Wind Farm

Maurice Newman’s climate claims are a mess (at best)

Maurice Newman, Chairman of the Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Council, today fired the latest salvo in his one-man crusade against climate science. “What if the warmth the world has enjoyed for the past 50 years is the result of solar activity, not man-made CO2?”, he asks innocently. Don’t get him wrong, he has an open mind on climate change – his public writing merely poses hypotheticals.

In his most recent piece, Newman gives a masterclass in the history of climate change denial. He covers arguments from ‘it’s the sun’ to ‘science is now religion’, concluding with a quote from everyone’s favourite, Voltaire. For a while he is (partly) careful to maintain that he is simply questioning the popular view, not attacking it, but by the end it is clear that he thinks we should be investing heavily in heating our homes. He doesn’t mention it here, but getting rid of those pesky wind farms is also on the agenda.

By staking out the ‘reasonable skeptic’ position Newman attempts to cast doubt on the prevailing scientific view, fearful that the Australian public is content to continue acting like “primitive civilisations offering up sacrifices to appease the gods”. While even this concern seems misguided given the fluctuating opinion polls on the urgency of the problem – with desire for immediate action only now beginning to rise once again, and still below 50 per cent – his evidence is more problematic.

There are two driving forces behind the piece: David Archibald’s new book and Newman’s reading of recent research by IG Usoskin et al that solar activity was at a rare peak from 1959 to 2009.

Let’s start with Archibald. According to his profile, “After graduating from Queensland University in geology in 1979, he worked in coal and oil shale exploration in Queensland and then in oil exploration with Esso in Sydney.  A long period in stockbroking in Sydney as an analyst was followed by moving to Perth in 1999 to work for a private investor. He subsequently floated the oil exploration company Oilex in 2003 and then joined a Canadian-listed oil exploration company in 2006.  Also at that time, he was CEO of the mineral explorer Westgold Resources.” While it’s certainly possible for those involved in coal and oil to contribute to the debate, the former CEO of a mineral exploration company with a geology degree and no other qualifications (no apparent further study in geology or other sciences) is hardly the go-to guy for a question as critical as climate science. He also has a history of using limited data sets to prove his point.

This is where Usoskin’s research comes in, apparently to bolster the case for solar-driven climate change. First it is important to note that, contradicting Newman’s claim that researchers found “the modern grand maxima, which occurred between 1959 and 2009, was a rare event both in magnitude and duration”, the authors conclude that “the Sun is shown to operate in distinct modes – a main general mode, a Grand minimum mode corresponding to an inactive Sun, and a possible Grand maximum mode corresponding to an unusually active Sun”. In other words, the Grand maximum mode is a possibility.

As far as Newman’s argument goes, this is relatively not too bad. But his next claim, that “this research adds to growing evidence that climate change is determined by the sun, not humans”, does not follow from the researchers’ note that their findings could be used for future “investigations of possible solar influence on Earth’s climate”. Although interesting, the work hasn’t been done yet. Newman completely misrepresents the conclusion of the research he is referencing.

This isn’t helped by his next attack on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, seemingly fuelled by psychologist Philip Tetlock’s argument that “when journal reviewers, editors and funding agencies feel the same way about a course, they are less likely to detect and correct potential logical or methodological bias.” There is no significant issue with this claim in and of itself, although it was originally made with reference to psychology rather than climate science as Newman makes it appear. A larger problem is that Newman ignores Tetlock’s next sentence, “it is one thing, however, to argue that values can easily influence inquiry and quite another to argue that values inevitably drive and determine the conclusions of inquiry”, in favour of slamming the IPCC with no other supporting evidence of its apparent systemic bias.

Given his characterisation of those receptive to the IPCC and its findings as “acolytes” it’s unlikely that Newman would accept that scientists have actually put some effort into researching solar impacts on the climate. But they have, essentially finding that “since 1980, the sun and volcanoes have combined to cause a slightly negative global energy imbalance, which means they have had a slight cooling influence on global temperatures over the past three decades”. From the IPCC itself: “There is high confidence that changes in total solar irradiance have not contributed to the increase in global mean surface temperature over the period 1986 to 2008, based on direct satellite measurements of total solar irradiance. There is medium confidence that the 11-year cycle of solar variability influences decadal climate fluctuations in some regions.”

Unfortunately, since IPCC evidence is void in Newman’s view, there’s not much more to add here.

A selection of scientific claims are raised to build support for his case, including one from British climate scientist Mike Lockwood that Newman uses to create an image of a dramatically cooling world. But Lockwood does not expect a new little ice age – instead he believes that human-induced global warming is “already a more important force in global temperatures than even major solar cycles”. A convenient omission, and a strange one since that note is from The Washington Post.

