Who’s the Premier? Who cares?

Does anyone care that Denis Napthine is Victoria’s new premier? AAP/Julian Smith

Last Thursday, Victorians awoke to the news that they had a new Premier. Ted Baillieu did not survive four days of rolling scandal which began with the release by the Herald Sun of four hours of taped conversations between key Liberal and National Party players and ended with the resignation from the Liberal Party of Geoff Shaw, Member for Frankston, leaving the government one short of an absolute majority of the lower House.

Most Victorians reacted to the news by shrugging their shoulders and getting on with things. There was none of the anger and panic which accompanied Kevin Rudd’s replacement by prime minister Julia Gillard. Very quickly, the news was displaced in Victoria by coverage of the trial of Jill Meagher’s alleged killer and by the election of a new Catholic Pope.

Victorians don’t really know why Baillieu “resigned”, but nor are they clamouring for answers. What Julia Gillard would have given for that kind of apathy in 2010.

Then on Wednesday this week, the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory, Terry Mills, was rolled in a good old fashioned coup. Like the leadership spills of old, this was a while coming.

In February the Attorney-General, John Elferink, had signalled his intention to challenge for the leadership, but in the end couldn’t muster the numbers. Weeks later, Health and Housing Minister Dave Tollner did force a spill, but ended up being forced out of Cabinet himself. Barely a week after that, Tollner and Adam Giles conspired to organise a coup while Mills was in Japan on a trade mission.

Mills was chief minister for barely six and a half months.

Catch Labor’s disease

Obviously, each leadership change had its own trajectory, and the fact that they occurred within a week of each other is largely coincidence. But there are wider implications. One is that the so-called “New South Wales disease” – a shorthand reference to the factional infighting that saw New South Wales Labor cycle through four Premiers (Bob Carr, Morris Iemma, Nathan Rees and Kristina Keneally) before finally losing office in March 2011 – is not limited to the Labor party.

History tells us that governing parties of both persuasions have swapped leaders quite often, especially when in power for extended periods of time, and so the identification of leadership coups with the Labor brand is a distortion.

The association of government leadership coups to Labor in recent times is due, in large part, to the fact that Labor has dominated the government benches in the states and territories during the past fifteen years.

In the decade from 2001 the party so dominated state and territory politics that, outside Western Australia, only in 2001 in South Australia and in 2010 in Victoria was Labor not in government. By definition, any changes of premier or chief minister between elections were changes of Labor premiers or chief ministers.

Market-driven politics

George Megalogenis makes a deeper analysis. He suggests that political leadership changes in Australia since about 1992 have been functions of two trends: the domination of political polling; and a general malaise in Australian political leadership.

It was in 1992 that Newspoll went fortnightly instead of monthly. Megalogenis argues that since then, politics is driven more and more by the practices of marketing than by more traditional methods of policy and persuasion. The prime example he gives was Rudd’s decision to drop his emissions trading scheme – his proposed solution to “the greatest moral challenge of our time” – after he was told of bad reactions to it in focus groups dominated by politically disengaged voters.

The recent trend for first-term leaders to be torn down by their party rooms is something we haven’t seen since the 1920s and 1930s in Victoria, Western Australia and South Australia.

Related to this kind of market-driven politics is what Megalogenis identifies as the generally sub-standard level of political leadership across Australia. Unprepared politically or philosophically to pursue long-term reform in this era of poll-driven 24-hour news cycles, he argues, leaders seek election on short-term populist rhetoric and then opt out when the going gets too tough. Leaders who adhere themselves publicly to political philosophies which go beyond vague statements (like Gillard’s proclaimed belief in the importance of “education”) are, it seems, relics of the past, so when the polls go south they have no substance to ground themselves in.

States in play

A third important factor is at play in state and territory politics – the perception of the relevance (or otherwise) of state politics. The prime minister said in January that if the Constitution were being drafted today, the states would be left out.

That tier of government is indeed in a curious malaise. A century of High Court decisions and the GST have centralised taxation powers in the Commonwealth government and left the states increasingly reliant on dubious means of raising their own revenue, such as taxes on gambling and cigarettes, and on tied grants from the Commonwealth.

State governments seem unable to cope effectively with those service areas the Constitutional drafters assigned to them, such as education and health, and too often the state governments seem little more than the facilitators of miners’ and developers’ aspirations. More and more, state and territory governments imagine their role as mere managers, and political leaders as Chief Executive Officers who sink or swim on the share price and the profit-and-loss statement. The tenure of managerialist “leaders” is necessarily short and they are rarely missed.

Megalogenis says he’s waiting for someone to come along and change the whole conversation, perhaps by injecting some philosophical passion into the motherhood managerialism of the current crop of political leaders.

But it’s unlikely that this person will come through state politics. It may be that the lack of public concern about the replacements of sitting government leaders by their parties is a sign of a better acceptance of Westminster traditions than was observed during the Rudd-Gillard swap. But perhaps the most significant message from the twin coups in Victoria and the Northern Territory is that for voters, state and territory politics matter less than ever.