An undeserving PM (crosspost from

by John Quiggin on September 7, 2013

Unless there’s a sudden turnaround in the polls, Tony Abbott will become Prime Minister of Australia tonight. This will be the third time in my life that a Federal Labor government has been defeated, the other two occasions being 1975 and 1996. On both those occasions, despite substantial and enduring accomplishments, the government had made a mess of macroeconomic management, and the electorate, unsurprisingly, wanted to punish them. And, despite my strong disagreements with them (and with the way Fraser came to office), the incoming Prime Ministers had serious views on how best Australia’s future could be managed. Fraser has only improved since leaving office, making valuable contributions on the national and global stage. My evaluation of Howard, following his defeat, starts with the observation that he was ‘the most substantial figure produced by the Liberal party since the party itself was created by Menzies’.

Nothing of the sort can be said this time. The case put forward by the LNP is based entirely on lies and myths. These include the claims that
* Labor has mismanaged the economy and piled up unnecessary debt and deficits
* Australian families are ‘doing it tough’ because of a soaring cost of living
* The carbon tax/price is a ‘wrecking ball’, destroying economic activity
* The arrival of refugees represents a ‘national emergency’

None of these claims stands up to even momentary scrutiny.

Then there’s Abbott himself. After 20 years in politics, I can’t point to any substantial accomplishments on his part, or even any coherent political philosophy. For example, I’m not as critical of his parental leave scheme as some, but it’s totally inconsistent with his general political line, a fact that his supporters in business have been keen to point out. On climate change, he’s held every position possible and is now promising, in effect, to do nothing. His refusal to reveal policy costings until the second-last day of the campaign debases an already appalling process. He treated budget surplus as a holy grail until it became inconvenient, and has now become carefully vague on the topic.

Obviously, the fact that such a party and such a leader can be on the verge of victory implies that the Labor side has done something dreadfully wrong. It’s the oldest cliche in politics for the losing side to claim that the problem is not the policies but inability to get the message across. In this case, however, I think it’s true. Gillard lost the voters early on with stunts like a consultative assembly to decide on climate change policy, and never managed to get them to listen to her for any length of time. Rudd was doing well in communicating his vision from his return to the leadership until he called the election. He then wasted three weeks on small-bore stuff apparently aimed at securing minor party preferences. He seemed finally to have rediscovered his voice, in the last week of the campaign, but almost certainly too late.



Tiny Hermaphrodit, Esq. 09.07.13 at 5:19 am

I know this is a bit snarky, but you seem to be getting your very own, australian version of Dubya.


Tiny Hermaphrodite, Esq. 09.07.13 at 5:24 am

And my name is wrong. Ahh, that’s better.


leinad 09.07.13 at 6:06 am

Abbott’s actual philosophy isn’t that much of a mystery: as a Catholic conservative he’s illiberal on social issues and economically corporatist. The mixed messages come from his having to lead a party crammed with swivel-eyed loons still desperate to fight the economic battles of the 80s over labour’s supine body.


John Quiggin 09.07.13 at 6:21 am

@leinad I think he is fighting the same battles in his own head.


John Quiggin 09.07.13 at 6:22 am

BTW, I assume you’re consciously writing “labour”, since Labor is equally saturated with 80s thinking, though with a few more redeeming features.


Peter R 09.07.13 at 10:59 am

Depressing as all hell. And as an expat Canadian living in Australia, I don’t even have a decent escape hatch back where I came from (not that I would, mind you, what with the wife and kid here). I reckon Stephen Harper is if anything even worse than I think Abbott will be.


John Quiggin 09.07.13 at 11:07 am

At least Harper seems to be on the run over Keystone. Abbott may face similar problems after dumping CO2 target


Collin Street 09.07.13 at 2:01 pm

@leinad I think he is fighting the same battles in his own head.

I’ve formed the conclusion that he’s genuinely autistic, or somewhere on the spectrum. I’m not autistic myself [got a certificate sayin’ so and a’!], but I’ve spent a lot of time in some deeply nerdy circles, and fair numbers of my friends and acquaintances are.