Newman then rests on a series of platitudes about complacency and protecting the future. He also manages to compellingly tie in defence spending as an issue where the public has ignored the consequences of seeking immediate economic satisfaction at the expense of addressing longer-term problems (much as it has by focusing on global warming rather than deeply considering the possibility of the world cooling?). One of his last references to an external source is Judith Curry. Here he makes it appear as though she doubts human influence on the climate when she does no such thing, though she does attempt to reach out to skeptics to bring them on board.

Ultimately Newman’s argument is misleading, based on unconvincing evidence, and clearly demonstrates that he does not have “an open mind on climate change” as he often likes to claim. In light of the recent Australian Press Council adjudication on coverage of the IPCC’s report that The Australian’s “erroneous claim about the revised warming rate was very serious, given the importance of the issue and of the need for accuracy”, you would think its editors may steer away from such blatant stirring of the pot. 

Further, if Newman is worried about an overreaction to global warming, attempting to drive public attention and spending towards the terrifying threat of global cooling is hardly creating a less hysterical policy environment.

But that isn’t the point, the point is simply to generate doubt. And in that, unfortunately, Newman has likely succeeded with some of his readership, as well as with those he advises.


Photo Credit: Nicola Jones

George Brandis

If lawmakers insist on tackling the interwebs, they should make the effort to understand it

While Attorney-General George Brandis’ cringeworthy interview with David Speers has generated heated criticism of his understanding of metadata, “surfing”, and the internet in general, this is only the latest in a long line of instances where those in positions of legal authority have revealed their ignorance when it comes to the technologies they are dealing with.

It has been a rough week for Brandis, with Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull publicly contradicting his preferred approach to internet piracy and Prime Minister Tony Abbott today announcing the government’s retreat on changes to section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. These changes were Brandis’ cause célèbre but, ironically, the decision to back down was taken in order to more effectively advocate for the data retention laws his Sky News interview later turned into a Twitter laughing-stock.

With the common thread of an apparent lack of understanding of the 21st Century, its culture, and associated technology, it is easy to ridicule Brandis on each of these policies. Unfortunately he isn’t the first, or even the most significant, figure to take such an approach to internet regulation. Some may remember former Communications Minister Stephen Conroy and his evolving (and ultimately ditched) web filter, followed by then Shadow Communications Minister Turnbull’s short-lived sequel, Web Filter 2: Election Boogaloo. Although these filter policies aren’t necessarily directly comparable to data retention for counter-terrorism purposes, they highlight a distinct ignorance of the value many now place on web access.

Across the Pacific, the judges sitting on the US Supreme Court bench – tasked with making decisions on some of the world’s most complex and vexed legal debates over technology, with the potential for tremendous impact on innovation and privacy – haven’t really “gotten to” email yet, let alone social media. The question of how much detailed knowledge those making policy and legal decisions must have is a fair one, as we can’t expect all decision-makers to be experts on all topics, but with the internet and associated technology increasingly becoming fundamental to global economies, cultures, and societies, this level of abstraction is disconcerting. Closer to home, a senior Australian public servant only last year admitted that they were not familiar with Tor.

This would be fine (who knows what Tor is, anyway?) if it weren’t for the fact that the public servant in question was actually a top advisor on national cyber-security policy and that Tor is essentially a tool used to browse the internet anonymously. If you’re thinking that this sounds like a great idea if you’re involved in illegal activity, or even terrorism, you’d be right. The problem, then, is not only that Tor is unknown to senior officials who really should know what it is, but also that when they do figure it out the impulse is to flag its users. There is a distinct difference between acknowledging the problems such a tool presents and assuming that its users are guilty. As a bonus, Tor was initially developed by the US Naval Research Laboratory as a way to protect government communications and received funding from the State Department and Department of Defense.

So what can we expect from lawmakers on technology and internet policy?

An attempt to understand the basic theory, social significance, and development work behind this technology would be a good start. It is fair that many in positions of authority are not across all aspects of online behaviour – as a Gen Y who studied software design at high school, I’m still constantly playing catch up – however, it isn’t good enough to hide behind generational ignorance when the internet is so essential to public and private life.

Whatever your opinion may be of him, George Brandis is an intelligent man. He is intrigued and driven by philosophical and legal debate. His and Tony Abbott’s confusion on the difference between internet activity and what websites are being visited is not good enough. It is one thing to disagree on the limits of privacy when it comes to national security; it is quite another to fail to take the time to seek a basic understanding of what these limits might actually mean. This applies not just to Brandis and the Prime Minister, but to all those attempting to grapple with the implications of online technology for public policy.


