The leadership controversy within the Liberal Party seems now to have been resolved (though that is never certain). John Howard will stay on as Liberal leader and hence keep his job as prime minister. He will fight the election and, if he is successful, he will retire well into his next term. That probably means that if Howard has his way he will step down in mid to late 2009 after more than 13 years.
The controversy says a lot about our political system. In a formal sense it shows how easy it is to change leaders in a Westminster parliamentary system. If the Liberal Parliamentary Party had so desired Howard could have been removed from office in the time it took to organise a party room meeting. Howard could have entered that fateful meeting last week as prime minister and left it as a political has been. All it would have taken was a motion to declare the position of leader vacant and Howard would have been fighting for his life. It didn’t happen but it could have been that easy. Peter Costello, or another Liberal, might have emerged from the meeting as our prime minister.
The only vote taken would have been among the small number of Liberal MPs; not even the Nationals’ MPs who make up the other portion of the governing Coalition would have had a vote. Effectively the senior Liberal Cabinet ministers in the 30-member ministry made the decision when they decided not to force Howard out.
That is a very narrow constituency, narrower than we often recognise, but something that foreign observers notice. Because of the APEC meeting and the invitation to the Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, to address the Commonwealth Parliament, there were a number of senior Canadian journalists in Canberra observing the leadership struggle at close hand. They were staggered at the power vested in the hands of so few.
Jeffrey Simpson, from the Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper, was amazed that there was no debate in Australia about the process of leadership selection. Canada’s party leaders are selected by open competition in large conventions of several thousand party members. He was disbelieving that, though the Australian Democrats give their members at large the right to select their parliamentary leader, there was apparently no interest within the major parties in widening the franchise for leadership selection.
Though it is very easy in theory to change party leaders in Australia the Howard case shows how difficult it is in practice. The incumbent has enormous resources at their disposal to ensure their survival. There are many more unsuccessful than successful challenges, especially in government. John Gorton did lose to Billy McMahon in a tied vote almost 40 years ago in 1971. But Peacock couldn’t defeat Fraser. Howard has faced down Costello. Keating took two votes and a spell on the backbench before he eventually ousted Bob Hawke in 1991.
The process is extraordinarily destabilising for the party in government. It is also wounding for the individuals involved. Unfortunately the worst aspects of human nature appear to dictate that in parliamentary systems political leaders, if not defeated in an election, stay on too long.
At the federal level in Australia the three longest serving prime ministers, Robert Menzies, Hawke and now Howard have stayed on too long. Menzies was holding up social progress by the time he went. Hawke broke a solemn promise and was dragged out kicking and screaming. Howard didn’t have the good sense to make an orderly departure and has now entered a messy deal with Costello.
This suggests that the Americans have got in right in limiting their presidents to two four-year terms. Eight years is enough for any leader. Continuity is balanced by orderly transition. Howard will now either win the election and stay too long in office or lose the election and make an undignified exit that will further tarnish his record. Term limits put the decision out of the reach of temptation and greed.
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