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Published 27 August 2013 12:03, Updated 28 August 2013 09:45
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and...a few other people we don’t talk about much. Photo: Andrew Meares
Kevin Rudd may well rue the day he decided to make himself the centre of Labor’s federal election campaign. The emergence of presidential-style elections in Australia has been a work in progress for some time, but this year’s election intensifies that trend to unattractive levels of narcissism. And Rudd, who plainly fancied his chances – and himself – over the equally self-centred Tony Abbott may have made the miscalculation of his life.
But Rudd and Abbott have done something else: in making the election all about them they have devalued, if not altogether eroded, one of the great strengths of our political system: the collective leadership of government.
Had Rudd done more to promote the strength of his frontbench – the men and women who in the event of a Labor win would form the government executive – he would have allowed himself the benefit of a considerable advantage. Whatever the relative attractions, strengths and attributes of Rudd and Abbott, pound for pound the Labor frontbench is more impressive than the Coalition’s shadow cabinet.
When it comes to the government of the nation, even allowing for the increasingly extra-constitutional presidential nature of the prime minister’s office, authority and responsibility sits with the team of men and women who devise and implement policy in their respective portfolios, oversee their departments and counsel the prime minister on political and policy issues of the day.
Traditional cabinet government ensures that many voices, talents and experiences contribute to the government of the nation – often behind the closed doors of cabinet deliberations. Cabinet government does not so much diminish the influence and authority of the prime minister as curtail any predisposition to unbridled power. This ideal of the Westminster system may not even be recognisable to younger voters used to the quasi-presidential, micro-manager prime minister of today.
The Keating government (1991-1996) was probably the last time that a semblance of Westminster-style government prevailed.
But modern government, celebrity-style politics and the evolution of the presidential election has sucked us all in. Listen to radio talkback callers, social media commentariat and newspaper letter writers and it’s clear that most Australians believe we really do elect the prime minister – as opposed to the party with the most seats choosing (or confirming) their leader as prime minister.
And it’s not just voters. Much of the media’s election coverage is centred on the party leaders in a way that reinforces this hardening political lingua franca. And we are the poorer for it.
Accepting the prime minister-as-president role deprives Australians of the best features of what remains, in theory at least, our system of government and politics.
This election campaign, which focuses almost exclusively on the personalities of Rudd and Abbott, provides no relief from this headlong rush to presidential politics, and as a result not only diminishes the value of people’s vote but the quality of government and parliamentary democracy.
“Voting for Rudd or Abbott” means that less attention is paid to the attributes of the candidates running in each seat. Voting blindly for the leader, rather than the candidate, means that apparatchiks, dullards and also-rans are given a free ride into parliament at the expense of substantial candidates who have something to offer.
Accommodating the trend to presidential-style leaders also provides those leaders with validation that Australians are satisfied with this development in politics.
Despite the diminution of cabinet government – in which the prime minister is a first among equals – both Rudd and Abbott have committed themselves to reinstating the role of cabinet deliberation. Rudd insists he has learnt the error of his ways from his first time as prime minister and has promised to be a more inclusive and consultative leader. Abbott has explicitly affirmed his commitment to reprise the role of cabinet government.
Yet neither Rudd nor Abbott has been true to this commitment in the conduct of their election campaign. Far from it, it suggests more of the same from whichever party wins government.
Abbott’s “captain’s pick” of the $5.5 billion a year paid parental leave scheme demonstrates the worst of presidential-style politics and also raises doubts about his embrace of cabinet government.
Not showcasing the government’s frontbench could prove a tactical mistake on Rudd’s part. He clearly over-estimated his own popularity, or that he could sustain it beyond the inevitable honeymoon period of displacing Julia Gillard.
Rudd could have confirmed the “new Rudd”, the Rudd who had learned his lessons well, by placing greater focus on the team he would lead into government. Instead, it’s been all Rudd, Rudd, Rudd.
Whatever Rudd’s character flaws and idiosyncrasies, he leads a substantial team. It is hard to go past the talent and vigour of cabinet members such as deputy prime minister Anthony Albanese, Finance Minister Penny Wong, Treasurer Chris Bowen, Foreign Minister Bob Carr, Health Minister Tanya Plibersek … I could go on for some time.
Unlike most governments on the point of losing, this government does not show signs of wear and tear. True, the government carries a lot of baggage from the tumultuous three years of minority government, leadership instability (much of it of Rudd’s making) and Gillard’s poor leadership (she was under enormous and very often unfair pressure, but ultimately this can’t entirely be sheeted home to Rudd), but it remains a talented and surprisingly vigorous government.
This government has another term in it and it possesses demonstrably more talent than the Coalition frontbench. Julie Bishop, Joe Hockey, Eric Abetz, Barnaby Joyce, Kevin Andrews, Sophie Mirabella and John Cobb may have their good days, but they hardly send a collective promise of strong, visionary and capable government.
The business community, for one, may well be thinking that a “vote for Abbott” is a vote for a pro-business government, but when it votes for Abbott it is voting for a pretty humdrum frontbench.
Economic management is a priority concern of the business community specifically and the wider community generally. That economic management will be undertaken not just by Tony Abbott – whose credentials as a policy maker must in anycase be called into doubt – but by his frontbench leadership team. Has Abbott’s team got what it takes?
A “vote for Abbott” may well signify change, but it might well prove another case of the more things change the more they stay the same.