Occupy Wall Street

It’s Social Mobility, Stupid

‘Inequality’ has become the cause of the moment for progressives. French economist Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, focusing on wealth and income inequality in the US and Europe, spent several weeks at the top of The New York Times non-fiction best-seller list; President Barack Obama proclaimed it “the defining challenge of our time” in late 2013; and Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz recently did the rounds in Australia warning of the dangers of following the American model.

Economic inequality hasn’t suddenly appeared in the public consciousness as a reason for concern: for all its faults, the Occupy movement and its rhetoric of the 99 versus the 1 per cent seems to have anticipated this trend.

In the current environment, this makes sense. Studies consistently reveal the potential impact of wealth disparity on the global economy and our broader social fabric. The World Economic Forum released its Global Risks 2014 report with a press release titled “Worsening Wealth Gap Seen as Biggest Risk Facing the World in 2014”. Only a month later, an IMF Discussion Note not only found that lower inequality is correlated with faster and more durable growth, but also that redistribution appears to have little negative impact on this growth. These organisations are hardly the stuff of nightmares for those who might consider themselves more economically ‘dry’.

Yet as Oxfam has noted, this does not mean that the solution requires moving towards total equality. Some level of inequality is useful to provide a reward for those with talent, drive, and entrepreneurial spirit, as well as to afford them the space and opportunity for innovation. The problem with the top 1 per cent of Americans controlling 40 per cent of the country’s wealth is not the simple fact of this wealth gap. Equality is hard to achieve and, as history has shown, attempts to do so can result in far worse outcomes. The problem is that such vast levels of inequality are being ‘locked in’ across generations. This means that access to education, jobs, and other opportunities is increasingly becoming dependent on the circumstances of one’s birth.

Of course, this has always been the case. But this effect has traditionally been (at least in theory) the target of attempts to create greater ‘equality of opportunity’. In Australia, both sides of politics claim to support this idea. In an address to the Sydney Institute in June, Treasurer Joe Hockey stated that “in [the government’s] view it is the responsibility of government to provide equality of opportunity with a fair and comprehensive support system for those who are most vulnerable.” He also spoke to those criticising the budget, fairly claiming that “governments have never been able to achieve equality of outcomes”.

These statements, in and of themselves, are not particularly controversial. But by allowing the debate to become framed in terms of “inequality” more broadly, those unhappy with the budget have created an opening for an easily digestible counter-argument that hones in on the difference between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome. Such an argument is misleading, as although some would surely advocate for more equal outcomes, the majority of those concerned are referring to the same equality of opportunity as the Treasurer. The debate lies in what the role of government is in creating this equality and who is better placed to develop and implement policies to achieve this, not in what type of equality we should be aiming for.

The word “inequality”, then, doesn’t quite seem to match the intent of those using it. By relying on a term that can so simply be attached rhetorically to other goals, those hoping to promote wider access to various opportunities are becoming stuck in a language game. Writing in The New York Times, columnist Nicholas Kristof lists five key points in a guide to the equality debate. At number five is the focus on “equality” at the expense of “opportunity” in discussion of the issue. This is absolutely right, but to leave this as the last point only underscores the problem.

When we talk about inequality, we’re really trying to talk about social mobility. Few would argue that we should aim for absolute equality of wealth or income. To broaden support and bring in to the fold those who would generally agree with the need for equal opportunity, a rethink of this language is required. John Oliver has savvily demonstrated the basic generational and demographic consequences of a growing gap. Research from any number of organisations supports the theory.

The wrong goal posts have been set. It’s time to shift the debate to common ground so that the underlying problem of a lack of mobility can be brought into greater focus.


Supreme Court

Equal Under Law

While in Boston, the group I was travelling with met with a judge. Listening to him speak about the justice system was fascinating due to his defence of American values, his own views on the death penalty, and the details of the case he was presiding over at the time. A boy was on trial for a gang-related shooting, which we asked several questions about. During this discussion he clearly indicated that he thought the boy was guilty, which surprised me given my belief that judges are to remain unbiased and maintain the ‘innocent until proven guilty’ maxim. At the end of the session I rose to leave with everyone else, but before I got the chance a woman who had been sitting next to me—I hadn’t been sure why—turned to face me. Staring, she simply said, ‘That’s my son on trial’. I sat there in silence, not knowing what to say. What could I say? It isn’t often that I think about the family of the accused.

