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Australia's Next Successful Prime Minister - email sent 20/2/12

Darren Cheeseman, MP
Federal Member for Corangamite

Re: Maiden M. ‘Double trouble’, Sunday Mail, 19/2/12 (also published as ‘PM Julia Gillard told to quit as bitter caucus feud breaks out’, Herald Sun)

In the above article you were quoted as suggesting that: ‘"There's no doubt about it: Julia Gillard can't take the party forward. The community has made its mind up on her," ……. "Certainly, it would be in the interests of the party for Julia to stand down and allow (the) Government to select a strong candidate."

Might I respectfully suggest that a candidate’s ‘strength’ should be judged in terms of their likely ability to create a framework for effective government, rather than by their potential to win an election on the basis of populist rhetoric when (as so often in recent years) their rhetoric is overly-simplistic and unlikely to lead to constructive / practical outcomes (see On Populism, 2007+).

Neither political parties nor the community benefit from the electoral successes of leaders whose popularity quickly wanes because their policy rhetoric:

  • lacks substance because Australia’s civil institutions are unable to provide up-to-date and practical understanding of complex policy options (eg consider Populism Trumps Electoral Victory in relation to the incoming federal government’s agenda in 2007) – a deficiency that arguably results from the ‘Lucky Country’s’ traditional reliance on resources wealth and on copying overseas’ policy initiatives;
  • can no longer be given a ‘reality check’ by an experienced professional public service, as the latter has been (a) forced into unquestioning political compliance; (b) de-skilled by politicisation of ‘senior’ level staffing; and (c) suffered a breakdown in inter-agency collaboration due to excessive centralisation (see Weakening of Administrative Support); and
  • is unlikely to be implemented competently due to: (a) populist changes to machinery of government such as a failure to recognise that business-like methods are not necessarily appropriate for undertaking government’s primarily non-business-like functions (see Decay of Australian Public Administration, 2002); and (b) naïve expectations that centralised control can effectively deal with complex public functions, even though central control of the economy is known to be impractical because of limits to rationality (see Federal State Fiscal Imbalances and Fixing Australia's Federation, 2010+).

Australia’s next successful prime minister will probably be the person, perhaps not yet in parliament, who finally addresses the structural / institutional factors that generate crises and cause political leaders to become victims of their defective operating environment.

An identical suggestion was made in 2007 in relation to undertakings by Queensland’s then new premier, Anna Bligh, to shake the crisis ridden tag that had been associated with the Beattie Government (see Queensland’s Next Successful Premier). However the Bligh Government also gained a ‘crisis ridden tag’ and suffers plunging public support just as the Goss, Borbidge and Beattie Governments did before it. Arguably this resulted from a lack of support from competent civil institutions and trying to use the almost-unworkable machinery created by inexperienced ‘reformers’ in the Goss Government (see also Structural Incompetence and SE Queensland's Water Crisis, 2007+). Moreover Queensland’s current Opposition also seems uninterested in addressing the structural / institutional obstacles that would be likely to quickly erode its popularity and electoral support, if it proves successful in the coming Queensland state election (eg see Beyond Populist Rhetoric, 2011 and Curing Queensland's Myopia, 2011).

At the federal level the possibility that there were problems in Australia’s governing institutions gained embryonic recognition in July 2010 (see Recognising a Need for Nation Building). But here again little or no progress has been made in creating an environment in which Australia’s democratic institutions can actually be effective.

Australia’s international environment has been, and remains, risky (see Unstable Environment). It is widely and conveniently assumed that economic, employment and public-revenue growth are assured by the commodities boom generated mainly by China’s rapid growth, industrialisation and urbanisation. However the issue is by no means as simple as is generally assumed (eg see Do Blind Spots Cloud the RBA's 'Lucky Country' Vision?, 2011). Opinion leaders and the electorate need a much better informed and realistic assessment especially now that there seems to be a real risk that the ‘wheels could come off China’s economic wagon’. And if the ‘wheels don’t fall off China’s economic wagon’, Australians will struggle to cope in the absence of much higher levels of Asia-literacy (see Babes in the Asian Woods, 2009+).

In seeking ‘strong candidates’ for prime minister, Australia’s political parties have the opportunity to turn the situation around - but only if they look beyond trendy but insubstantial populists who are unlikely to govern competently or maintain public support for more than a year or so.

John Craig