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With the waves of Turnbull’s cabinet shuffle still being felt, Rob Idol looks into the significantly shortened lifespan of the Australian politician.
When “Magic Mal” Turnbull made the indomitable “Mad Monk” Abbott disappear in September of 2015, it represented Australia’s fifth Prime Minister in as many years. PMs, like many things that used to keep on keeping on, have now become disposable items. Prior to Rudd (the first casualty in the new age of PM slaying), two of the three men to hold office before him had been the second and third longest serving PMs in Australian history – “Li’l” Johnny Howard and Bob “Yard Glass” Hawke. Abbott, the worst performer of the “slayees,” only beat Harold Holt by a month – and Holt died in office.
It’s not just the PMs. The days of a life of service seem to be well behind us if we start to have a look at the statistics. When Abbott won in 2013, we saw the retirement of 25 members of the House of Representatives, the retirement of seven senators, and the defeat of 17 members and seven senators. Once the dust settled, we welcomed some 37 new members and 14 senators. This represented the highest number of departures at any election in Australian history, with the previous record being held by the 2007 election.
As of July 2, 2014, 27.33 percent of members of the House of Representatives had served less than three years and 28.95 percent of the Senate fell into the same category. Only one in the House had served more than 25 years: granddaddy of the house, Phil Ruddock, who announced his retirement last week. Last week also saw the retirement of Nationals Leader Warren Truss, who had a respectable 24 years behind him, and Andrew Robb with 16 years.
A changing of the guard, of course, is just part of the natural order. Not part of the natural order are the retirements that arise for reasons other than age. Since Turnbull took office, we’ve seen the removal of Jamie Briggs, Mal Brough and Stuart Robert from the frontbench. Whilst removal from the frontbench doesn’t necessarily result in a departure from life in politics, the circumstances in which the three departed suggest that they will all soon be joining the ranks of the private sector.
Politicians and commentators will tell you that the 24-hour news cycle is to blame. And I’d have to agree with them for the most part. Not only has it forced every nook and cranny of the political process into the (sometimes uneducated) public eye as it’s happening, it’s done the same for the private life and personal history of every politician. It fuels the millennial instant gratification mentality; if a pollie is seen to not be doing a good job in the public eye then they’ve got a very short window to turn it around before the vultures start circling.
Increased transparency is definitely a good thing, but it has an ugly side as well. In the first instance, that “transparency” is delivered to us in the most part via the media. The media, the “major” outlets at least, no longer look to remain impartial. They have their own agendas, and those agendas have a significant impact on their editorial direction.
This is nothing new; the story of Rupert Murdoch sitting an ashen-faced John Howard down in 1987 to let him know “we’ve decided to go with Bob” is political folklore. Not to mention Murdoch’s involvement in the Whitlam saga.
It’s no longer hidden, however. We only need to look back at Newscorp’s announcement of the 2013 election: a front page picture of Kevin Rudd with the headline, “Let’s kick this mob out.” Discussions and decisions previously protected under cloak and dagger have been replaced with overt sensationalism.
While one small misstep, which in the past might have made a pollie a small liability to their party, is now a deal breaker – as every detail is scrutinised, editorialised and sensationalised – the media might be the delivery system but they are not necessarily the trigger.
Apart from our collective hunger for the sensational, we as voters have changed significantly as a result of the bevvy of information we have available to us. Voters being better informed is rarely a bad thing (for the country, not for the pollies), but on the other hand, our information is often presented to us in one of two ways: either via the mainstream media machine in search of ratings or from anyone with a social media account.
We assume a higher standard of our politicians than we used to – a higher standard often derived from false truths as a result of its source. Everyone is an expert and unfortunately many that believe they are, aren’t, but still have the potential to be incredibly influential.
The problem with sensationalisation of political issues, whether it be from the mainstream media or your supposed informed mate and the obscure link he found outlining the need to close our borders once and for all, is that apart from not always being factual, at the very least it ignores the macro. Whether it be a farmer who, best intentions aside, creates a viral video demanding that the government divert foreign aid to help the agricultural community of the country, or a diatribe on the dangers of losing jobs to the Chinese via the TPP, we end up in a situation where our opinions are influenced by one isolated issue that is part of a complicated web. Whilst the issues are of importance, and completely warrant attention, a single-minded approach to any issue on the political spectrum is fraught with danger.
So is it the chicken or the egg? Are our policies and pollies, and the way they are presented by the government and the media, dumbed down to trite slogans (“stop the boats,” anyone?) because we have an increasingly loud and influential public that must be catered to for political survival?
Or have we reached this place because the political system and mainstream media have consistently pushed a black and white, left vs right agenda on us?
One hell of a causal loop…
Either way, the days of a long and illustrious career in politics do appear to be heading the way of the dinosaur. Whilst the upside is a strengthened democracy where the people have a greater influence over who leads them, the downside is far more dangerous, with politicians solely focussed on saving their jobs and catering their stance to the post with the most likes. There are no incentives for our leaders to take risks, for failure is now very public, and retribution very swift.