For quite some time now, Australians, and especially Australian pundits, have been gnashing their teeth over the Presidential nature of Australian politics. The frenetic pace, the focus on the leader rather than the team, and the slogans over the policy. Just yesterday the ABC's Jonathan Green wrote an interesting blog post about precisely the “personalised” and “leadership orientated” nature of this election cycle. Here are some of the salient points:
To say that Australian politics has become presidential is a pretty tired truism, an idea probably showing the first signs of fatigue when Gough Whitlam was hoisted like a redeemer to the prime ministership in 1972, or when, not so long ago, more than half the country got its T-shirt on for Kevin 07.
We have long been used to voting for the leader as much as the team, the personality as much as the policies.
You could make a pretty convincing argument that it is just rival personality and delivery that masks the great uniformity of the Australian political landscape: two major parties of the near centre, neither offering substantial changes to a mutually agreed status quo while furiously resisting any hint of bipartisan agreement.
It's true. Australian Federal politics is no different to American Presidential politics. Just watch Rudd and Abbott fly all over the country inspecting factory after factory, donning hi-vis vest after hi-vis vest, and storming rallies like rock stars. If Rudd gets his desired number of Leader's debates, that will just seal the deal. It is all about the personality. But the thing that has me curious is why anyone expects it to be different. After all, Green admits how little there is to separate the parties on substance. So, what's left? Personality. And considering how unrepresentative our local Representatives are, why wouldn't all the attention go to the personalities that matter?
Just to give you an example of how useless our Representatives are, I shall tell you a story. Last year I went to see my local Representative with a couple of concerned citizens. They had just been with the Salvation Army to an offshore detention centre, and wanted to share their horror stories with their local member. They hoped to impact policy. I went along as an observer, hardly concealing my skepticism, and ready to pull out my “I told you so” face the moment the farce was over. Our MP sat there in his nicely pressed suit, surrounded by his nicely pressed staff. They offered us drinks, asked questions and deflected blame at the appropriate moments, and the meeting was pretty quickly over. A couple of weeks later we received a thank-you email, and that was it. He has since taken no public stance on the matter of Offshore Processing (despite having a blog which he seems to write himself), and we have no evidence of an impact on the party line, in fact the parties have gone the other direction.
My MP is a no-name backbencher in a very safe seat. He has no clout and no incentive to do anything, so why would anyone who even knew he existed, bother paying attention to him? He can't influence the party, and we can't get rid of him. How many other concerned citizens are similarly stuck with powerless Representatives? If you are in this situation, wouldn't you also ignore your Representatives and focus on the leaders?
Let me offer you another example of how powerless our local reps are. In Australia, of course, Members of Parliament can cross the floor when they do not agree with the party line. But how common is it? How successful is it? Well, the Parliament of Australia Website has a fact sheet on Floor Crossing between 1950 and 2004. Here are some pertinent points:
In the period of the study there were 14 243 divisions. Of these 439 (3%) were identified as divisions in which members of parliament (MPs) crossed the floor.
So it isn't very common…
Floor crossing affected the result of floor crossing divisions in only 53 (12%) of cases.
The successful floor crossing divisions in the House of Representatives all occurred between 1952 and 1955. The last successful division in the Senate involved Nationals senators crossing the floor to vote with the Labor Government on the Representation Bill 1983.
…and it isn't very successful. What, then, is there left for voters whose reps aren't in party leadership positions?
Considering how similar the parties are, and considering how powerless our local representatives are, is it really any wonder that the attention of both the media and the voters are drawn to the actual sources of power? And considering how important the party leadership is, is it really any wonder both major parties have decided to fill them with big personalities? Is it any wonder our political system is increasing Presidential?