washington, Turnbull’s discussions with President Donald Trump will focus primarily on China’s rise, the North Korean nuclear issue, and trade.
How to respond to North Korea’s provocations represents an immediate problem. But in the longer term, China’s expanding power and influence constitute the greatest security challenge facing Australia since the second world war.
In his public statements, Turnbull has been alternately hawkish and conciliatory toward Beijing, but it appears his instincts tend to align themselves with an American hedging strategy.
The Turnbull view of how to manage China’s rise was given particular expression in a speech in June 2017 to the annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. In this speech he called for “new sources of leadership [in the Indo-Pacific] to help the United States shape our common good”.
Turnbull’s Shangri-La speech was forthright for an Australian prime minister. He sharply criticised China’s “unilateral actions to seize or create territory or militarise disputed areas” in the South China Sea.
Beijing denies it, but it is clear it has been constructing a defence perimeter on islands and features in disputed waters. This prompted the following from Turnbull:
China has gained the most from the peace and harmony in our region and it has the most to lose if it is threatened … A coercive China would find its neighbours resenting demands they cede their autonomy and strategic space and look to counterweigh Beijing’s power by bolstering alliances and partnerships, between themselves and especially with the United States.
That speech was followed by increased efforts to expand a quadrilateral security dialogue between Australia, Japan, India and the US.
Turnbull’s visit to Japan in January for high-profile talks with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe emphasised shared regional security goals with other members of the so-called Quad.
What steps might be taken to further develop security collaboration between Australia, the US, India and Japan will almost certainly be on the table in Washington.
The Trump administration’s appointment of Admiral Harry Harris, the outgoing head of the US Pacific Command, as the ambassador-designate in Canberra is a signal of its intentions.
Harris has a hawkish view of China’s expanding influence in the Indo-Pacific. His participation in a security conference in Delhi in January along with Australian, Japanese and Indian naval commanders was significant in light of stepped-up efforts to bolster maritime collaboration between Quad members.
However – and this is a sizeable “however” – Turnbull needs to be careful not to be sucked into an American slipstream where China is concerned. Australia’s commercial interests dictate prudence in how it positions itself between a rising China and the US under an unpredictable Trump presidency.
The new US National Defence Strategy exposed differences between Canberra and Washington in their views of “revisionist” China and Russia as threats to US hegemony.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop felt obliged to distance Australia from the Trump administration’s characterisation of attempts by China and Russia to “shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model”. She said:
We have a different perspective on Russia and China, clearly. We do not see Russia or China as posing a military threat to Australia.
Turnbull, for his part, provided a more nuanced response. He said:
We don’t see threats from our neighbours in the region but nonetheless every country must always plan ahead and you need to build the capabilities to defend yourself not just today but in 10 years or 20 years hence.
The US withdrawal from the TPP, as one of Trump’s first executive acts as president, was disappointing. A trading bloc in the Indo-Pacific accounting for 36% of global GDP would have served as a counterweight to China’s surging trade and investment ambitions.
The revised CPTPP – including Australia, Japan, Canada, Mexico, New Zealand, Malaysia, Peru, Singapore, Chile, Vietnam and Brunei – remains significant. But clearly the abrupt US withdrawal has lessened its reach.
Significantly, Turnbull will discuss the CPTPP on the eve of the initialling of the agreement among the 11 remaining participants on March 8.
Trump has indicated he might be receptive to arguments for American re-engagement in the CPTPP process. However, this would require the renegotiation of provisions on such contentious issues as dispute settlements, copyright and intellectual property.
It is hard to see this happening in a timely manner. In a sense, the train has left the station.
The latter is a vast Chinese infrastructure scheme. China is seeking to strengthen its influence in surrounding states by recycling a portion of its foreign exchange reserves in road, rail, port and other such projects.
It is not clear just how Turnbull and Trump might seek to provide alternative sources of infrastructure funding for projects to counter Chinese attempts to buy influence far and wide.
