06 July 2010

Voting for the leader

It's all very well to have sympathy for Kevin Rudd, but the mawkish sense that lingers that Rudd has - and by extension, we have - been cheated is something different. It's been two whole weeks now. There's something going on.

At first I thought all this sympathy for Kevin Rudd was just a stick which the Liberals use to beat Labor. So Kevin '07 was just a slogan, a non-core promise, rather than some sort of patsy who would shuffle off to defeat and drag his party down with him. Turns out that the ALP was far more resolute than the hand-wringing Liberals who could not step up and save themselves from Howard.

In a column I don't normally read, this guy let out a howl that showed it wasn't all about trying to wring emotion out of a man who cultivated an image of being efficient to the point of coldness:

Am I the only person who feels like I've been putting $500 on the Melbourne Cup every year since 1988 only to be told the result is decided in the stewards' room before the horses have even jumped?

If I and the rest of the Australian public don't vote for the prime minister, why the hell did Bill what's-his-name and his chums in caucus sack the one we had?

If I and the all the other mug voters don't make the decision, how come it's the prime minister (or the leader of the opposition) who stars in all the advertisements on the tellie?

Oh, please. I was a fairly active and observant member of a political party and studied politics at uni. People like Sam de Brito have spent their lives ignoring or sneering at politics nerds - until they get blindsided and stumble around like some comic actor who ends up with a bucket on his head, feebly waving his arms.

This isn't the place for a lesson on the Westminster system. It isn't the place for some absurd conservative-libertarian wail about how ignorami decide the outcomes of political contests. Nor is it (however tempting) to lecture this mainstream media employee about why you can't believe everything you see in the mainstream media, particularly when it comes to politics. de Brito is not alone here, in pining for a leader who wasn't that popular. There's something else going on here.

What's going on here is that we thought we had a de facto republic, and so all the fuss of 1999 was somehow unnecessary. The focus on party leaders meant that people thought we did elect leaders and thus a republic was unnecessary. Now it's clear that this idea of electing the Prime Minister directly was a bit like blocking the budget: if the immovable object of political convention comes up against the unstoppable force of political interests, back political interests. Never, never bet on sentiment.

In NSW we've seen that you don't vote for a Premier, you vote for a Praetorian Guard who may direct the knives outward from the leader or inward toward them, as they and not you choose. If the same thing happens federally (and if hacks like Arbib, Randall and Feeney get ahead of themselves, it will), if Gillard goes and is replaced by someone else who is subsequently replaced, etc., the whole republic thing could come to the fore again in a way that the wide boys can't control. We'll want a local member and more broadly based members, who currently sit in upper houses - and we'll also want a leader, who tells it like it is and who meets with whomever has to be met with, and who then makes the call and then that's the issue dealt with. We'll want a President/Governor, and we'll want to vote for them ourselves.

The Prime Minister and the Premier used to play that role. They may do so again, but the facade has gone now and can never be fully restored. The weakness of party leadership and the Praetorian role of the factions means that the desire for a single, personified leader - one elected directly by the people - will grow.

For the first time, the direct election model for an Australian republic appears to have a point. Countless mayors across the country are elected, with a face and a name that sets them above the mere "tickets" offered by their opponents. The push for an elected head of state will continue long after the latest empty nuance to the failed parliamentary nomination model of 1999 has vanished without trace.

It's true that the established political machines will have a head start in building and winning competitive races for an Australian Presidency. It's true that anyone wanting to be a contender for that office will have to play factional games. It's no less true, however, that once in office this person will be free to react to political situations in a far more authentic way than seems possible under the primus inter pares model of party leadership. Again, Gillard may knock that notion into a cocked hat and so might O'Farrell - but then they might be the exceptions that only prove the rule.

Yes, I'm doubtful at the prospect of some elected jack-in-office disconnected from all the machinery of government but the military. Yes, I disdain the appalling leadership that US state governments, recent presidents of said country and indeed of other republics. There is no structure that compels only good process and outcomes.

Political parties have seen the rise of professionals/ hacks who take greater control, only to have that which they control become diminished. That's what's happening and there will be a response that reshapes the body politic. Hopefully there might be something in it for we citizens, we who contribute to and are recipients of the common wealth.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting take. I've been very angry with smug, complacent people whose only reaction to criticisms of the undemocratic nature of the leadership change has been "You just don't understand the Westminster system".


    Alsi, Derek Barry, an Irish journalist now living in Australia, angriky calls the leadership change a coup: