By Laksiri Fernando –
A Review Of ‘Disposable Leaders’ By Rodney Tiffen. Implications For Democracy?
‘Your opponents sit opposite you, while your enemies sit behind.’ They stab. This is the background story related by Rodney Tiffen, in his ever-interesting book on ‘Disposable Leaders: Media and Leadership Coups from Menzies to Abbot.’ The story covered is a long landscape, from 1941 to 2015 and it still goes on, Abbot now sitting behind Turnbull. There are altogether 74 successful leadership coups related in this lucidly readable book, 73 of them after 1970 in Australia.
Underneath this background story, there is a major problematic for democracy not only in Australia but in many similar parliamentary democracies. Why so much of leadership quarrels? Are they related to policy or personal ambitions? What benefit the country or the people accrue? These are the questions that Tiffen raises and answers and allow the readers to make up their own minds supplying all information and clues necessary.
Rodney Tiffen is Emeritus Professor in Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney. I came to know him first as the Director of Post-Graduate Studies when I was doing my doctoral studies. Tiffen was also the Head of the Department later when I had the opportunity to conduct some visiting lectures on sabbatical. I have met him even in Kyoto, Japan. Rod is a sharp, witty and a friendly person and among his many books, my favourites are ‘How Australia Compares’ (co-authored with Ross Gittins) and ‘News and Power.’ He could be considered a critical media expert among other credentials.
Robert Menzies had expressed ‘a sick feeling’ (quoted diary) in May 1941 when he was coming back from London and Washington after discussions on war planning, for three months. No PM thereafter would have dared to stay away (including the incumbent, Malcolm Turnbull) for that long when conspiracy is brewing back home, not in the opposition but in his/her own cabinet and party room. Menzies was ousted within three months thereafter. This appeared an exception until thirty years hence, in 1971, and again twenty years hence, in 1991. The last was my year of migration to Australia and I myself was watching the evolving drama with abiding interest.
Paul Keating defeated Bob Hawk in the party room and became the PM. I had respect for both of them, and couldn’t see much of a policy difference. To quote Tiffen, “Then in just five years three more followed – Kevin Rudd was defeated by Julia Gillard in June 2010; Rudd then defeated Gillard to resume the prime ministership three years later, in June 2013; and most recently Malcolm Turnbull defeated Tony Abbott, in September 2015.”
That was at the federal/national level. Much more were happening at the state levels and that is how there are 73 cases of successful overthrows since 1971. The phenomenon is more recent than a continuous occurrence. In the old days, or in 1950s, politics was a gentlemanly affair, both within and between parties. The author gives impressive examples from Adelaide and elsewhere. Losing an election was not necessarily a reason to change or replace a leader. Therefore, the leaders usually continued both in government and in opposition and seniority customarily prevailed. Perhaps it was boring for the ever growing ‘fourth estate.’ There was no much excitement in politics and political gossip.
This was not the case in recent times. The author has even tabulated the cases. There had been 10 cases to start with in 1970s. Then it has increased to 20 during 1980s for some reason. The decade of 1990 has relatively stabilized with only 11 cases and again going awry in the next decade with 24. Since 2011, there are only 8 cases, perhaps signifying a relative stabilization. At least the Australian Labour Party (ALP) has made some changes, preventing unnecessary overthrows.
In terms of states, Queensland records the highest number of cases (14) and then comes New South Wales (12) and Western Australia (10). Tasmania records the lowest number of cases (4) spread out between 1991 and 2001. As could be anticipated, most of the leadership coups had occurred when a political party is in the opposition (54) than in power (19).
The main thrust of the book is to give an incise knowledge on the leadership challenges, the personalities involved, the forces behind, and the tragic and sometimes heartrending stories; if the present and future politicians are ready, to draw the political and public policy lessons. This a treasure for the student of Australian politics, the public and particularly the media personnel. This 296-page book is divided into 11 chapters with both case studies and analytical chapters. For example, the chapters of “Rudd vs Gillard vs Rudd” or “Turnbull vs Abbot vs Turnbull” falls into the first category, while “Reporters and Players” and “The Doctrine of the Disposable Leader” are in the second category.
A doctrine has emerged that leaders are disposable. Tiffen is of the opinion that this is an Australian exceptionalism. The danger might be that this could become contagious in other similar democracies (i.e. Britain, Canada or New Zealand) in the same or other forms as some of the driving forces are the same, as he admits, such as (1) the perceived importance of leaders in electoral successes (2) the focus on leaders in the news media and (3) the rise of leader-centred parties and governments.
In the final chapter, the author has discussed a combination of Australian factors and driving forces with much detail and insight that have given rise to this exceptional situation. The distinctive electoral system, the dominance of the party room than the membership organization, factions and other affiliations (unions in the case of Labor), personalities overriding even factions lately, capital-intensive election funding, and leader-centred electioneering are some of the factors that he has discussed with adverse implication on democracy.
The role of the media takes a special place in this analysis. On my part, it is not clear whether there has been some correlation between the expansion of the electronic media with more effective colour TV, extensive political news and ‘current affairs’ since 1970s, including the prominence of political satire pioneered by John Clarke, on the one hand, and the 73 leadership stumbles that Rod Tiffen has recorded and analysed, on the other. As he says, the public imagination of politics has changed during this period and the media have influenced politics.
Implications for Democracy
There has been a sort of degeneration of party politics in the first place. It is not clear whether this is the ‘chicken or the egg.’ In these leadership challenges and in general, the ideology, policy or even factions have played a minor role. As Tiffen says, “The conflicts are much more over clashing ambitions and electoral prospects than over conflicting policy prescription.”
A ‘new class’ political professionals have emerged in parties overriding the grass roots or ordinary members or other affiliates. The membership decline has been more characteristic in the ALP. Although the ordinary citizen is compelled to vote at elections, under the compulsory voting system, there has been an alienation of them from active party politics. The ‘pace and pressure of contemporary society’ must have been a reason for this separation. Disillusionment in politics can be another. The decline of political participation, however, is not good for democratic sustainability.
The leader-centred governments are more harmful than leader-centred political parties. The tendency has been for a sort of ‘presidentialism,’ although fragile. There is a kind of a yearning for ‘the man on the white horse.’ As Tiffen says, three additional factors have favoured the leader’s power in the government. (1) Within the public service, line departments have lost power to central agencies. (2) Senior public servants have lost power to political advisors. (3) Then, increases in financial/political resources gone disproportionately to leaders. Instead of continuing with traditional norms of democracy, a deformed form of ‘meritocracy’ has emerged. The ‘merit’ is a façade, while the political allegiance dominates.
The media is quick to applaud the appearance of a ‘strong’ leader but the reality does not always work that way. The changing the leader is not a cure for all ills. Then the yearning continues, making the government and the country relatively unstable. Is this too much of democracy or a deviation from it? These are the questions raised by Rodney Tiffen in this nearly triple-hundred-page book.