But once I did, I thought more about the United States as a whole. Before I travelled to the US, my understanding of the American criminal justice system generally came from films and television shows such as Law and Order or Twelve Angry Men. While I could appreciate the flaws these attempted to highlight, I had never really considered them deeply. The death penalty clearly stood out as a point of moral complexity, but beyond this nothing struck me as particularly unusual. All in all, I felt fairly comfortable with the similarities between the US and Australian justice systems. After travelling there last year, however, experiencing American streets and being shocked by several personal encounters, this is no longer the case.

Unlike most other states, America is based on an idea. The Declaration of Independence proclaims that ‘all men are created equal’, that they are endowed with unalienable rights of ‘Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness’. My experience of standing before the US Supreme Court on my last day in the country reinforced the idealism of the American experiment. Despite the building’s attempts to invoke the Greek and Roman traditions of democracy and order, with Corinthian columns and statues either side, it is the plainly engraved motto ‘equal justice under law’ that draws the most attention. For an individual to be deprived of liberty, through imprisonment, or their life, through the death penalty, is no small matter—these rights are fundamental to America’s cultural being.

The American system of criminal justice is profoundly different to our own, largely due to its harsh treatment of offenders and its adherence to the will of its citizens. These features are cultural developments stemming from two historical traditions: America’s religious past and the nation’s revolutionary experience. Together, these have caused the current American approach to law and order to prioritise retribution over rehabilitation. And a kind of populist justice sustains this harshness, as politicians pander to their electorates with ‘tough on crime’ platforms and voters often determine criminal laws directly. The result is a justice system antagonistic to America’s own ideals of equality and justice for all.

Moral absolutism, based on religion, was central to the early development of the US criminal justice system. Puritans and other settlers brought with them a certain moral and religious code, and, though US law has adopted many tendencies of English law, the Puritan effect on America’s legal culture is clear. A tour of Salem the day after our meeting with the judge reinforced this strong influence. The witch trials there, of which I had previous knowledge only through The Crucible, left burial sites that have since been lost due to several fires. Capital punishment further highlights the relationship, with Massachusetts’s original list of capital offences resembling the Biblical Ten Commandments through the inclusion of idolatry, witchcraft and adultery alongside murder.

Although Massachusetts abolished this type of punishment in 1984, religion remains pervasive in American justice. A 1996 survey of Oklahoma City residents found that conservative Protestants not only failed to differentiate between the morality of crimes such as trespassing and more violent crimes like murder, but also favoured retribution over prevention and rehabilitation. To these respondents, trespassing was as grave a sin as murder, and sinners must be punished, not treated. As historian Richard Hofstadter put it, the ‘paranoid style’ produced by such moral absolutism pervades American politics and transforms conflict into ‘absolute good and absolute evil’. No mercy is saved for those who break the law.

The American Dream—that concept combining US exceptionalism and individual potential—underscores this moral divide. For Bill Clinton, this dream is the chance to get ahead, which one earns by working hard and playing by the rules. Such views are in line with Puritanical ideas of self-discipline and industry in pursuit of atonement in the eyes of God. Sociologist Max Weber’s exploration of this extreme Protestant ethic, which compels individuals to follow their vocation with unrelenting zeal, highlights the centrality of personal success and responsibility to American culture. For instance, the same Oklahoma City survey showed that respondents did not recognise society’s role in criminalisation: whereas the American Dream allows industrious individuals to prosper regardless of their class or background, the inverse holds true for those who stray outside of the law. More simply, to be a criminal is a choice unrelated to any experience of societal hardship or abuse.

In this sense, playing by the rules unlocks the potential of the American Dream; breaking them is a sin to be met with righteous vengeance. Unfortunately, vengeance and justice always exist in a state of reciprocal reinforcement and antagonism. Not all goals of justice can be fulfilled equally, and it is up to society to choose which are essential. From available evidence, it seems that the American public has favoured the ‘cut off their hands’ approach over attempts at rehabilitation. In fact, criminals become less than human. The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution did not abolish slavery; instead, it wrote it into the document:

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction [emphasis added].

Even those who have served their time remain on the outskirts of society. Former felons in many states are disenfranchised, forever stripped of their vote, while some also lose the right to receive pensions or student loans, or to gain access to public housing. By dehumanising and ostracising even those criminals who have served their sentence, the American justice system eschews any rehabilitative role, leaving room for reflection on what justice means and what these systems should achieve. Regardless, if lawbreakers are permanently stripped of democratic rights, they are also further stripped of reasons to consider themselves a part of society.