Such a scheme emerged from a pre-summit briefing in Canberra. The fact it is being floated attests to concerns in Washington and Canberra about China’s success in using its financial heft to extend its security interests.
Malcolm Turnbull has delivered an effective vote of no-confidence in Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, announcing he will not be acting prime minister next week, but instead will go on a week’s leave.
This follows Turnbull telling parliament twice earlier this week that the Nationals leader would act in his place when he visits the US next week.
The acting prime minister will be Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, who is the government’s Senate leader. Joyce will be on leave for a week from Monday.
The Liberals’ deputy leader, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, would normally be next in line, but she is scheduled to be overseas. She did offer to cancel those arrangements, but that option was not taken up.
On Wednesday Joyce shored up his support within the Nationals to continue as leader, but on Thursday he was seriously on the back foot.
In parliament, the opposition pursued his relations with businessman Greg Maguire, who provided him with an Armidale apartment free of rent for six months, worth a total of about A$12,000.
Joyce said that when his marriage had broken down and he was standing for the New England byelection, Maguire approached him and in the discussion offered the accommodation. He had said he would pay, but this was refused by Maguire, Joyce told parliament. He said “he didn’t have to worry about it because I was a mate.”
Maguire has previously told two journalists that Joyce had made the initial approach.
The opposition also asked about a $5,000 payment made by an agency under Joyce’s then-agriculture portfolio to a Maguire business for a 2016 Agricultural Industry Advisory Council dinner at an Armidale hotel that the businessman owns.
Joyce said he did not know about the payment. “Obviously decisions in the vicinity of $5,000 don’t generally go across the minister’s table.”
The Senate late Thursday passed by 35-29 a Greens-Labor motion calling “on the deputy prime minister to resign from his position … for clearly breaching the standards required of ministers; and if he does not resign, calls on the National Party to sack him as leader.”
Earlier, the opposition failed in an attempt to have the House of Representatives call on Turnbull “to immediately sack” Joyce for “clearly breaching the prime minister’s statement of ministerial standards”.
From today’s vantage point, the November 2007 federal election appears like a hinge between two political eras: one stable and marked by executive mastery; the other chaotic and characterised by confounded leadership.
In reality, some of the dynamics of recent troubles – a fastening news cycle and governments in permanent campaign mode, and a domineering Prime Minister’s Office staffed by personal loyalists – were emerging in Howard’s time.
Moreover, it’s easy to forget now that the Coalition governments of 1996-2007 suffered more than their share of political storms and that Howard, frequently lagging in the opinion polls, conjured his longevity from Houdini-like escapes at election time.
Even so, it’s difficult not to view November 2007 as a dividing line in the nation’s politics. But what if the real hinge date was December 2006, when Labor removed Kim Beazley as its leader and replaced him with Rudd? That partyroom vote ended Beazley’s second period as opposition leader.
The first began after the Keating government’s defeat in March 1996. At the next federal election of October 1998, Beazley fell just short of claiming the prime ministership, despite Labor winning the two-party-preferred vote. He stepped aside following the November 2001 election, after Labor lost ground in a contest shadowed by the September 11 attacks and Howard’s exploitation of the Tampa incident to politically weaponise the issue of border control.
Beazley was resurrected as Labor leader in January 2005, after the party had first discarded Simon Crean and then conducted an ill-fated experiment with Mark Latham.
Beazley’s fall in December 2006 was the product of a political marriage of convenience between Rudd and Julia Gillard. In the light of the civil war that duo fought between 2010 and 2013, it is ironic that in the first flushes of their partnership they were dubbed the “dream team”.
In the recently published first volume of his autobiography, Rudd is adamant that rolling Beazley was a necessary precondition to Labor’s 2007 election victory. He refers to “consistently negative personal support levels over more than a year and a half of public opinion polling” as evidence that voters “had made their mind up” about Beazley. Where have we heard that phrase before?