And Tony Abbott reminds me of them, or to myself if I were… more so: the way he moves, the way he speaks. A lot of his personal history, too: stuff like the punching-the-wall incident are pretty familiar-sounding to me.


christian_h 09.07.13 at 3:08 pm

So out of personal interest (contemplating a potential move to Australia): what will this do to higher education, on a scale from “better than Gillard” through “same depressing diff” to “run for your lives”?


ebherrtelle 09.07.13 at 5:50 pm

Naive question from someone who hasn’t been following Australian politics as closely as one should: Why did Gillard inspire such ire in Australian politics? One would often read “Worst PM in history” in the comment sections of Oz news articles, and she of course was ousted from leadership. Australia has its problems, but compared to the EU and US, it seemed strange voters became so apocalyptic.


Chris Bertram 09.07.13 at 7:57 pm

Labour’s opportunism on the refugee issue was just appalling. If , as you say, Abbot managed to spin this as a national emergency, it was an impression that Rudd reinforced. I’d have struggled to vote for a party that endorsed the warehousing of refugees in PNG.


John Quiggin 09.07.13 at 8:32 pm

@christian_h “Same depressing diff” is probably closest. Abbott has promised no cuts to education: I wouldn’t rely on that, but it probably means a renewed gradual squeeze, which we have survived in the past.

@Chris: I need to do a full scale post on this when I can get time, but Labor substantially increased the total refugee intake, whereas Abbott will cut it.


John Quiggin 09.07.13 at 8:34 pm

@ebherrtelle I gave some of the history here


Omega Centauri 09.07.13 at 9:09 pm

It seems the larger countries in the Anglo-sphere all have serious problems with reactionary politics. Australia, Canada, Brittain, and the US. Where is a English speaker to go? Could there be something toxic with the language, that breeds this stuff?


Chris Mealy 09.07.13 at 9:21 pm

Has the housing bubble in Australia popped yet? I’d google it myself, but separating cranks and noncranks takes too long.


nick s 09.07.13 at 10:02 pm

Miserable campaign, miserable result, and probably a miserable few years to come. Some pretty bizarre Senate victories, too, thanks to the preference cattle-trading. The election of Clive Palmer and the return of Pauline Hanson is the faecal icing on the shitty cake.

Yet another ‘failure of politics’ election, it seems. Which is never a good sign.


harry b 09.07.13 at 10:09 pm

For some reason this made me look up Gough Whitlam. He’s not dead! And he is exactly 4 months younger than Harold Wilson!


barrisj 09.07.13 at 10:14 pm

On this occasion, a reprise of “Don’s Party” surely is in order!


Alan 09.08.13 at 12:10 am

As Harry well knows–hi Harry–you spoke to my department in Madison a couple years ago–when a historically progressive state like ours turns breathtakingly into Northern Wississippi, and right-leaning moderate states like North Carolina suddenly wish to install bronze statues of Limbaugh in Raleigh (I’m only half-kidding), and now Australia goes landslide conservative, a majority something in the English-speaking zeitgeist has been exposed to a kind of political red kryptonite. I remember Superman once thus exposed developed an insatiable appetite, and had to eat whole uninhabited planets to finally wear the effects off. What the hell do we have to eat to finally get over this? (Oops, once again the straight man.)


Omega Centauri 09.08.13 at 12:30 am

Alan, having spent twelve years in Wisconsin, I wonder. But I think I have some observations. They love them their guns up there (at least outside Madison), and gun lovers don’t trust Democrats. And its churches versus abortionists, and we know where that leads. And there is general frustration that the world and culture is passing them by, gay marriage is unstoppable for instance. And a lot of pop music is vulgar. So the frustration and anger simply builds up over time.


Daragh McDowell 09.08.13 at 12:33 am


I think it’s less the supposed appetite of English speaking states for reactionary politics than the fact that non-proportional voting systems make it a lot easier for reactionaries to gain power due to the fact that it tends to lump 90% of the population into relatively well defined and immovable camps, effectively giving the deciding vote to the remaining 10%. As has been expounded upon here and other blogs ad nauseam, far from being the high-minded rational adjudicators of Economist editorials and Clive Crook’s fantasies, this 10% are a largely politically uneducated lot susceptible to ridiculous arguments like ‘running a modest budget deficit during a period of general economic recession will lead to economic catastrophe because DEBT!’ Hence their willingness to overlook the fact that Rudd, while possibly not the most pleasant of persons, is a generally competent PM, while Abbott is an unhinged reactionary lunatic. Contrast this with Ireland, where despite a massive influx of immigrants during the boom and an economy that is still deep in the brown stuff as a result of the Great Recession has yet to see the emergence of a UKIP or Abbott style know-nothing party, largely because (IMHO) PR-STV ensures that the know-nothings are politically castrated instead of being put in the driver’s seat.