However, the preference for vengeance arising from the American religious and moral tradition cannot fully account for the existence of such policies when so much research and debate has significantly undermined their rational (and sometimes moral) basis. Abraham Lincoln’s famous claim that America’s government is ‘of the people, by the people, for the people’ also calls into question the nature of individual responsibility. If ‘the people’ are the government, then individuals cannot completely absolve themselves.

To explain the power of the public’s will in determining law, and therefore the noticeable emphasis on punishment in US justice, I turn to the second, equally important, American tradition. A set of values referred to as the American Creed is responsible for the noticeably populist trend in American justice. Though concepts of the Creed have changed over time, scholars almost universally agree upon its central ideas: those of individual liberty and equality, which have remained essential to the national psyche ever since the revolution. Yet these principles exist in constant tension—whereas liberty champions individual rights, democracy emphasises the wellbeing of the whole and sometimes elevates duties over rights. In the case of the US justice system, this tension has often been resolved by allowing democracy to dictate the limits of liberty; punishment thus becomes determined through a kind of mass politics.

This has clear implications, contributing to a system wherein politicians exploit the fear of voters by advocating harsh punishments and laws in hopes of drawing wider support. The politically popular ‘War on Drugs’ exemplifies the danger of capitalising on social taboos and the anxiety of voters. Over the 1980s and 1990s, the chances of a drug arrest leading to incarceration increased more than 400 per cent. However, the ‘war’ had unintentional costs. Local police departments came under pressure to show progress, and the simplest way to achieve this was to increase policing and arrest in disadvantaged neighbourhoods that were already disproportionately poor and African American.

The ultimate expression of harsh and retributive measures remains capital punishment, which removes any question of rehabilitation. Yet advocates of capital punishment face the problem of its uncertain deterrent effect beyond that offered by life imprisonment, a sentence both reversible and cheaper. In a 1994 paper, Mark Constanzo and Lawrence White had already given credence to life imprisonment as an alternative by demonstrating that, due to the lengthy trial and appeals processes as well as the loss of prison labour (as prisoners generate income through working while incarcerated), the death penalty is far more expensive. This has a real impact on wider society—a 2001 study by Katherine Baicker revealed that between 1982 and 1997 the extra cost of capital trials to county budgets was $1.6 billion, a burden managed by decreasing funding for highways and police while increasing taxes. Further, a 2009 survey by Michael Radelet and Traci Lacock found overwhelming consensus among criminologists that the death penalty does not add deterrent effects to those already achieved by long-term imprisonment.

Nevertheless, various cases show the power of fear over justice. During the 1992 presidential election, Bill Clinton, as governor of Arkansas, returned to his home state to oversee the execution of Ricky Ray Rector. Despite controversy over the brain damage Rector had sustained while committing his crime, rendering him unable to grasp the meaning of his impending death, the execution went ahead. This is just one example of a wider truth: it is politically unpalatable to be perceived as ‘soft on crime’. Democrats often find themselves the targets of these accusations, and their response has been to take increasingly harder lines. Clinton demonstrates this, and Barack Obama has continued the trend with remarks that he supports capital punishment for the most ‘egregious’ crimes (though I didn’t hear too much about this from either man during the Democratic National Convention).

In addition to the political pandering of elected officials, American justice is influenced directly by popular vote. Admittedly, I have been drawn into the political excitement of shows like The Good Wife or even The West Wing when the election of a judge or attorney has become a central plot point. But the idea of judges being elected along the same ideological lines as an Obama or a Romney is, to me, unsettling. In some states, Americans also vote for specific laws—a troubling prospect, given the limited expertise of most on the implications of criminal justice initiatives. The most startling example is California’s 1994 vote for a ‘three-strikes, you’re out’ bill that mandated life in prison for criminals convicted of a third serious felony. In one unusual case, a man’s third strike was a slice of pizza that he stole from a young boy. Just last year, the Supreme Court ruled that overcrowding in California prisons had violated their prisoners’ right to avoid cruel and unusual punishment. ‘Three strikes’ laws contributed to this massive overstretch of resources, and the verdict required the release of 37,000 prisoners should the state not create more facilities. It seems governments cannot afford the cost of increasingly harsh punishment. Neither can society.

The concept of justice is widely debated, and rightly so: by its nature justice relies on a combination of moral codes and ethics, law and rationality. None of these are easily agreed upon. Yet justice as an ideal implies aspirations beyond mere punishment, including more pragmatic goals of rehabilitation, deterrence and incapacitation. The American system appears to have devalued these aims, opting for harsher prescriptions than in any comparable liberal-democratic society. It is impossible to separate this system of criminal justice from America’s tumultuous history and the ideas and religion that have significantly impacted its cultural and political development. The Protestant work ethic, the belief in an absolutist morality and the desire to balance individual freedom with democratic values are, at first glance, quite admirable. But, while these celebrate the individual, they also denigrate failure and attribute criminality to an innate sinfulness. American society’s largely individual focus, attributing success to personal drive and failure to a lack thereof, leaves little room for societal factors. No second chances are granted to those who break the rules—the American Dream is not forgiving.