In her 2014 memoir, however, Gillard admitted to retrospective misgivings about deposing Beazley:
Was I wrong in my judgement of Kim Beazley in 2006? I fear I may have been, that what I inferred as his lack of interest in the work of opposition was really a more nuanced understanding of electoral politics than I then possessed … Kim may rightly have judged that we were so likely to win that a quieter biding of time in the lead-up to election day was a better approach than strenuous political exertion.
In politics you never get to run the control test. We will never know what would have happened in a John Howard versus Kim Beazley election or what a Beazley government might have been like.
For a moment, let’s entertain a counter-factual scenario. Could Labor have won in 2007 with Beazley at the helm? Beazley had been a well-liked leader at his two previous election contests: the Australian Election Studies for 1998 and 2001 found he outrated Howard on popularity.
And, while it is true that his personal approval ratings had sagged in his second coming as leader, in the six months prior to his overthrow, Labor headed the Coalition on two-party-preferred terms in nine out of 13 Newspolls.
Unquestionably, Rudd’s ascension to the leadership was a shot in the arm for Labor’s poll figures. The party then surged well in front of the Coalition. Yet analyses of the 2007 election result have suggested that, despite the hoopla of Labor’s leader-focused “Kevin 07” campaign, the most decisive reasons for the Coalition’s defeat was voter hostility to its WorkChoices industrial relations regime and fatigue with a more-than-decade-old government and its prime minister.
If Beazley rather than Rudd had become prime minister in 2007, there seems little doubt that it would have been a different Labor government. The knocks on Beazley as leader, which were marshalled against him in the December 2006 ballot, were that he lacked urgency, was complacent, too congenial (he “lacked ticker” in a phrase Howard had earlier deployed against him).
Yet, by contrast to the manic, controlling and grandiose tendencies that Rudd brought to office, Beazley’s low-key leadership style would in all probability have translated into a more ordered, collegial and measured government.
Indeed, as a protégé of Bob Hawke and senior minister in his governments, Beazley had a model for how to be a successful Labor prime minister. His governing experience – he was also deputy prime minister under Paul Keating – was something that both Rudd and Gillard lacked. He certainly better understood and was more of a creature of the Labor Party than Rudd, which was another of the latter’s fatal flaws.
It is also relevant to note that the deposition of Beazley in 2006 was symptomatic of a culture of leadership disposability to which a skittish Labor succumbed when in opposition to Howard. The party changed leaders four times between 2001 and 2006. This was a culture that Labor took with it into government, desensitising it to the folly of ambushing Rudd in 2010 and then toppling Gillard in 2013.
Had Labor stilled its hand in December 2006 and Beazley become prime minister in 2007, might Australia have avoided the cycle of destructive leadership instability and political dysfunction that has disfigured the past decade?
As Gillard observes, we can, of course, never know what would have happened: isolating out the effects of individual agency from the complex flow of historical events is notoriously problematic. It remains, though, an intriguing notion.
This week’s Newspoll, conducted 9-12 November from a sample of 1630, gave Labor a 55-45 lead, a one point gain for Labor since last fortnight, and their largest Newspoll lead since February. Primary votes were 38% Labor (up 1), 34% Coalition (down 1), 10% One Nation (up 1) and 9% Greens (down 1). This is Turnbull’s 23rd consecutive Newspoll loss as PM, 7 short of Abbott.
29% were satisfied with Turnbull’s performance (down 2), and 58% were dissatisfied (down 1), for a net approval of -29. Shorten’s net approval was up five points to -19. The biggest story in the personal ratings was Turnbull’s lead as better PM over Shorten narrowing from 41-33 to 36-34, by far Turnbull’s lowest Newspoll lead over Shorten since he ousted Abbott to become PM.
This result will increase leadership speculation, and hard right commentators will say the Coalition should return to a proper conservative leader. However, while this is Turnbull’s worst better PM rating, Shorten often led Abbott while Abbott was PM. The better PM measure favours incumbents more than would be expected given voting intentions.
Newspoll asked a best Liberal leader question with three options: Turnbull, Julie Bishop and Peter Dutton. Bishop led Turnbull 40-27, with 11% for Dutton. Among Coalition voters, Turnbull was ahead 42-39 with 7% for Dutton. Dutton won 24% with One Nation voters.
If we count Labor/Greens as left, and Coalition/One Nation as right, there has been little change between the total left and right votes in the last six Newspolls. The total left vote has been 47% in all six, and the total right 44-45%. One Nation’s preference flow to the Coalition is likely to be stronger than the 50% at the 2016 election, which Newspoll uses, so Labor’s two party lead is probably overstated.
The fall in Turnbull’s better PM lead is likely due to the citizenship debacle, with voters thinking he has lost control of the situation. By 45-42, voters favoured changing the Constitution to allow dual citizens to run for Parliament.
The Bennelong by-election will be held on 16 December. Former NSW Premier Kristina Kenneally today announced she would contest the by-election for Labor. Kenneally has a high public profile. While Labor was smashed at the 2011 NSW election, the damage was done long before Kenneally became Premier, and she has not been blamed for that loss. Kenneally appears to be a very good choice for Labor.
With Essential and YouGov below confirming the trend in Newspoll, Kevin Bonham’s poll aggregate is now at 54.2% two party to Labor, a 1.0 point gain for Labor since last week, and Labor’s best for this term.
Lambie’s probable disqualification will un-un-elect McKim
Two weeks ago, I wrote that Tasmanian Liberal Senator Stephen Parry’s disqualification would see One Nation’s Kate McCulloch defeat Green Nick McKim for the 12th and final seat, reversing the 2016 election result.
Jacqui Lambie has revealed she has a Scottish father, and has resigned from the Senate. If both Parry and Lambie are disqualified, the Senate recount reverts to electing McKim instead of McCulloch. So it now appears that the High Court will not have to rule on whether an elected Senator who has done nothing wrong himself can be unelected.
SSM plebiscite polling
The result of the same sex marriage plebiscite will be declared at 10am Melbourne time tomorrow. In Newspoll, 79% said they had voted, up 3 since last fortnight. Of these 79%, Yes led 63-37 (62-35 from the 76% who had voted last fortnight).
In Essential, 45% thought the postal survey a bad process that should not be used in the future, 27% a good process that should be used in the future, and 19% a good process that should not be used.
If Yes wins, 58% in YouGov thought the government should pass a law legalising same sex marriage straight away, 18% ignore the result, and 14% wait before passing a law. By 46-42, voters thought MPs who personally oppose same sex marriage should vote for the bill.
Essential 54-46 to Labor
This week’s Essential, conducted over the last two weeks from a sample of 1820, gave Labor a 54-46 lead, a one point gain for Labor since last week. Primary votes were 38% Labor, 36% Coalition, 9% Greens, 8% One Nation and 3% Nick Xenophon Team. Additional questions use one week’s sample.
Turnbull’s net approval was down 11 points to -12 since October, and Shorten’s net approval was down six points to -13. Unlike Newspoll, Turnbull maintained a 40-28 lead as better PM (42-28 in October).
By 44-40, voters thought Turnbull’s proposal to resolve the dual citizenship crisis did not go far enough. By 49-30, they thought disqualified MPs should repay public funding of their election campaigns. By 44-31, voters disapproved of privatising the NBN when completed.
This week’s YouGov poll, conducted 9-12 November from a sample of 1034, gave Labor a 52-48 lead by respondent preferences, a 3 point gain for Labor since last fortnight. Primary votes were 34% Labor (up 1), 31% Coalition (down 5), 11% Greens (up 1) and 11% One Nation (up 2). By previous election preferences, this poll would be about 55-45 to Labor.
Hanson had a 48-45 unfavourable rating (50-42 in early September). Greens leader Richard di Natale had a 33-29 unfavourable rating (39-26). Nick Xenophon had a 53-28 favourable rating (52-28). Abbott had a 56-36 unfavourable rating (57-34).
By 61-16, voters thought a full audit into all parliamentarians regarding dual citizenship a good idea. By 63-26, they thought it unacceptable to legally avoid paying tax. By 55-27, voters said they would not take part in a tax avoidance scheme, which is probably not an honest assessment.
