Tony Abbott and his hapless government would do well to heed the lessons of The Killing Season

If social media is anything to go by – and who am I to say it’s not? – Greg Combet’s potty mouth was the sensation of the ABC’s opening episode of the compelling political documentary series The Killing Season.

But I suspect it was much more than Combet’s robust language that made an impression. While former prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard slogged it out for the moral high ground, that place was modestly occupied by the former ACTU leader and minister in the (first) Rudd and Gillard governments.

The subjects of Combet’s measured but rustically expressed wrath were the leadership changes in the Labor party. The first was in relation to the Rudd-Gillard coup against Kim Beazley, telling reporter Sarah Ferguson that the machinations against the leader caused him “the shits big time”. The second denunciation was saved for the elevation of Mark Latham, which proved politically disastrous for Labor at the 2004 election: “I thought, ‘fuck this’, to be frank about it, ‘I’m sick of it’.”

Many voters will share Combet’s outrage, and very likely his vocabulary, because they, too, are fed up with the machinations of Canberra politics. Already from the first episode of Ferguson’s masterful three-part series it is clear that Rudd and Gillard have a differing recollection of events. And if we thought the first episode was gripping, we best wear a seat belt for the remaining two episodes.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott is wrong when he says “voterland” is not interested in what our political leaders are up to in Canberra’s corridors of power. He should not confuse disaffection with disinterest. The fact that the ABC hit the ratings jackpot with The Killing Season should disabuse Abbott of that patronising assertion. Rather, voters, like Combet, despair at what constitutes “leadership” in Canberra. Indeed, Combet might reasonably have prefaced his invective with: “Let me quote the people of Australia…”

The recent outpouring of grief over the death of Malcolm Fraser – with moving tributes from the most unexpected quarters, including Paul Keating and Bob Hawke – was as much a lament for what passes for leadership in Canberra today as it was recognition for a life of public service built on compassion, integrity and rectitude. Many who might have been expected to hold a political grudge, including the aforementioned former prime ministers, instead focused on Fraser’s abiding contribution to the nation built on a clear moral (as distinct from religious) framework.

Keating, like Fraser a leader of conviction and consequence, said in his official statement of condolence:

“The great pity for him of the budget crisis of 1975 was that it de-legitimised his government, at its inception, and with it, much of the value he otherwise brought to public life.

“Nevertheless, many will appreciate the gestures which came rather nobly from his political spirit – the passage of the Northern Territory Land Rights Act, his compassion for refugees, the creation of SBS, along with many other clear-sighted reforms. He was particularly committed to the rights and freedom of individuals – un-suborned by the power of the state.

“His public life also enshrined other important principles: no truck with race or colour and no tolerance for whispered notions of exclusivity tinged by race. These principles applied throughout his political life.”

Leadership changes a feature of Australia’s robust democracy

The Killing Season should not be seen as a case against leadership challenges and the instability inevitably surrounding such challenges.

Party leadership manoeuvrings have always been a feature of Australia’s robust parliamentary democracy; leadership “coups” have occurred in opposition and in government.

After John Gorton (PM from 1968-71), every prime minister, with the exception of Gough Whitlam, became PM as a result of wresting the party leadership from the incumbent, either as opposition leader or prime minister.

There is no reason to be squeamish about prime ministers being toppled by their own. The Westminster system allows for it, and we should embrace it as a safety valve to be activated by government party members in the event of incompetent, corrupt or otherwise flawed leadership.

The process should have been applied in the final years of the Howard government when it became clear that John Howard was past his prime. Had Peter Costello taken his chance, and had not Cabinet squibbed it when Howard refused to blink, a much stronger Coalition would have gone to the 2007 election won by Kevin Rudd’s Labor.

Equally, had Malcolm Turnbull not been so circumspect in February, when a leadership spill motion failed in the Liberal party room, the better man might have been Prime Minister today.

One reason Turnbull did not declare himself – on the calculation that he would get his chance when Abbott inevitably returned to form – was the subject matter being played out in The Killing Season. Turnbull and his supporters did not want to be seen to be “doing a Julia” and deposing a sitting Prime Minister mid-first term.

It is to be regretted that Turnbull and his Cabinet colleagues lacked the courage to play by the Westminster rules. More importantly, they failed in their duty to the people of Australia by not acting to remove a flawed leader. Their missed opportunity means that they are now placed in the position of having to destabilise their leader internally, which places them precisely in the realm of The Killing Season, making a bad government even more dysfunctional.

Turnbull and his supporters missed one of the key lessons of Julia Gillard’s “political assassination” of Kevin Rudd.

If Gillard and her senior ministers had been more candid about why they felt compelled to move against Rudd – his chaotic and erratic management style, his insularity and refusal to consult with ministers, the growing dysfunction of his private office, the policy on the run, his contempt for anyone he did not consider his equal – her prime ministership might have had the legitimacy it lacked going into the 2010 election.

Had Gillard taken Australians into her confidence she may well have gone on to secure majority government which would have put an entirely different complexion on her government and subsequent events. Gillard failed many leadership tests in office, but it’s also true that we did not get to see the best of Julia Gillard.

Rudd not without triumphs

There are no “ifs” in history, true enough, but Gillard’s miscalculation was that in exercising her entitlement under our system of government to challenge Rudd for the prime ministership, she did not fulfill her obligation to unambiguously explain to voters why she did so.

As the first episode of The Killing Season made clear, a truncated Rudd prime ministership would not have been without its triumphs: the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, the seminal apology to the Stolen Generation, and the historic counter-attack against the threat of deep recession following the Global Financial Crisis.

Clearly these achievements were not enough to dissuade Gillard and her supporters from the conviction that a continued Rudd prime ministership was not in Australia’s interests. This should have been fully explained to the people – with due homage paid to Rudd for those achievements.

If Turnbull, like Gillard, believed that a continued Abbott government was not in Australia’s best interests, he should have pressed his case for the leadership and challenged Abbott in February. If he lost, just as Keating resigned to the backbench having failed in his first attempt to topple Hawke, Turnbull could have taken his place on the backbench.

It’s bloody and Darwinian, but the system for the most part works and results in strong and vibrant leadership. When Fraser toppled the affable but ineffective Billy Snedden in 1975 it saved Australia from the near certainty of a haphazard Snedden government in 1977. When Keating took over from Hawke in 1991, who by this stage was past his best, it meant another five years of strong and defining government.

Peter Costello let down his supporters and the people of Australia by not staring down Howard and re-energising the faltering Coalition government. Malcolm Turnbull may well have squandered his opportunity to remove arguably the worst Liberal Prime Minister since the feckless William McMahon.

The Killing Season is not a case against leadership challenges. While it is a gripping piece of political drama presented in the finest traditions of the ABC and Australian political journalism, it is to sell it well short to see it simply through the prism of political ambition.

At its most fundamental, The Killing Season is a case for good government, which ultimately the first Rudd government was not. It makes clear what can go wrong in the absence of openness, probity and accountability. It is a call for a return to the best traditions of leadership, public service and parliamentary democracy. It should serve as a reminder of why voters feel let down by modern politics and the rise of the “political class”, and underlines how little has changed even with the defeat of Labor in 2013.

For Tony Abbott and his ramshackle government, The Killing Season serves due notice that the killing season is not over yet. Indeed, given recent missteps, there is every chance that it’s well and truly Abbott Season.

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