That this system continues to exist is also thanks to the highly populist nature of American politics and even its law. Whereas other States may have politicians peddling ‘tough on crime’ platforms, they rarely involve their citizens in votes establishing particular laws. Consequently, the self-proclaimed ‘land of the free’ has an incarceration rate (as a proportion of population) higher than Russia, Rwanda, and Iran, with a remarkable near-quarter of the world’s inmates imprisoned in the US in recent years.

This punitive reality does not need to persist. Indeed, in addressing these concerns, Americans should heed the words of Thomas Jefferson, that great figure in the nation’s cultural psyche: ‘Hardening them to disgrace, to corporal punishments, and servile humiliation cannot be the best process for producing erect character.’

This piece was originally published in Voiceworks #91.

Rudd and Gillard

Open Season: The Australian Prime Ministership

The Australian parliamentary party room has been variously likened to a Darwinian animal kingdom, a Chicago street gang, and an ongoing hunt with the party leader always in the crosshairs.Though superficially hyperbolic such descriptions give some insight into the competitive and often ruthless nature of Australian politics. Nowhere is this more evident than the recent instability of the Australian prime ministership.

Of the past nine sitting prime ministers three have been removed from their post not by the conclusion of their term or through a general election but as a result of the internal machinations of their own party. This is made possible by current Australian methods of party leadership selection, unique even among Westminster parliamentary systems, which create a constant avenue for overthrow. At all times an Australian prime minister is beholden to a party room constituency often more critical and petty than the general public. Ambition and personal disputes beget the peculiar management challenge of satisfying parliamentary peers who not only have the collective power to oust their leader but also to judge this individual using whatever criteria they see fit.

This essay therefore argues that incumbent prime ministers, while prosecuting policy and engaging with the public, must constantly maintain almost campaign-style relations with their colleagues. It first describes the institutional setting for deposition before turning to the formal and informal powers of prime ministers. This discussion will be used to explain the constant necessity of successfully managing parliamentary colleagues to retain the leadership. Finally the essay will examine the depositions of John Gorton, Bob Hawke, and Kevin Rudd to demonstrate that in each case there has at some juncture been a failure by the prime minister to successfully manage intra-party ambition and relationships. A tendency to subordinate party traditions to individualistic decision-making processes and appeal to the electorate over the party room also links these cases. The survival of John Howard further demonstrates that maintaining positive party relations can aid a prime minister even with a damaging external environment.

These depositions would not have been possible without the particular institutions of Australia’s major parties which create a context and mechanism for overthrow. Most broadly the parliamentary system shapes the character of Labor and the Coalition and influences the concerns of individual parliamentarians. This impact can be seen in the reputation of parties in parliamentary systems as strongly cohesive. Theoretically the integrated nature of the executive and the legislature provides incentive for unity if members desire their government (or opposition) to be effective and successful. Indeed, Ulrich Sieberer shows that unity is empirically higher in parliamentary systems than in presidential ones.2 In an investigation of the nature of Australian political parties Dean Jaensch observed that Australia’s major parties are often cited as ‘the most disciplined in the democratic world’,3 a trait exemplified by Howard’s belief that ‘disunity is death’.4 The importance of the party in Australian politics therefore shapes the activities and decision-making processes of parliament, with the risk of harming the party limiting outbreaks of warfare between their members. In this setting the public and bloody deposition of a sitting prime minister stands out as an anomaly.

To some extent this can be explained by weaknesses in the parliamentary system for individual members. As Sieberer contends, those party leaders who are secure in safe seats prioritise party cohesiveness, while backbenchers are concerned with re-election in more volatile electorates.5 Further, Australian representatives—like their British counterparts—have their fates tied strongly to national politics rather than constituencies, as in the United States.6 With party cohesion the norm, marginal seats are lost based on national swings as opposed to individual qualities. If elections drive decision-making, the possibility of an unpopular prime minister leading their party toward electoral losses could play on the minds of their parliamentary backbenchers. While useful in understanding possible rationales for deposition, these concerns alone do not account for the trend of overthrow in recent Australian political history. Certainly they are not a satisfactory institutional explanation, particularly when viewed alongside comparable democracies.

Australia’s outlying status arises from the selection processes of its parties. As Thomas Quinn notes, selection institutions greatly impact the ease with which intra-party actors can depose their leaders.7 As Westminster style democracies, the United Kingdom and Canada provide useful counterexamples to the Australian case—particularly when testing a claim such as that by James Davis that Australian prime ministers are more vulnerable from within their own party than their counterparts abroad ‘as a rule’.8 William Cross and André Blais reveal the reason for this as the dominance of parliamentary parties in leadership politics as compared to the extra-parliamentary party.9 In Australia, only the party room can vote to remove a leader. This is unlike the UK or Canada, where leadership contests are part of a wider process in which—depending on the party in question—the broader membership has some power in determining the leader. As Glyn Davis argues, the complexity of organising a spill with the involvement of the wider party favours the incumbent.10 British and Canadian leaders have accordingly endured longer in office. Conversely, Australia’s combination of generally cohesive national parties and party-room-only selection processes has created a unique structure for power relations.

The existence of accessible (and utilised) deposition mechanisms in both major parties forces reconsideration of just how much power prime ministers actually wield. Patrick Weller convincingly puts the notion of presidentialisation to rest with his claim that ‘most American presidents would dearly love to have the same power as any Australian prime minister’, as the prime ministership entails guaranteed support in parliament and cabinet for party goals.11 However, this does not reveal any great trend towards authority. As noted in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet’s Cabinet Handbook the prime minister is generally recognised as ‘first among equals’ rather than a uniquely powerful political figure.12 As such, the power to manage parliamentary colleagues arises from their formal roles as Chair of the Cabinet and party leader, as bolstered or weakened by personal qualities and resources.

Indeed, Mark Bennister, through a comparative study of Britain and Australia, concludes that despite an increase in institutional capacity, power is highly contingent on personal resources.13 Richard Heffernan elaborates on the need for these personal resources due to the ‘core degree of collegiality’ in parliamentary systems—that is, prime ministers are constrained by their need to accommodate their colleagues, yet retain influence due to their position at the ‘centre of the core’.14 The ability of Australian parliamentarians to depose their leader further complicates this balance of power. As Weller argues, this Australian mechanism has assisted in maintaining a strong cabinet.15 If a challenger has enough caucus numbers they can usurp the leadership, creating a strong incentive for prime ministers to maintain positive relations with their cabinet colleagues and the wider party room, including potential successors. However, the odds are not stacked against the leadership. The tendency toward party unity advantages incumbents due to the damage a leadership contest may have on a party’s electoral standing.16 It is also difficult to organise against a leader, particularly when backbenchers consider the consequences for their own standing in the party should they support a failing contest.17 In this way the party room becomes a kind of electorate, with particular concerns and priorities that a prime minister must satisfy if they wish to remain at the top—or at least the core—of Australian politics.

With parliamentary colleagues as the only selectors, prime ministers have no choice but to monitor and react to the concerns of their peers. As spills can be called at any time, this internal election cycle is ongoing, and a Ciceronian strategy of cultivating ‘favours, hope, and personal attachment’ is a constant necessity.18 A challenge in any circumstance, achieving this feat in the party room takes on a new level of difficulty. As Annabel Crabb writes, ‘politicians are people’.19 Parliamentarians can make their decision on any basis they wish, whether this is personal, a policy issue, concern for electoral prospects, or any other matter. Australia’s electoral cycle is often noted for its brevity,20 but in the party room success is judged by even more fluctuating standards. Though every instance has had its own particular character, deposed prime ministers have each at some time failed to manage this harsh fact of political life. In particular, their personalities and management styles have been central to provoking spills, with a tendency to appeal to the electorate over the heads of the party room being a common thread in the fall of Australian prime ministers. Also notable is a perceived lack of respect for traditional party priorities or institutions.

