The leadership spill in NSW last week which ended up with Kristina Keneally replacing Nathan Rees has brought up a problem that I have with Australia’s political system: someone can become the leader of a government without being voted for by the people.
I know that technically, when we vote in a lower house election we’re voting for the local representative of a particular party, and if enough people in the area vote for that person they become the representative of that area. If, across the country, enough representatives of a particular party win the local elections, that party forms a government, and the leader of that party, as chosen by the elected representatives, becomes the leader of that government.
That’s all well and good in theory, and some people may vote for whoever they think will be best for their area, regardless of which party they come from, but I believe the majority of people vote that way. When people are considering who to vote for (assuming of course that they do actually think about it and don’t just vote for who their mummy and daddy told them to) they take into account and are heavily influenced by the media coverage. And media coverage is generally focused on the leader of the party. When people are voting they are essentially voting for the vision of that party as embodied in the leader.
The leader dictates the direction in which the party moves. A good example is the turmoil surrounding the position of the Liberal Party on climate change and what to do about it. Under John Howard, the Liberals campaigned in the 2007 election with an ETS, now, under Tony Abbott, the party just voted one down and are crapping on about a “tax on everything”. It’s a complete about-face in position, with Malcolm Turnbull’s abrasive people skills and inability to negotiate effectively with his own party a large part of the problem.
So the Liberals changed their leader. I don’t have a problem with that at all. Personally, those two weeks of political drama was all very exciting, providing high quality entertainment on par with The West Wing and The Wire. As a party, the Liberals obviously needed to sort out what direction they were heading in, and begin to provide a consistent position which would appeal (in their minds at least) to voters. Parties need to change leaders to change direction and provide that figurehead who they hope will lead them to government.
But where I have a big problem is when a government changes their leader and we get a new Prime Minister or Premier, such as what happened last week in NSW. The NSW Labor Party changed leader, and direction, but the direction and leadership of Kristina Keneally has been neither publicly elected nor endorsed. Neither, for that matter, was the person she replaced, Nathan Rees. Sure, you can argue that the people who put them in the top job are themselves publicly elected and so in their actions are the vestiges of their constituents, but I don’t think this justifies how easy it appears to be for a government to change leaders. Morris Iemma, the NSW Premier previous to Nathan Rees, was actually voted for by the people of NSW in the March 2007 election, but he himself became Premier two years before that, when Bob Carr retired. Each time the leader is changed we get someone we didn’t vote for in the top job.
Now if the policies and direction of a party, embodied in the person of the leader, become unpopular with the public, and the party sees that that in the next election the public might not want to vote for them, it’s only natural that they might want a new leader to lead them to the next election. All well and good. The American system of presidential pre-selection, for example, covers this quite well. But putting that person in the top job a year or two before the next election is a bit like cheating. Whether or not the government changes its direction to something the public approves of (and in NSW it’s arguable that each change of Premier has moved the government further away from public interest) there is the impression that this has happened, because the public embodiment of that direction has changed.
In the eyes of many voters, all the baggage the previous Premier carried is removed with that person, and the new Premier has a certain amount of time to distance themselves from that baggage, not necessarily by changing anything, but simply on the virtue of being new. Behind the scenes a government can continue with business as usual, and at the same time gaining ground over the opposition in the lead-up to the next election via the free publicity being premier provides. They get a nice little election slogan of ‘well, I’ve done alright so far, haven’t I? Give me a chance to show you what I can do,’ taking the kudos for any recent successes and popular decisions while blaming anything unpopular on the predecessor.
Whether this is going to work with a Kristina Keneally led Labor Government in NSW is debatable. NSW Labor is a putrid rotten apple, spraying it with red paint isn’t going to make it edible. Whether a Liberal government in NSW would be any better is also up in the air. Personally I think that however bad the Liberals might be, Labor needs to be stopped from destroying NSW. It’s a shame not enough of the public regard the Greens as a viable alternative.
Obviously, a party has the right to change their leader. But when this happens while the party is in government, I personally think that on a successful leadership challenge, fresh public elections should immediately be called, regardless of how recent the last election was. In this way the government would be able to promote a platform of how the new leadership and direction government would benefit the people involved, and if the people approved of it, the party would retain government. But the way it works right now to me seems to be furthering corruption in the state and biasing elections towards the incumbent party.