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Australian politics: We’re still in the Good Place

The media loves to paint Australia as going through political hell. But the truth is quite the opposite.

Australia is back in what the media usually calls ‘leadership turmoil’. The country seems at a good chance to get another new prime minister just as soon as Peter Dutton finds an excuse to bring on the next party-room vote.

Meanwhile, we’re hearing a new outbreak of complaint about the supposedly terrible state of Australian politics. There are tweets, posts, comments and calls about our perilous polity. Businesspeople say that these terrible politicians are creating business uncertainty and should just get their act together. It’s a hell of a racket.

Here’s a different take. Much of the media needs to sell subscriptions, so it paints the nation as divided, strife-torn, imperilled. But by any global standards, that’s ridiculous.

In reality, everything is fine. Really.

Ignore the clamour and the endless turmoil talk. Our political system is not broken; it’s working as it was designed to do. And all the evidence suggests frequent changes of prime minister just don’t matter that much:

  • First, our political system, copied from the UK, is designed to work even when it’s ignored or derided, and even when leadership changes frequently. It has survived times far worse than 2018 Australia.
  • Second, politics is frequently rowdy and a bit weird. We’ve elected 226 federal politicians to take care of politics for us, and they mostly do. Like any group of 226 mostly smart extroverts crammed into a small space to determine the future of their country, they often disagree, noisily. Ask yourself: should you be that surprised?
  • Third, Australia often goes through prime ministers pretty fast. Sure, we had just four in 32 years up to 2007 – Fraser, Hawke, Keating and Howard. But that was an aberration. We had eight in the first ten years after Federation (Barton, Deakin, Watson, Reid, Deakin again, Fisher, Deakin again and Fisher again), six in the 1940s, and another five in the seven years from the start of 1966 to the end of 1972. We were fine each time, even though the 1940s included World War II.
  • Fourth, our political leaders may not always be able to hold on to the top job, but politics continues to attract some of the best and brightest people in Australia. Hawke, Abbott and Turnbull were all Rhodes Scholars (as was long-time opposition leader Kim Beazley). Shadow assistant treasurer Andrew Leigh was one of Australia’s most admired economists before he moved into parliament.
  • Fifth, through all this supposed political turmoil, Australia has continued to record economic growth (the most recent recession ended in 1991) and to retain its ranking just behind Norway at the top of the UN Human Development Index.
  • Sixth, and finally. Yes, our national consensus frays occasionally. Currently we struggle with energy and climate change policy, and with immigration. But Australia’s people are very broadly agreed about how the country should go forward, and mostly are endearingly disinclined to embrace political extremes.

Bottom line: If daily politics ever gives you the urge to complain that we’re in some form of political hell, resist that urge. Politically, Australia is in the Good Place.

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