… Gough Whitlam was deposed as Prime Minister of Australia?
Some of you will be too young to remember the furor the Whitlam sacking caused. Some will not have even been born. But I was there, and I was shocked that such a thing could happen to an elected government.
We were all shocked again in 2010 when a second Australian Prime Minister was ‘sacked’. The fact he was sacked by his own party just made the betrayal even blacker.
Last night it happened again, with the sacking of Prime Minister Julia Guillard, but this time there was an element of poetic justice about it.
For those of you unfamiliar with recent Australian politics, let me give you a quick recap of events.
2007 – Kevin Rudd led Australian Labor to a huge victory in the polls. His Deputy was Julia Guillard.
2010 – Julia Guillard, helped by a faction boss called Bill Shorten, deposed Kevin Rudd as leader of the Labor Party, and hence as Prime Minister.
2013 – Bill Shorten [yes the same man] helped Kevin Rudd to regain leadership of the Labor Party, and become Prime Minister a second time.
Those are the bald facts. Woven in and around those facts are a number of disturbing trends. Foremost amongst them is the power of opinion polls.
A drop in popularity amongst voters, and Kevin Rudd’s abrasive leadership style amongst his colleagues led to his original sacking by the party. Julia Guillard’s plummeting approval rating led directly to her sacking. And all these popularity contests were decided by opinion polls.
In one sense, the rising power of opinion polls can be seen as democracy at work. These polls purport to take the ‘pulse’ of a nation, and as a curiosity they are fine. However I take issue with opinion polls being used as the drivers of political changes such as these.
1. Because by their very nature, opinion polls can only sample public opinion. If you know anything about statistics you will know that the smaller the sample size, the less reliable the results. Have you ever been approached by a pollster asking your opinion about politics? No, me neither. The only way anyone can ever know exactly what the voters are thinking is by asking them in an election where every single voter gets to be heard.
2. Because by their very nature, polls are hypotheticals and gauge only how a particular respondent is feeling on that day. Those feelings can be influenced by a number of factors, including the slant of the news media on that day. They are also not indicative of how someone will vote during a real election. I’ve been most unhappy with Labor for a very long time, but even I do not know how I would have voted if Julia Guillard had gone to the election as PM. You see I was not happy with her, but I am and will remain even more unhappy with Tony Abbott.
3. Because I do not believe that off-the-cuff public opinion should be allowed to decide such momentous changes. It’s the equivalent of a husband and wife having a spat about who should take out the rubbish, and then having an outsider forcing them to divorce over it.
In Australia, we do not have Presidential style elections where personality plays a big role in deciding who gets elected. At least, that is not how it’s supposed to work. We are supposed to elect our governments on the basis of party policies. The reality, of course, is never quite so clear cut.
I believe both Whitlam and Rudd were elected because we saw them as men of vision… and we felt we needed visionaries in the top job. As such, they were both viewed as more than just talking heads. We felt we knew them, and could trust them. And we believed they had a blueprint for a better future instead of just more of the same old same old. In that sense, our relationship to them was much stronger than what we normally feel for our politicians. It was a marriage of sorts, and in both cases, we should have been given the opportunity to decide whether we wanted to end the marriage or not.
At its heart, Julia Guillard’s demise was predicated from the moment she sacked Kevin Rudd. She was a good politician, and under different circumstances she would have made a great Prime Minister, but her every mistake was seen through the prism of what came before. And, of course, Tony Abbott made sure that those mistakes were amplified in the public eye. Sound bites and opinion polls did the rest.
As a Rudd supporter [and Abbott skeptic] I am glad to have him back, but I do wish our first female Prime Minister could have left under better circumstances. I also wish Kevin Rudd had a better chance of leading Labor to victory in the coming election. I think he will drag the Party back from the brink of disaster, but I don’t think he will have the time to forge a victory.
I don’t have a crystal ball but these are my predictions :
1. Labor will lose at the coming election, but only by a small margin.
2. After the election, Kevin Rudd will be deposed because those within the Party who still hate him will have no further reason to support him.
3. The Abbott government will quickly become very unpopular and will lose the next election.
4. With luck, Abbott will be replaced by Malcolm Turnbull.
5. For the next three years of opposition I believe Labor will be lead by Bill Shorten. I think he fell on his sword for the good of the Party and that sacrifice will be rewarded, eventually.
6. Somewhere down the track I believe Penny Wong will become the first ethnic, gay, female Prime Minister. She has both charisma and brains. More importantly she is perceived as having integrity. By the time a couple of elections have been and gone, we will need integrity even more than we need vision.
We live in interesting times, but at least I now have someone to vote for at the coming election.
p.s. The new pc is up and running beautifully. I can’t say that setting it up was a pleasure, but it was a lot less onerous than I thought it would be. More about that when the dust settles in the political arena.