Qld ReachTEL poll of One Nation voters, and more Galaxy seat polls
A ReachTEL poll of over 3400 voters was conducted for the Sunday Mail. From the Poll Bludger’s write-up and comments, it appears this poll was of just One Nation voters, not all voters. Sky News reported this poll as 52-48 to the LNP, but they appear to have extrapolated One Nation preferences in this poll (74.5% to LNP), and applied those preferences to other polls.
If 3 in 4 One Nation preferences are going to the LNP, Labor has shot itself in the foot by changing the electoral system from optional preferential to compulsory preferential voting last year. Labor can hope that this poll had self-selection issues, with hard right One Nation supporters more likely to participate than those who are simply disillusioned with both major parties.
In deputy Premier Jackie Trad’s South Brisbane, the Greens had a 51-49 lead over Trad according to a Galaxy poll taken last week. However, this poll assumes that LNP voters will assign their own preferences, rather than follow their party’s How-to-Vote card. In practice, over half of major party voters follow the card. With the LNP putting the Greens behind Labor on all its cards, Trad should retain South Brisbane easily.
In Burdekin, the LNP had a 51-49 lead over Labor, a 2 point swing to the LNP since the 2015 election.
Following Moore’s alleged sex encounter with 14-y/o, Alabama Senate race tightens
The Alabama Senate by-election will be held on 12 December. Last Thursday, the Washington Post reported that extreme right Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore had had a sexual encounter with a 14 year-old girl when he was 32.
The three polls taken since this revelation are between a 4-point lead for Democrat Doug Jones, and a 10-point lead for Moore, averaging at Moore by 2 points. There have been 12-point shifts in Jones’ favour from the previous editions of both JMC and Emerson, and a 5-point shift in Opinion Savvy.
What happens next depends on whether voters quickly get over the scandal, or whether it festers, and continues to damage Moore. If the former happens, Moore should win comfortably, but the latter outcome would give Jones a real chance. An example of a scandal that festered in Australia was Bronwyn Bishop’s Choppergate affair.
During the dim, distant past of New Zealand’s recent election campaign, soon-to-be-former prime minister Bill English grumbled that the “stardust” that was falling thick and fast on new Labour leader Jacinda Ardern would settle.
Well, it just has – in such quantities that some time next week Ardern will be sworn in as the 40th – and second youngest – prime minister of Aotearoa/New Zealand.
From stardust to PM
It is quite some denouement to an extraordinary period in New Zealand’s political history. A little under three months ago, Ardern was the deputy leader of a Labour Party that was polling in minor party territory. From deputy leader of a struggling opposition party to prime minister in under three months – that’s stardust on an industrial scale.
For Winston Peters, too, who is likely to become the next deputy prime minister (for the second time), it is a spectacular return to form. Three times Peters has been the veto player in the government formation process. On each occasion he has kept everyone guessing, including, it appears, members of his own caucus.
So, here’s what we know. The new government will comprise a formal coalition between Labour and NZF (the first executive coalition we’ve had on this side of the ditch since 2005). As a minority administration, it will govern with support on confidence and supply from the Greens.
NZF will hold four cabinet positions and an additional slot outside of cabinet. This means that just over half of its caucus will be in the political executive. The Greens, too, will – for the first time in their history – have ministerial portfolios: three outside of Cabinet and one parliamentary under-secretary.
But there’s plenty we don’t yet know. We’re not sure who will occupy which portfolios (although we’re fairly sure Peters will be the deputy prime minister). Neither will we know the nature of the policy detail (if any) in the executive agreement and its associated confidence and supply document until next week.
Few rules to form a government
The last time NZF was in formal coalition – ironically, with the National Party in 1996 – there was an awful lot of devil in that detail. Since then, New Zealand governments have moved away from policy-prescriptive agreements to arrangements that emphasise procedural certainty and clarity. However, the attention that has clearly been paid to matters of policy in the negotiations over the last three weeks suggests we may see a swing back to a greater emphasis on policy substance.