P O'Neill 09.08.13 at 12:46 am

BBC R5 Up All Night just did a nice extended spot on the election. One of the punchlines is that it’s not obvious the carbon tax can be removed with the current Senate configuration.

Daragh, even if PR-STV smoothes the extremes,that’s a high price to pay for overall quality of governance.


ebherrtelle 09.08.13 at 1:02 am

@John Quiggin Thanks! I don’t know how I missed reading that the first time.


WEU 09.08.13 at 2:10 am

“For some reason this made me look up Gough Whitlam. He’s not dead!”

Be careful with this. Two days before the death of Claude Levi-Strauss, I proclaimed to Facebook my astonishment that he was still alive.

Questions I need to answer through some reading (including Prof. Quiggin’s back posts): How decent of a climate action scheme is the Clean Energy Act? How easily can Abbott kill it?


Alan 09.08.13 at 2:52 am


“I think it’s less the supposed appetite of English speaking states for reactionary politics than the fact that non-proportional voting systems make it a lot easier for reactionaries to gain power due to the fact that it tends to lump 90% of the population into relatively well defined and immovable camps, effectively giving the deciding vote to the remaining 10%.”

That’s right. And gerrymandering is the current strategy for Rethugs in the US and favors the voting minority overall, with specific appeals to that 10% (or the like). I would say that this overall strategy relies on the populace’s general ignorance of issues and plays on emotional reactions (through ALEC, Limbaugh, FOX, NRA, etc.), and is effective electorally. So Rethugs win, and of course doom us, since they couldn’t care less about the long-term good of the world, but only a time-slice of history that might include their own kids at the most.


mozzie 09.08.13 at 2:57 am

And these “lies and myths”remain unchallenged by most of the media (including the Australian Broadcasting Commission – our ABC, the Fairfax press, and of course Murdoch) with only a couple of finance columnists (who presumably have non-interference clauses in place) taking some stand; Ross Gittins and the late convert, Tim Colebatch.


Emma in Sydney 09.08.13 at 10:21 am

Daragh, in Oz we have STV in the House of Reps and a form of PR in the Senate. Did us precisely no good this time, with a useless press, an opposition prepared to brazenly lie, and a government paralyzed by its own internal power struggles. The Greens were the only party with any integrity, but only got 10 %. Despair seems the best option, today in Sydney.


Daragh McDowell 09.08.13 at 1:44 pm

@Emma in Sydney – Apologies should have been clearer. STV in single seat constituencies isn’t THAT much better than FPTP, and still privileges the confused media voter. A genuinely proportional system would ensure that the 10% of the votes the Greens got translated into roughly 10% of the votes. Even better, it would vastly lower the cost of entry into the political space. Imagine if the Turnbull wing of the coalition had been able to say ‘screw this noise, there’s no WAY we’re lining up behind Abbott’ without it being political suicide? Food for thought.

@P O’Neill – I don;t see why a PR system necessarily decreases the quality of governance. In fact in my experience it’s done just the opposite.


nick s 09.08.13 at 5:01 pm

Contrast this with Ireland

Um, in spite of FF’s defenestration, Irish politics still operates on the level of ‘he fixed the road’; parochial loyalty fills the space that ideological extremism seeks to occupy.

Even better, it would vastly lower the cost of entry into the political space.

The barriers to entry in Australian politics aren’t high for single-issue parties or the political vehicles of idiosyncratic individuals: Bob Katter, Nick Xenophon, Andrew Wilkie, etc. had their impact on the Labor government over the past three years, and now Clive Palmer and the various Senate winners will have a presence over the next three.

Where the friction exists, as you rightly note, is between ‘gadfly’ and ‘major party’, which is why the Greens have struggled to convert their support into seats. However, I think it’s a stretch to imagine that there’s room for a Turnbull-wing party even if the electoral structures existed to accommodate it.


christian_h 09.08.13 at 9:23 pm

Thanks, John.


