The familiar triumph of short-termism and self-interest

Minister for Communications Malcolm Turnbull during House of Representatives question time at Parliament House. Photo: Stefan Postles/ Getty.

Perhaps we should just get used to it. The pattern is well-established for Australian political parties.

Disgruntlement sets in, whispering campaigns start, and unpopular leaders are dispatched.

It’s what happened to Malcolm Turnbull when he was rolled by Abbott back in 2009. It happened to Kevin Rudd. Then it happened to Julia Gillard. Abbott managed to assume the prime ministership in the traditional manner of coming to power through an election.

But his polling approval tanked, and MPs were increasingly unhappy about two things:

  • Abbott’s leadership style, illustrated in his “captain’s picks” such as the decision to knight Prince Philip, and his dogged defence of Bronwyn Bishop who eventually resigned as Speaker over her use of Parliamentary entitlements, and
  • the government’s failure to lay out a coherent economic message.

So Malcolm Turnbull unsheathed his knife.

Let’s be clear about what happened here. Coalition MPs were unhappy with Abbott’s style of government and worried they wouldn’t be re-elected to their jobs (which have excellent pay and pensions and lay a platform for a very enjoyable retirement).

We’d like to believe that politicians are in the profession for the right reasons: to work for the long-term betterment of the country. And there are, no doubt, many who are.

With the increasing sense that the government is failing to cut through with the public and the Coalition’s primary vote slipping in the polls, panic set in. True colours are revealed: this is about self-interest.

Photo: Tony Abbott/ Facebook.

Any MP who was willing to knife Abbott who campaigned in 2013 on the chaos and dysfunction of the Labor party is now exposed as a retailer of slogans.

Australia is facing not inconsiderable challenges. Economic growth has been slowing. The business investment outlook is not looking strong. There is a lot of global economic uncertainty, from the true state of the economy in Australia’s largest trading partner, China, and the outlook in the world’s largest economy in the US, which is on the verge of starting an interest rate tightening cycle that financial markets have been awaiting for years.

Australians have a strong understanding that these things matter. It is an open, exporting economy and a country where half the population was born overseas or is the son or daughter of a foreigner.

The government has not provided a strong vision for Australia’s place in the global economy as this uncertainty has mounted and prices for Australia’s crucial source of export income – commodities – have been sliding, wiping billions of dollars off the bottom line of the federal budget, imposing a need for significant cuts in public services.

Enough MPs clearly signalled to Malcolm Turnbull they were prepared to support him in trying to address this and take the Liberal Party in a new direction with its economic message.

However: the economy is not a total wreck, either. The lower dollar is starting to lift other parts of the economy. Growth is not great but there is still enough there to be creating jobs and creating opportunities for people. Unemployment, though a little volatile, is looking like it may have topped out at just over 6%.

Impressively, Tony Abbott was actually on track to create the one million new jobs over five years that he promised going into the last election.

And critically, the next election was not due for another year.

In short, if the Liberal party could keep its cool, this was not necessary.

Earlier this year Nigel Lake from global leadership advisory firm Pottinger contributed an excellent piece to Business Insider about Australia’s political and corporate leaders being increasingly captive to short-term thinking to the detriment of the nation and its economy. He wrote:

Australian leaders must be prepared to shut out the short term noise and focus on a long term agenda. If recent elections aren’t a blindingly obvious lesson in the perils of responding to a short term media cycle with short term tactical messaging, then I honestly don’t know what is. And for the corporate sector, the evidence of the last twenty years is that the increasing focus on quarterly or half yearly reporting cycles has lead to strategic confusion and shorter CEO tenure. In short, short-termism simply doesn’t work.

… Australia’s voters and shareholders simply must take control of their own destiny. There is an old adage that people get the politicians that they deserve – so voters must recognise that they too will do better by asking much more searching questions of their would-be political leaders and taking a longer term view.

Lake’s piece was titled “Australia is in crisis” and was one of the most-read pieces we published in the first half of the year. It struck a chord.

Many Australian voters would like to see the government it elected focused on doing its job. But instead we saw the indulgence of internal frustrations within the Liberal Party and political ambition in the short-term: Turnbull’s primarily, and the MPs who urged him on.

*This post was updated from the original after the leadership ballot.

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