Once the dust – wherever it happens to have come from – has settled on today’s momentous events, a number of features of this election will merit careful reflection.
In particular, questions will certainly be asked of the way in which New Zealand governments are formed. Almost alone amongst mature parliamentary democracies, there are few or no formal rules governing the process. Apart from the constitutional requirement that the government is formed by the party or parties able to demonstrate to the governor-general that they command the confidence of parliament, there is little formal guidance and few restrictions on the process.
That goes a long way to explaining why it has taken a few days short of four weeks to form this government and why, for the first time under the mixed member proportional (MMP) electoral system in New Zealand, the incoming government will not be led by the party that won the largest number of seats in the election. All of this is perfectly constitutional, but disconcerting for some New Zealanders nonetheless.
Expect big, boisterous opposition
What next? National will be furious. Expect some talk over the next couple of days of the “moral authority” the party had to govern, given that it won a clear plurality of parliamentary seats. While the constitution recognises no such thing, National certainly had political precedence on its side.
National will ride that wave of righteous anger – internally at least, if not outwardly for public consumption – for some time to come. Hell hath no fury and so forth. And if the Labour/NZF/Green governing bloc starts fraying at the edges, then National’s claim to “moral authority” will start to look a little less imaginary.
But this might not have been a bad election for National to lose. The party can now move on from the Key years, start generating fresh ideas and begin bringing through some of its younger talent as it remakes itself as a conservative force. Moreover, National will comprise a big, boisterous opposition. The parliamentary conventions and rules governing the allocation of questions in the house, speaking time and membership on select committee positions mean that it will be able to make life very challenging for the new administration.
Human face of capitalism
And what of the new government? For Labour, NZF and Greens – which between them represent 50.5% of those who cast party votes in the election (against National’s 44.4%) – this is the chance to effect change following nine years of orthodox neoliberal government from National.
Peters’ claim when announcing his decision that he wanted to be part of a government that would restore ‘capitalism with a human face’ falls far short of a clarion call for the destruction of neoliberalism. It does, however, signal a significant change in policy direction. For those New Zealanders on the wrong side of the ledger when it comes to our dire performance in health, housing, productivity, wage and salary growth, poverty and so on, that change can’t come soon enough.
This, then, will be a legacy government, one that represents a generational shift in thinking away from the priorities of the baby boomers towards the concerns of the millennials. The irony that such a thing has been brought about by a man on the other side of 70 won’t be lost on anyone. “Let’s do this” was Ardern’s campaign slogan. Now we get to see how New Zealand’s political odd couple go.
Malcolm Turnbull was interviewed late last month on the ABC’s flagship news current affairs program, 7.30. It wasn’t pretty viewing. Turnbull responded to host Leigh Sales’ interrogation through gritted teeth. He tetchily accused her of being “negative”: of only wanting “to talk about politics”. The performance was the antithesis of the Turnbull of old — he of the leather jacket, who revelled in appearing on the national broadcaster, exuding charm and confidently expansive. In his place was a brittle and defensive prime minister.
We cannot know for sure what lies ahead for Turnbull — his boosters still wait expectantly for the green shoots of political recovery. Yet the monotonously negative opinion polls invite the suspicion that the public has given up on the Turnbull government. The Coalition’s divisions over key issues (now the clean energy target) and serial misadventures (such as the dual citizenship imbroglio) do little to instil confidence in Turnbull’s future. Like Tony Abbott, Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd before him, he has become another in a line of beleaguered prime ministers.
As we have shown in our two-volume history of the office, being prime minister has never been easy. For many of its occupants, the office’s frustrations have been at least equal to its opportunities. Even those who have prospered in the role — since the second world war, think Robert Menzies, Bob Hawke and John Howard — endured fluctuations in personal popularity, electoral performance and ability to get things done.