John Quiggin 09.08.13 at 11:03 pm

@Christian I should mention they are proposing some political veto on research grants. At this stage, I don’t think this will amount to more than Proxmire-style attacks on projects with silly-sounding titles – we had a bit of this last time they were in. But there’s a chance it could morph into a positive requirement for applied research, confined almost exclusively to STEM, as appears to be happening in the UK (maybe someone could give better info on this).


NJM 09.08.13 at 11:06 pm

STV doesn’t cut it as a proportional voting system though, as everything funnels to ALP/LNP except in some (very few) cases such as the Greens in Melbourne.

If you want the best of both worlds when it comes to English speaking + proportional voting, move to New Zealand.


rwschnetler 09.09.13 at 11:57 am


rwschnetler 09.09.13 at 11:58 am


Barry 09.09.13 at 12:09 pm

It’s a problem for parties on the liberal side – elite cash is soooooo seductive, and a small number of people can donate a lot of money, which simplifies fund-raising.

But then the party’s platform has to move to the right, economically, and they lose working/middle class support. The right-wing party can offer scocially-comforting answers, along with lots of false populism.


Map Maker 09.09.13 at 3:42 pm

“â– The arrival of refugees represents a ‘national emergency’”

OK, not a national emergency, but is it one where there are differences among the parties. Oz should be thankful it isn’t a national emergency and will likely never be one due to oceans, sharks, etc. By the time it becomes a national emergency, the options for politicians to “address” the problem are very limited and/or severe.


otpup 09.09.13 at 3:48 pm

@Daragh, absolutely, disproportionality has a profound effect on the political outcomes. The thing about PR is that it reduces to the cost of a protest vote via the availability of ideologically appropriate alternative (i.e. there are more parties).

Which to say, proportionality means you are not throwing your vote away to vote for another Left party if you want to punish Labor, e.g.. In the best of all possible worlds, the Left can still put together a governing coalition and Labor is duly chastised. In fact, proportionality results in the fact that political parties seriously enforce their platforms (counter-example, US: what’s a platform?) In effect, is the glue that make representative democracy really democracy (see Anthony Downs).

@Omega, the US’s political problems are qualitatively worse because it combines disproportionality with super-majority requirements AND systematically disenfranchises most working class and poor voters.


Norwegian Guy 09.09.13 at 6:19 pm

@otpup, then this other Left party joins Labour in a coalition government, and there will be no (viable) ideologically appropriate protest parties left. I voted in our parliamentary election a couple of hours ago, and had a lot of parties to choose from, but still had to settle for the least bad option. A proportional system is better than non-proportional systems, but it only takes you so far.


reason 09.10.13 at 10:43 am

Norwegian Guy @38
” I voted in our parliamentary election a couple of hours ago, and had a lot of parties to choose from, but still had to settle for the least bad option.”

Apart from you being a dictator, it is not obvious how any voting system could be better for you.


toby 09.10.13 at 2:33 pm

Omega Centauri,

Scotland might make it out of the Union with England. You could emigrate there.

Margaret Thatcher did the Scots the enormous favour of destroying the Tory party in Scotland and giving the Scots Nats the boost-up that has taken them from zero to the brink of a form of Independence.


otpup 09.11.13 at 5:52 pm

@reason, read Anthony Downs, voting systems make the difference between representative democracy being democracy or not.

@Nor. guy, the thing is, whether or not Labor (for instance, i.e., whatever party you to lodge a protest vote against) makes it into government via coalition is irrelevant to whether the protest is a disincentive, it still is.

I.e., even if Labor makes it into government, being subjected to forming a coalition (which means negotiating with its coalition partners) is a negative consequence of having incurred a protest vote (and Labor knows it). Heck Labor could even end up entering a coalition as the minor partner! In any case, the protest at the very least should strengthen the “opposition” within the party.

The point about protest votes is not that Labor does or does not make it into government, but that the vote supplies negative reinforcement, which it does. The fact that the Left can still field a coalition (even with the party you want to punish) is precisely the point, because it takes away the cost to the voter of expressing her preference.

And of course, the protest vote is moot if you were never a Labor voter to begin with.


reason 09.13.13 at 9:24 am

otpup @41
Yes I know that, but Nor. guy’s particular problem cannot be solved by a voting system change – as you yourself point out!


otpup 09.14.13 at 12:06 am

@reason, sorry I miss understood you.

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