Back around the turn of the century, the Australian government was all about safety, security and stability. The government itself got a bit too safe, secure and stable after winning control of both houses in the 2004 election. Sometimes the worst thing you can do to someone is give them what they want. The unexpected majority in the senate gave the Howard government the power to create new industrial relations laws that they had always wanted to introduce but never dared take to an election – least of all the 2004 election.
The electorate didn’t like the overreach and as the Howard government grew stale and complacent, the Labor opposition finally started to get its act together and present a clear and credible alternative. And so in 2007 a new government was elected that was ready for the 21st century. Finally we would ratify Kyoto, take Indigenous reconciliation seriously, and see broadband as a national infrastructure issue. Not only that, but they got Australia through the global financial crisis so smoothly that it was easy for many to believe it was never really a threat.
Behind the scenes though, all was not well. All testimony suggests that Kevin Rudd was narcissistic, demanding and difficult to work with – which apparently had become a bad thing in a Labor prime minister. Who knew?
Rudd was far too popular in the electorate to be reined in until the Greens made the perfect the enemy of the good by defeating Rudd’s Emissions Trading Scheme. His opponents in the party eventually pounced in mid-2010. Julia Gillard did not so much challenge as was told, “You’re on! Make it look believable.”
What she was expected to make look believable was the notion that there was nothing fundamentally wrong with the government that had just decided to ditch its leader three quarters of his way into his first term. She was also faced with the unenviable task of leading the government’s campaign for re-election without being able to stand on a record that was pretty admirable by any reasonable measure.
The electorate was also unconvinced and the result of the 2010 election was effectively ‘none of the above.’ Neither major party won a majority of seats and it came down to three ex-National independents to pick the winner based on weeks of negotiations. In a split decision, two of the three decided to back Julia Gillard on confidence and supply. However, a deal with two other crossbenchers meant the government would need to be more proactive on climate change than they had wanted to be.
In many ways, this is how parliament was always supposed to function. All legislation would have to pass on its merits rather than a clear party majority. Unfortunately, Gillard had made a crucial misstep in the campaign by promising there would never be a carbon tax under a government she led. The fact this promise was made on the assumption of an ALP majority was lost on most, especially a reenergised opposition whose leader had previously advocated just such a price.
As effective as the Gillard government was, her best polling numbers rarely got above Rudd’s worst. Facing a certain wipeout at the next election, the party brought Rudd back to lead it through its death throes. For the second time running, the government went to the election unable to stand on its record. We will never know for sure if Rudd’s return really did “save the furniture” but on one level, it was an act of mercy to spare Gillard from being defeated by an opposition leader who had acted so dishonourably towards her.
In any case, Tony Abbott led the Coalition to a landslide victory in 2013. Australia was open for business, the grownups were back in charge, and they would learn from the chaos of the Rudd/Gillard years.
Only they didn’t.
Not only did Tony Abbott make the exact same mistake Rudd did in centralising power in the office of Prime Minister and Cabinet, he put an unprecedented amount of that power in the hands of his chief of staff. Even loyal members of the government felt Peta Credlin was running the country and their input was surplus to requirements.
Furthermore, the new prime minister seemed to be treating the office he had fought so hard to obtain as his personal plaything. His reinstatement of knighthoods, and then giving one to Prince Phillip were nothing more than personal indulgences and his appointment of ideological brethren to traditionally apolitical positions like the Human Rights Commission could only be seen as trolling.
The party gave him a warning in the form of a spill motion which lacked a challenger. He claimed he had learnt his lesson but a little over six months later, he was gone. Malcolm Turnbull had fulfilled what many believed to be his destiny and became prime minister.
Unlike the Rudd and Gillard spills, Turnbull’s ascension was welcomed by almost all sides of politics. Finally the grownups were back in charge. Turnbull offered a less ideological, more pragmatic approach. He re-abolished knighthoods and… well apart from that, there wasn’t a great change.
His biggest challenge was trying to explain why there was nothing fundamentally wrong with a government that had just decided to ditch its leader two thirds of the way into his first term, and leading the government into an election where they couldn’t campaign on their record.
One thing Turnbull did that Rudd didn’t, was to use a double-dissolution trigger when it was given to him. And that gave us four One Nation senators. As far as the lower house was concerned though, the result of the 2016 election was effectively ‘none of the above.’ The Coalition managed to scrape back with a 1-seat majority which would become a minority by the time Turnbull himself was rolled.
Peter Dutton unsuccessfully challenged Turnbull but unlike the 2010 federal election, this time the right wing could get a do-over when they didn’t like the first result and Scott Morrison became the compromise candidate.
There have been many explanations for the succession of dumped leaders, starting with Julia Gillard’s lame line that a good government had lost its way, and getting gradually worse. Unwilling to simply say, “We just didn’t like him,” the government has chosen not to explain at all this time. And so Scott Morrison becomes the fourth prime minister in nine years to lead his party into an election where they can’t stand on their record… etc, etc.
Having been instrumental in the rolling of both Rudd then Gillard, Shorten would be wise to play a ‘small target’ when it comes to the current government’s short leadership span. Labor points to the fact that their leadership team has remained consistent for six years but if the last decade has taught us anything, it’s that strong and united opposition does not necessarily translate into stable and competent government.