Yet the disturbing trend of the past decade is hard to ignore. After Howard, the credit lines necessary to exercise effective leadership — keeping the nation’s ear even when delivering unpopular messages, articulating a coherent policy program, having reforms passed and securely embedded, and leading from the front (staring down one’s own colleagues and constituencies when necessary) — have eluded successive incumbents. They have struggled to resolve major policy problems and have suffered serious erosion of their personal popularity and political authority rapidly after achieving office.
Individual fallibility has played a part in this troubling story. If one mapped Australia’s 29 prime ministers along a spectrum of temperamental aptitude for the office, then Rudd and Abbott belong well towards the unsuitable end. Both lacked that essential quality German sociologist Max Weber called “the firm taming of soul”. All four of our most recent prime ministers have also made grave errors of judgment, but so have many of their predecessors.
Nor can lack of institutional resources provide a plausible answer for the contemporary malaise. To the contrary, since the second world war there has been a steady accretion of resources, both bureaucratic and personal staffing, at the heart of government. Prime ministers of the 21st century command a formidable institutional machine. They are supported by a responsive and professional Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, and a large and powerful Prime Minister’s Office staffed by political loyalists.
Recent history suggests that, poorly directed, this “prime-ministerial machine” can go seriously awry, thereby exacerbating difficulties. But this factor is again insufficient to account for why national leadership has become so confounding.
A better explanation lies in the destabilising contextual changes of our times. First, post-2007 leaders are, like Whitlam and Fraser in the 1970s and ’80s, struggling with policy regime exhaustion: in their case, the expiring of the neoliberal experiment.
This condition is common to most advanced economies. The global financial crisis starting in 2008 was heralded at the time as a turning point. Much was said then and since about the necessity of a new social contract; regulation that would manage market failure; measures that would address inequality in resource distribution; and the need to stem the pervasive and increasing conviction among many that the economy was not working for them.
Yet, a decade on, we are still grasping uncertainly for those new ideas and a refreshed policy regime.
A second factor is a transforming party landscape. The central role that the established parties have played in our national political life can hardly be overstated: ours has been a “party democracy”.
Anchored in distinct social bases that have now broken up, the major parties have been the primary instruments through which voters organise their thinking about politics and express their choices. They’ve been the system’s ballast.
There have been significant periods in the past when one or other of the major parties was effectively moribund. But what we confront now is more fundamental, as major party membership dwindles and the public’s affiliation to them dissolves. The result is greater voter volatility.
For leaders, party change is having a paradoxical effect. As the parties have become less representative of society and as their philosophical moorings have weakened, they have leaned more heavily on leaders as the point of brand differentiation and to be spokesperson for all that they stand for. While potentially strengthening the authority and autonomy of leaders, this has equally meant they become chief target of blame and retribution if party fortunes suffer.
Moreover, the decline of the traditional parties seems to be manifesting in a pattern of intensifying fragmentation and factionalisation. Splinter parties on the left and right have emerged, with a growing divergence in the attitudes of the residual party membership and majority public opinion. In these circumstances, “broad church” arguments, such as those championed by Howard, have become difficult to sustain.
The plight of Turnbull since 2015 has illustrated this dilemma. To hew closely to party views — and especially to the vocal advocacy of ideological purists — risks extinguishing his public popularity. But to do what the public wanted has been to court internal revolt and possible loss of leadership.
Third, the ability of contemporary prime ministers to persuade has been eroded by disruptions to the mass media “broadcast” model of public communication that served their predecessors so well. That model conferred on prime ministers the ability to build relations with media proprietors and the press gallery, to use radio and television to speak directly to a broad audience, to lay out arguments, and to calculate the timing of releases.
It depended on opinion-leading broadsheets with a trickle-down influence on tabloids and radio and television news, and predictable news cycles. Leaders knew this game and structured their communication to achieve a match between their own skills and the options then available.
In the 21st century, however, the business models that sustained such practices were susceptible to changing perceptions of what would trigger audience “choice” – “infotainment” and celebrity undermining serious journalism. Above all, the new technology of dissemination, the internet, undermined the monopolies on which the model had depended.
