Monday’s 30th Newspoll passed with nothing much happening but a reminder as to why Abbott was dumped in the first place. It was media induced of course, but that does mean it is not A Thing. Newspoll has a currency in the media, and hence in the political class and it can often be a trigger for action (or at least an excuse for one). This time, however, the political side had no response it could make.
Chris Uhlmann says it is reasonable to ask why the same criteria should not be applied to Turnbull as to Abbott. Well, the public doesn’t want it might be one reason. While there was support for Abbott being dumped there is by no means any appetite for the same to happen to Turnbull – not least because the Coalition cannot produce anyone that would be more popular. Things are so desperate that there is even talk of going back to Costello. It is as though the Coalition has to run through everybody it can think of to reach the obvious conclusion that they are in a mess and no change in leadership will get them out of it.
Let’s get some context. We are now clearly going through a period of widespread disruption across advanced political democracies. In Spain, Italy, Greece, France, and the Netherlands, major post war parties have collapsed. In Germany and Austria, the major parties dominate but are reaching post war lows. This is especially happening on the social democrat side but the right are not usually far behind. In the UK and the US the four major parties are still electorally dominant but internally both British Labour and the US Republicans are in upheaval while the Conservatives and US Democrats are not far behind.
In Australia things look much more settled. The major parties appear still in tact and the only overt sign something is wrong is the chronic instability in the leadership. Yet in some ways, that very stability is more revealing to what is actually happening than the political/culture war histrionics going on overseas. But to see it requires getting over three blind spots about the current political situation.
The first is on the leadership instability. It is not just that there is no obvious electoral alternative to Turnbull. The dynamic that destabilised the leadership over the last eight years is now over. The confusion as to what that dynamic is was summed up by a recent piece by Peter Hartcher.
Hartcher, of course, was one of those journalists who thought Turnbull could end the leadership instability in 2015 through the sheer force of his fabulousness. In the end, Turnbull’s popularity turned out as short-lived as, er, the last time he was leader. He could neither achieve unity, nor over-ride the forces that did him in last time, because he had no solution to the problem he was meant to fix. The Rudd-Gillard-Rudd and Turnbull-Abbott-Turnbull periods were about the two major parties trying to reform themselves internally and lurching back and forwards as the past (institutional, ideological) of the major parties was no solution, but neither could Rudd nor Turnbull point the way forward.
In short, we are now heading for something new. This is what is missed by those like Hartcher who appears more interested in fixing his previous over-assessment of Turnbull three years ago than describing what is happening now. This is not just happening on the Coalition side. If the polls are right and we are heading for a Labor government (by no means a given), it will be headed by a strikingly unpopular leader – but this time a Coalition political stalemate will be replaced by institutional rules as Rudd’s Revenge will lock Labor in. if the last eight years of leadership turmoil was bad enough, it is nothing to what will come from this electorally unappealing stalemate.
Perhaps by then the electoral intervention will be more decisive. If it does it will be a total surprise as it appears to be another blind spot in political commentary. You would not guess it, but in the last six months Labor had two election disasters, in South Australia last month and in Queensland in November. In both states, the party’s primary dropped close to post war lows. It is not apparent because the lost votes didn’t go to the Coalition, which also suffered a significant loss in votes, but to minor parties and so, under the preferential system, found their increasingly tortuous and unenthusiastic way back to the major parties.
But this is not a nothing. For a start, it means as the two main parties continue to lose votes, the 2PP metric becomes increasingly meaningless. This is especially the case where minor parties are in the position to alter the direction of preference flows. In South Australia, for example, Labor scored a 2PP swing of 2% towards it, which might be taken to mean it became safer. Just how nonsense this is can be seen in seats where the 2PP swung strongly to Labor, but SA Best came within striking distance of taking the second place and keeping the preference flows that would have normally gone back to Labor (for the geeks, it is precisely this problem the SA Electoral Commission has been grappling with that has caused it such trouble trying to produce fair redistributions).
More importantly, it has meant none of the pressure to do a big shake-up that would normally come after an electoral disaster. In Queensland, it is business as usual in government. Even after Labor lost power in South Australia, it has meant – in an act of supreme complacency – the appointment to the leadership of a socially conservative factional hack, fast-tracked to the Ministry by Weatherill to save his job when Farrell came after it in 2015.
But perhaps one reason why the electoral erosion and the leadership stalemate in the major parties is being ignored is because of the most important, and intriguing, blind spot of them all, one that sheds light on what is really happening overseas – there is nothing actually replacing them. The factional manoeuvrings going in the Greens at least make it look like a normal party, unlike most of the ones that follow them. The rise of the non-parties in the last decade has meant the major parties are effectively losing votes to nothing. In South Australia, this is exemplified by SA Best, a party with policies no one can remember, candidates no one ever saw, and one that panicked when it briefly looked as though it might share power.
This is not too far off what is happening overseas. For all the bogus sociological studies being generated to explain Corbyn Labour or the rise of Trump, they had more to do with the dysfunctionality of their own parties than any shifts going on in society. In the US, for all the culture war histrionics over Trump, surveys indicate that politics is increasingly treated as a team sports game while there is convergence on pretty well everything else that actually matters.
This is unprecedented. In the modern eras, political disruption has almost always been a consequence of social upheavals and changes. The formation of the great parties of the 20th century was almost always a product of social realignment whether organic or imposed. Here it is almost the opposite, it is the lack of engagement that is creating upheaval often reflecting shifts that had happened long ago.
In Australia, politics has long been little more than team sports and of in-depth concern more to political journalists and psephologists than anyone else. The drama about 30 Newspolls is of course a perfect example of this sports team mentality referring to something that means nothing for those who don’t follow the game. But still, that is not a nothing. It is A Thing.