Only a few years ago, a ‘spill’ was something you inflicted on your pants at 3am. Now this old school word for a parliamentary party leadership challenge has lodged itself firmly in the Australian lexicon, replete with its own hashtags, memes and online folklore.
In some ways Malcolm Turnbull’s perhaps-inevitable knifing of sitting PM Tony Abbott reveals a healthy Westminster system at work, whereby the elected members – echoing the concerns of an increasingly hostile public – were able to sack the head of government.
Compared to the US, where President Obama and his (unelected) Cabinet do not hold back on vetoing the will of Congress and handing down executive orders like its the Court of Louis XVI, the ability to topple a sitting Prime Minister suggests the government works for the people, and not the other way around.
But there are also dangers inherent in this week’s king-slaying. The BBC decried Australia the “coup capital of the democratic world” – a charge that, while appealing to our rebellious and anti-authoritarian nature would hardly be instilling confidence in foreign investors and lenders.
Now, I’m a Turnbull fan and believe he will be a great prime minister, providing much-needed statesmanship, economic stewardship and ideological centrism. In addition, Tony Abbott was disappointing from Day One, failing to communicate, embarking on a confusing agenda and becoming personally detested in many corners of the country.
If I was a backbench MP about to lose my job because the boss was hated I would probably do the same thing. But this coup culture – once confined to the NSW Labor Party and now infecting all levels of political life – sets a worrying historical precedent in which the media and apparatchiks get to ply their dark arts and the electoral process is subjugated.
As much as I would hate to see a Shorten government, the noble thing would have been to go to an election and honourably lose. Sacking a sitting PM is a cynical play that cheaply buys a honeymoon period, attempting to dupe the electorate and wreak havoc on the public policy process.
People often whinge that politicians do nothing in Canberra. Well nothing postpones items on the legislative agenda like a spill. Nothing distracts a political journalist like a coup.
How many good bills remain unsigned? How many bad laws un-repealed? while instead we spend the next few months reading starry-eyed hero-grams about Malcolm’s childhood and his now-fulfilled destiny.
Look, I love a leadership frenzy as much as the next red-blooded convict, and partly my reaction is a symptom of FOMO as I followed the news from a Starbucks in Boston’s CBD instead of being perched on the couch watching Richo and Speers back home where I belong.
But with the media actively destabilising leadership and the public more engaged with spills than bills, the business of governance only gets harder.
Keep that in mind when gleefully #bye-byeing Tony.
This article was published on 15 September 2015