Richard Glover is an Australian writer and broadcaster.
For years, my American friends have found Australian politics incomprehensible. “What?” they’ll say. “You can fire the leader of your country, just like that, mid-term, without any legal reason? That’s ridiculous.”
Take, for example, the events of December 1967, when our Prime Minister Harold Holt went missing, presumed drowned, while he was body-surfing off an isolated beach.
“What? The guy who is effectively your president? You mislaid him? That’s ridiculous.”
Suddenly, though, there’s a new respect in the air, a new interest in Australian political customs from the Americans that I know. “Remind me again,” say my American friends. “Exactly how do you get rid of a leader just after they’ve won an election? A leader you believe may not be, ahem, entirely suited to the job?”
It’s true that we Australians go through prime ministers as most people might go through T-shirts. Six months in, and we want something fresh and new. Even Australians find this a bit odd. We hold elections as America does — two leaders, photos on every billboard — but it’s a constitutional fantasy.
The term “prime minister” is not mentioned in our constitution. We think we are voting for a leader, but actually we’re voting for a party, the elected representatives of which can instantly change their mind as to who is their “prime” minister.
And so: Kevin Rudd won the prime ministership for the Australian Labor Party in 2007. He lasted for a while, mainly because the public liked him. His problem was with the members of his own team.
“Why do you hate Kevin Rudd so much?” someone famously asked a Labor insider. The droll answer: “Because I’ve met him.”
Because of this level of personal dislike, Rudd was pushed from office by his own party and replaced by our first female prime minister, Julia Gillard — with voters given no role in the change. Gillard, a terrific performer, was liked by her parliamentary team, but eventually failed to win over the public. The result? She, too, was dumped from the nation’s top job. She was replaced with — guess who? — Kevin Rudd. There’s nothing like studying the opinion polls to make you realize that you like a bloke after all.
On the opposite side of politics, an identical sideshow was in progress. Much of the drama featured our current prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull. He’s the guy you may know as Malcolm Trumble, or Malcolm Trimbull, courtesy of Sean Spicer, the Mrs. Malaprop of our time. It was Turnbull/Trumble/Trimbull who had that fractious phone call — “the worst call by far” — with President Trump.
Turnbull was leader of the conservatives — our version of the Republicans — but fell out with the right wing of his own team. He was a bit too Justin Trudeau for their liking. In his early days as leader, Turnbull wanted to do something about global warming. He also praised the idea of allowing gay people to marry and would sometimes wear a black leather jacket on television. It was all too much for the right-wingers, and they mustered the numbers to sack him. The party elected a hard-liner called Tony Abbott, who duly won the next election. Arise: Prime Minister Abbott.
The right wing of the party thought Abbott was terrific. The only hitch? The public eventually didn’t agree. Australians have always been comfortable in the center of politics. When we encounter an ideologue, either at a suburban barbecue or in Parliament, we tend to politely back away. So, message received, the party dumped Abbott from office. It replaced him with — oh, this is getting silly — Malcolm Turnbull/Trumble/Trimbull.
So what wisdom, if any, does this hold for American politics? Is it good to be able to fire leaders in this way?
Under our system, Trump would be required to negotiate with the rest of his party, and his dismissal could be achieved within the space of one party meeting.
Sound appealing right now? Here’s the truth: Be careful what you wish for. The Australian system can result in great leaders: Bob Hawke and John Howard — one from each side of politics — both lasted around a decade. But it can also result in a prime minister who’s unable to follow his own instincts or inclinations, always captive to an anxious party room. Turnbull may be the most obvious example.
For some, our prime minister is so fearful of being thrown from office, he can barely make a decision according to his own views — views which, by and large, are more in keeping with mainstream Australia than those he now finds himself espousing. What happened, we ask ourselves, to “black-leather-jacket guy”? Turnbull now talks of his enthusiasm for coal-fired power stations. He refuses to push his party on gay marriage. He has gone quiet on the push for Australia to become a republic. If he were just himself, Australians would like him more. He may be the best prime minister we never had.
In the United States, according to some, you have the opposite problem: a leader willing and able to defy his party. Short of impeachment, he’s the boss. Which system is better? Ours — where we can remove a leader if he or she is out-of-step? Yours — where you don’t suffer from the “the revolving door” of leadership? As the United States contemplates the Trump presidency, the Australian system is at least looking a bit less ridiculous.
Okay, I’ll admit Australians are still a bit peculiar. That prime minister we lost off the beach? Almost immediately after he died, we named a swimming pool after him: the Harold Holt Memorial Swimming Centre.
Now, that’s ridiculous.