History will remember the opening decades of the 21st century for their surprising abundance of Pokémon, choreographed public dancing, and for their quickening descent into an all out political shit storm.
First, there was Brexit in the United Kingdom.
Historians will cite this as the beginning of the end
Then the election of Donald Trump in the United States of America.
From now on the ‘United’ in USA should be read with inverted commas
Not to mention the rise of fascism in Europe.
And Australia’s contribution to the most effed up political landscape since Caesar was murdered on the steps of the Senate?
The enduring revolving door of prime ministership – with a PB of five Prime Ministers (‘PM’) in five years.
(Four if you don’t count Rudd 2.0 as a separate entity to Kevin ’07).
See Peter Dutton, pictured above
For whatever reason – whether it be the influence of mass media, growing voter dissatisfaction, or the emergence of a more bloodthirsty political class – the leadership of the two major parties in this country has less job stability than your local checkout chick at Coles.
Quick question: is this a bad thing?
While few would have cried tears over the axing of Malcolm Turnbull (or K-Rudd, J-Gill, or Tones for that matter), endless leadership crises are not exactly a great thing for the country.
Sure, Australia loves a shit fight. We definitely experience a degree of schadenfreude whenever bad things happen to disgustingly rich people, but the consequences of such a cycle are not to be underestimated.
Averaging a new PM every 16 months results in an unavoidable Cabinet reshuffle every 16 months, which then leads to an adjusted stance on policy every 16 months.
This process is disruptive, short-sighted and downright batshit.
The obvious argument against such an assessment is that policy is dependant on the party, not the person at the helm, and therefore, theoretically, the leader could change every single day and the policy should remain consistent.
Unfortunately, the increasing personalisation of politics and politicians has rendered achieving this kind of reality impossible.
Rudd and Gillard diverged on the carbon tax, Abbott and Turnbull differed greatly on energy and same-sex marriage, and Morrison has already displayed a greater affinity for strict immigration laws and shit football teams than his predecessor.
Actually, scratch that last bit
No government on the face of this Earth has ever been accused of efficiency. As such, it is difficult to imagine a government managing to achieve meaningful change on any of their shifting agendas in the space of just 16 months.
The lack of concrete policy outcomes is not the only consequence of unstable leadership. It also impacts Australia’s standing on the world stage – after all why would foreign investors or world leaders waste energy on a PM who may be replaced in a week?
Voters are also becoming increasingly disillusioned with the electoral process and the two major parties in particular. There is no doubt that Australians are fleeing to the left and right of the political divide in search of some stability, or merely as a protest against the status quo.
If a new PM every 16 months is the new norm, then it raises the question: does our current system need changing in order to prevent our PMs suffering early political deaths?
Back up: what actually is our current system?
In Australia, we have something called a constitutional monarchy, which means that after all the recent kerfuffle, old mate ScoMo is not actually our head of state. Instead, that honour belongs to well-known Aussie larrikin, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, with the Governor-General functioning as her local representative.
As a former British colony, elements of Westminster tradition are naturally prevalent in the constitutional framework adopted upon Federation in 1901.
In addition to placing the Queen at the helm, the executive (aka the Cabinet) are drawn from members of the legislature (aka the Parliament), as they are in Britain. As such, the Australian PM is a member of both the executive and the legislature, and is therefore beholden to – and capable of influencing – both bodies.
Furthermore, the PM is not directly elected by the people. Instead, the nation vote for their preferred party and – assuming they are successful in their own seat – the leader of the majority party becomes the PM.
However, as rebels at heart – but with none of the follow through – Australia’s founding fathers also drew inspiration from the system chosen by the Americans after they finished dumping all that tea in the harbour.
The notion of a separate judiciary, capable of reviewing the decisions of the other branches of government, is an inherently American construct. We also shamelessly copied the idea of a written constitution and division of legal powers between state and federal governments.
In more recent times, we have also inadvertently bought into the notion of identity politics, whereby the personality of the leader becomes a fixture of the government, as is the case in a presidential system.
Just look at such popular slogans as ‘ditch the witch’ and ‘put your onions out.’
As the role of a party leader has become increasingly personalised, the gap between president and PM has at least superficially narrowed.
Are presidents good? Should we get one?
Current resident of the White House aside, the office of the President of the United States of America does actually have some redeeming qualities.
Perhaps Donald should be writing this article instead of me
Impeachment requires America’s House of Representatives to bring impeachment charges against the president, while the Senate must then conduct a trial and return a guilty finding on the relevant crime with a two-thirds majority.
The likelihood of both of these events occuring in tandem has proven inherently difficult. As such, removing a president is no easy feat – ultimately ensuring that presidents have a security of tenure that many Australian PMs would (politically) kill for.
Look, it’s hard to keep track in this country
Another benefit of the presidential system is that a president’s term is fixed, election dates are predetermined and each individual is limited to only two terms in office.
Such a constitutional mandate avoids the constant speculation and strategic manipulation of electoral timing – which was a factor in the removal of at least Julia Gillard and Malcolm Turnbull.
The Trump factor
It is now time to address the orange elephant in the room: a presidential system, despite its benefits, also allows such monstrosities as Donald Trump Senior to reach the country’s highest office.
In Australia, it’s hard to imagine a similar outcome. The closest we’ve ever come to a Donald Trump is arguably Clive Palmer – a corporate magnate with questionable finances and no political experience who somehow finds himself elected.
But could Clive ever be PM?
First, it would require one of the major parties to lose their collective minds and promote him to their leadership (or for the United Australia Party to gain some serious political standing). It would then require an electorate to follow suit.
And even then, his prime ministership would likely be short-lived, thanks to those sharp knives in Canberra.
The Trump ‘situation’ highlights two main issues with a presidential system: popular voting, and the impeachment process.
The party nominations and the framework of the electoral college combined can clearly allow for some bat-crap crazies with little to no qualifications to make their way into presidential contention – after all you don’t need to be an entrenched party politician in order to be popular with the people.
This lack of cohesion between the president and their party is made even worse by the strict separation of powers between the executive and the legislature within the American system. As such, situations have arisen where the presidency is occupied by one party, while Congress is controlled by another.
Consequently, the two bodies run in parallel but rarely in tandem with each other and this can have serious impacts in terms of achieving tangible policy outcomes.
Furthermore, the security of tenure which attaches to the presidency – while boasting clear benefits – may also be problematic if a president were inherently unqualified or even downright treasonous.
What makes this even more concerning is the autocratic nature of the executive powers – including the right of veto – which are bestowed upon the presidential office and can be exercised autonomously.
If the whole point of turfing out the British was to avoid the reign of a clueless, dangerous buffoon who is famous only for being rich, then the Americans definitely could have designed their system a bit better.
A for effort America
Maybe we should just stick with Lizzie
Look, there’s no doubt the presidential system has its flaws, so if we ever did become a republic, then following the Americans might not be the way to go.
The good news is that we can still have a ‘president’ while maintaining the parliamentary system that we have now. The president would largely replace the role currently filled by the Governor-General but instead of being the Queen’s representative, they would be popularly elected by the Australian people.
According to surveys, this system is most popular amongst the public and would likely be supported if we went to another referendum.
While this does little to ensure the longevity of the endangered species that is the PM, it would appear that the alternative – that is where the leader is too secure – might actually be even worse.
Ultimately, if the only available alternative is a system which allows leaders such as Trump to reign, then eternal servitude to a foreign monarch with no modern relevance might just be worth the effort.
Feed him to the corgis Liz
Long live the Queen.