Prime minister or president? The folly of dominance exposed

Paul Strangio makes a very important point in that story in today’s Sydney Morning Herald.

AS HE made a last-minute forlorn attempt to stave off the internal assault on this prime ministership during a media conference on Wednesday night, Kevin Rudd made a plea that implied that should his Labor colleagues tear him down they would be dishonouring the wishes expressed by voters at the 2007 election.

The Australian people, he declared, had elected him prime minister, asserting a personal mandate. On talkback radio yesterday, a number of callers struck a similar note, complaining they they had voted for Kevin Rudd – not Julia Gillard – and they now felt cheated by the fact that their choice was no longer leader of the country.

Yet such claims are a distortion of the principles by which Australia’s Westminster-derived parliamentary system operates – at least in formal terms. The prime minister is the leader of the parliamentary party or coalition that commands a majority of seats in the House of Representatives and only remains the prime minister as long as he or she enjoys the confidence of that majority.

The members of the parliamentary Labor Party had the prerogative to dispose of the prime minister at any time they saw fit. Similarly, only voters in his Queensland electorate of Griffith personally put Rudd into Parliament and not one of us directly voted him into the prime minister’s office.

That some members of the public labour under such a misapprehension is easy to understand. We live in an era when there is an increasing tendency to conflate leaders and political parties, when party symbols in campaigns have become as inconspicuous as leaders have become conspicuous.

Political scientists describe this as prime ministerial government. More commonly, it is called presidential politics. Both terms denote a trend in which the media message of a government is increasingly centralised around a prime minister (they are the government’s human face) and there has been an accretion of resources in their hands.

This trend has a history running back at least as far as Gough Whitlam’s prime ministership. However, it has undoubtedly sharpened over recent years and, during Rudd’s incumbency, scaled new heights…

Very true. When I voted here in Sydney Kevin Rudd was not on the ballot paper; Tanya Plibersek was. I voted for her and would again, if I were in Sydney at the next election. (I just may be somewhere else by then, but more of that later.) She won, and her party won. Therefore her party leader became Prime Minister. The party selects a Cabinet who basically run the joint; it is true that we have focussed, inadvisably, all our attention on the Chairman (Chairwoman) of the Board because bringing things down to one leader simplifies our thinking, and of course the leader’s management style does become an issue. Kevin Rudd did have increasingly severe management style problems. Jim Belshaw picked that up very early. Jim’s perceptions were not party political but based on his years in public service and management. Kevin needed to sleep more and delegate more.

We don’t have a president. We don’t vote for Prime Ministers. Our “president”, whether it be The Queen or the Governor-General, is not elected.

Even so, like Jim, I have great sympathy for Kevin in the position he partly brought on himself. I think it is true that the government was losing its way, a great shame because in my opinion their 2008 and much of 2009 were magnificent, especially compared with what went before.

I am very sorry to see Lindsay Tanner has decided to go: a gentleman and a scholar, in my opinion.

Now to edit my poll.


2 thoughts on “Prime minister or president? The folly of dominance exposed

  1. What a week! McChrystal then Rudd.

    McChrystal was meant to be The Man with The Strategy for ‘winning’ in Afghanistan. There is one school of thought that says he did what he did deliberately in order to get the sack from the position. Petraeus has been handed the poisoned chalice and may harm his prospects for what many see as a run at the Presidency for the GOP next time around (assuming that his collapsing from ‘dehydration’ doesn’t become a habit).

    Kandahar was meant to be the litmus test for McChrystal’s strategy. The operation has been postponed at least until September because the Afghans aren’t interested. Afghans don’t want a force of occupation, Afghans despise their corrupt government, US aid money is going to all the wrong people. And young Aussies continue to die for this rubbish.

    Kevin 07 has only himself to blame. Once a control freak, always one. The best definition of the role of a school Principal that I came across during my career in education was ‘a leader of leaders’. I think that definition could have much wider application, perhaps even to Prime Ministers.

    As a long-time True Believer (including Branch Secretary in a solid National Party seat) I will consider Julia’s lot but the Party will need to reverse its decision to force pensioners to declare income fortnightly and to be taxed thereby rather than the old scheme of putting in an annual income return, either over or below the allowable amount of cash that pensioners can earn in addition to their welfare benefit. This is an issue that could well determine our votes rather than anything bigger in scale. Politics can hit one personally. This issue has hit us like a nuke as it has Santa Clauses, examination supervisors etc.

    Since NW mentioned Plibersek I will mention that I wrote to her some time back pointing out that we had paid a total of $45,000 in GST on the home we built a couple of years ago. Given the difficulties faced by buyers new to the market I asked her to consider removing the GST on new homes or at least on homes built by first timers. Her answer? The government could not forgo the revenue. This from a Labor government?

    I concur about Lindsay Tanner who will be missed but please, please don’t give out the line that he wants to spend more time with his family. How many times have we heard that one trotted out? In a nutshell, one doesn’t go into politics if one wants to spend a lot of time with one’s family. I suppose there could be special circumstances in his case but it is usually simply a fabrication.

    Enough rambling for the day. Now for the theatre section of the New York Times, generally an interesting site to visit.

  2. Interesting comment by John, Neil. While you were writing, I was too. I actually think that the faction leaders panicked. Oddly, I had a part written post when all this blew up suggesting that Labor had turned the corner.

    Julia would not answer Kerry O’Brien’s questions re the advice that people may have given Kevin re changing his style. I get the strong impression that the advice was given, but not pushed.

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