The anarchic, real-time, “post-fact” logic of social media eroded the press gallery’s quasi-monopoly on meaning-making about politics for the public. New social media platforms became significant in opinion formation. In effect, a new form of “narrowcasting” eviscerated the “mass” media. The result is that media traffic has never been so intense, but public discourse has become fractured and fractious.
Has the prime minister’s role become impossible? With neither the parties nor the media serving as an effective means for explaining and justifying policy responses and promoting opinion aggregation, there is no question that the incumbency advantage in national debate enjoyed by prime ministers from the middle of last century has dissipated. Governing has become far more complicated, not just in Australia but globally.
The incumbents of the past decade have tried to cope with these challenges in different ways. For instance, in the area of public communication, Rudd became Australia’s first 24/7 leader, only for the media “logic” of his government to overwhelm its political and policy logic. The confections of Rudd’s obsessive media performing undermined his sense of authenticity.
Adjusting to the new realities of leading will demand further improvisation and adaption. At the same time, what we have learned from studying the history of the prime ministership gives grounds for optimism that there are ways out of the current fix.
First, policy cycles come and go. If the limitations of the market-liberalising ideas of the 1980s and ’90s have become apparent to many people, provoking disillusion, we have been there before. The innovative Deakinite “Australian settlement” was in large part a reaction to the Australian experience of the 1890s depression: it took the first Commonwealth decade and more to achieve.
The calamitous Great Depression period occasioned frustration for prime ministers James Scullin, Joseph Lyons and Menzies (mark 1) before the catalyst of war and post-war reconstruction fostered the Keynesian breakthrough, led by John Curtin, Ben Chifley and Menzies (mark 2). This met the problems of that time but, inevitably, circumstances changed again and the assumptions of the 1940s no longer served in the 1970s and ’80s.
Treasury began to question those assumptions and to revisit classical economics as early as 1971. But it was not until 1983 that Hawke, Paul Keating and later Howard drove the reforms that have since been evocatively dubbed by George Megalogenis as “the Australian moment”. But those changes have produced their own problems. The lags and transitions as policy regimes wane and reinventions occur are never short term — they may take ten or 15 years — but history suggests that they are usually achieved.
Second, let us talk of leadership. At times of crisis or deep disillusion, there are often calls for strong leadership. Our study has shown, however, that the complex challenges of social change have been best addressed by prime ministers who have fostered talented ensembles, capable of applying diverse skills to the task of government. The standout instances have been Alfred Deakin (with a rare capacity for attracting disciples and crafting alliances), Curtin and Chifley (united in co-operative endeavour by robust common sense allied with personal humility), and Hawke (who improbably matched overweening egotism with an inherent gift for orchestrating distributed leadership).
In each case, they operated at the turning point of a political cycle. Deakin inaugurated “the Australian settlement”. Curtin and Chifley initiated what Stuart Macintyre has described as “Australia’s boldest experiment”. Hawke (with Keating) started the reform cycle that assured prosperity and resilience as globalisation unsettled Australian expectations.
It perhaps seems a vain hope to trust in the wisdom or capacity of the right individuals to emerge again, but in the past difficult circumstances have conspired to produce them.
Thousands of protesters are expected to take to the streets of Kuala Lumpur and other Malaysian cities on Saturday to call for the resignation of Prime Minister Najib Razak.
Popular discontent with Najib’s leadership has rapidly escalated since early last month, when an exposé in The Wall Street Journal revealed that his private bank accounts held over $700 million in funds purportedly siphoned off a struggling state investment fund called 1Malaysia Development Berhad.
Najib has firmly denied malfeasance and penalized those who have alleged it. He has threatened to sue the Journal for libel; more controversially, he sacked his deputy prime minister, Muhyiddin Yassin, in a cabinet reshuffle in late July after Muhyiddin called for transparency in the matter.
Today’s planned rally, which the authorities have deemed unlawful, is the latest exercise in political discontent within this once-promising Southeast Asian state. The engine of this discontent is an unofficial pro-democracy…