The revolving door of politics
By : Mahir Ali
One of the questions Australian paramedics traditionally ask to check the mental acuity of patients who have suffered some kind of trauma is: “Who is the prime minister of Australia?” Many of them, according to a report published last week, have lately struck that particular query off their lists.
Apparently, they have decided it’s too confusing. That’s a fair call, given that there have been five prime ministers since mid-2010 (and, to make it even more convoluted, two of them were the same person; according to one paramedic, a patient he attended responded to the question with: “I haven’t watched the news today”). Three of the changes in this period have occurred through party-room coups — that is, as a result of a party’s elected representatives deciding they would be better off under another leader.
That is not an illegitimate political process, nor is it a novelty in historical terms, but its frequency following John Howard’s 11-year tenure led a BBC correspondent to dub Canberra “the coup capital of the democratic world” in the wake of the Tony Abbott’s overthrow by Malcolm Turnbull less than two months ago. The 24/7 news cycle and constant scrutiny of opinion polls have been cited as leading causes behind the phenomenon.
There can be little question that plummeting poll ratings did indeed play a significant role in Kevin Rudd’s ouster in 2010, as well as that of Julia Gillard in 2013 and Abbott earlier this year. It wasn’t the only factor, though. Besides, whereas regular surveys of public opinion are common in many western democracies, the tendency to panic seems to be particularly strong in the Australian milieu.
Beyond core conservatives and Christian fundamentalists, there was little adulation of Abbott in the first place, and the fact that the Liberal Party he led and its National Party coalition partners won a substantial majority in the 2013 elections was more an indictment of the Labor Party’s shenanigans than a vote of confidence in the more conservative side of politics. Once it began more than likely that his would be a one-term government, it was only a matter of time before the Liberals opted for a less abrasive and more articulate leader.
The relatively suave Turnbull fits the bill, despite the fact that he has had to bury most of his relatively liberal instincts on issues such as gay rights and Australia’s long overdue severing of constitutional links with the British monarchy in order to retain support among his party’s more retrograde wing. It’s not surprising, in the event, that Turnbull’s advent at the helm has been signified thus far by minor, mainly cosmetic shifts from the Abbott template.
One matter on which Turnbull and Abbott are clearly at loggerheads, though, is the constitutional crisis that reached its apogee 40 years ago today with the only instance in Australian history of the dismissal of an elected government by the representative of the British crown, the governor-general. Abbott believes it was absolutely the right thing to do; Turnbull unequivocally disagrees.
Meanwhile, two fresh publications purportedly throw new light on the traumatic events of 1975, when the first Labor government in decades was overthrown by Sir John Kerr in a conspiracy that involved two high court judges as well as opposition leader Malcolm Fraser. One of the books alleges that Buckingham Palace was well aware of Kerr’s intentions, not least through his direct communications with Prince Charles. The other claims that not only was the palace was oblivious to his plans but that it played a key role in his removal from the governor-general’s post less than two years later.
It has been reported this week that Turnbull has requested Buckingham Palace to release Kerr’s correspondence with it, which is meant to remain under lock and key at least until 2027. If Buckingham Palace demurs, it will only reinforce the suspicion that it has something to hide. What is arguably vastly more significant is the role that the CIA is likely to have played in that unedifying episode, and you’re not likely to find many references to it in the mainstream Australian media.
Whitlam wasn’t a radical but, despite its erratic tendencies, his government instituted a progressive sea-change, a key aspect of which involved distancing itself from American foreign policy, especially (but not exclusively) in relation to the Vietnam War. The Nixon government and the CIA were appalled by Canberra’s declaration of independence, not least by the presumed threat to the Australian-based US spying facilities.
Although no smoking gun has emerged, pretty damning circumstantial evidence has been piling up over the decades. Australia, not surprisingly, remains reluctant to inspect it too closely.
In term of dramatic prime ministerial exits, though, it could be argued that Whitlam was pipped to the post by a Liberal predecessor who literally disappeared off the face of the earth. Harold Holt — who not only gave the US the real estate and leeway it required to set up its listening posts, but is also credited with coining the slogan “All the way with LBJ” on the eve of president Lyndon Baines Johnson’s visit to Australia in 1966.
In December 1967, Holt went for a swim off the coast of Victoria, and was never seen again. It’s a course one wouldn’t hesitate to commend to a fair number of current politicians, in Australia and elsewhere.
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