The 1971 deposition of John Gorton, to date the only Liberal prime minister overthrown in this fashion, exemplifies the influence of unilateralism and personality on intra-party perceptions of a leader. To be sure, as Alan Ramsey notes, prior to his fall Gorton was under fire due to the Vietnam War and the loss of seats gained under Harold Holt.21 However, it took the resignation of Malcolm Fraser as Minister for Defence, after a period of alleged interference by Gorton in the Defence portfolio, to spark the spill that uniquely had a prime minister cast the deciding vote in his own overthrow.22 Fraser’s belief that Gorton ‘had the wrong personality and the wrong character to be prime minister’ played some role in his decision to step down and knowingly throw the leadership into turmoil.23 Equally revealing is his sarcastic claim that ‘it was a rather nice atmosphere in that Gorton government’.24 Paul Hasluck, a Minister for External Affairs under Gorton, similarly characterised the prime minister as having ‘tremendous self-confidence and … very little self-knowledge’ with an ‘untidy and irregular method of working’.25 Gorton’s proposals for changes in the party’s stance on federalism were widely unsupported, yet he rashly went into meetings and confronted Liberal Premiers.26 Personal dissatisfaction within the party was therefore as instrumental to this deposition as external circumstances. As Alan Reid argues, Gorton ‘was his own executioner’—his fall was ‘not planned by his opponents’.27 Laurie Oakes and David Solomon note that while Gorton was selected for the leadership for his televisual charm, his party would discover ‘thoroughly divisive’ qualities and views which would ‘outweigh his public attractiveness’.28 According to Gerard Henderson, Gorton ‘did it his way … but not constructively so’.29 Despite retaining faith in his own ability to connect to the Australian electorate, poor people management and unilateralism led to a collapse in support within Gorton’s own party.

Bob Hawke, similarly famed for his ability to connect to the electorate, also sowed the seeds of his own defeat despite being notable for his longevity. In this case an increasingly stubborn yet erratic management style and an internal rival, Paul Keating, heightened the instability preceding his fall. As Joel Bateman argues, Hawke alienated some within his party through ‘seeking a new direction and … acting without consultation’ on issues such as airline deregulation, uranium sales to France and education policy.30 As a result his hold on the leadership was, like Gorton’s, largely based on electoral success rather than any strong faith in his skill. Hawke’s ostensible ‘love affair’ with the Australian people, as Stephen Mills contends, was only possible at the expense of his relationship with the caucus.31 In this sense he failed to acknowledge that the prime ministership derives primarily from the party room, not the wider electorate. If faith in his electability was lost, as occurred when opposition leader John Hewson unveiled his “Fightback” economic package and Hawke was unable to effectively respond, thoughts of an alternative leader would be readily entertained: enter Keating. Perhaps above all else Hawke’s mismanagement of Keating’s personal ambitions contributed to the nature of his departure. His decision to make an agreement to hand the leadership to Keating at an appropriate point in time would later intensify Keating’s resentment as Hawke reneged on this pledge.32 While this did not necessarily impact party room perceptions, it certainly influenced the amount of pressure Keating would increasingly place on the issue. As Paul Kelly notes, ‘it was inevitable once Hawke made this pact that Keating would challenge if Hawke broke it’.33 Further fuelling this internal struggle was Hawke’s management of Graham Richardson after retracting his offer to Richardson of the Defence portfolio. In Richardson’s own words, ‘all I could think of was revenge … I was now completely won over to Keating’s side’.34 Although publicly popular, Hawke’s failure to manage his colleagues’ ambitions contributed slowly but surely to his overthrow, and his preference for policies not traditionally favoured by Labor did him no favours with the wider party room.

The swift deposition of Kevin Rudd highlights even more closely the personal nature of party room spills. While debate continues over the plans of Rudd’s successor Julia Gillard and her supporters, it is clear that the ease with which Rudd was deposed was aided by widespread distaste for him in the party room on a purely personal level.35 Particularly revealing is Crabb’s discussion with a Labor backbencher, who offered that despite the fact that they largely agreed with his policies, ‘it’s just that I hate him so very much’.36 Another source, filtered through political foe Alexander Downer, believed that ‘one day the Australian public will grow to hate Kevin Rudd as much as I do’.37 As David Marr argues, Rudd’s rise to power ‘was a peculiar triumph over his own party’s opposition—indeed, derision … [his colleagues] loathe the man’.38 In this context Rudd overestimated the debt he was owed for returning the party to power. By overriding Labor’s organisational tradition of factional nomination of cabinet, Rudd immediately stoked anger in much the same way as Gorton’s penchant for federalism and Hawke’s policy pursuits.39 His fall was hastened by rudeness and micromanagement, exemplified by his attempts to concentrate power around the prime ministership and immediate cabinet colleagues, as well as an apparent inability to complete any of a vast number of projects such as the Emissions Trading Scheme, home insulation and the heavily criticised education revolution.40 When fear of electoral loss grew (aided by headlines such as ‘Rudd’s polls suggest Labor may be cactus’)41 the sole reason for maintaining Rudd’s leadership was pulled from underneath him. While polls act as an indicator of electability they are notorious for fluctuation and imprecision. As such the lack of party room sympathy when the question of leadership was raised can only be explained by by Rudd’s personal failings.

The survival of John Howard despite what many saw as instability comparable to the Hawke-Keating rivalry provides an interesting comparison to these depositions. Above all his success can be attributed to his talent in handling the electorate that is the parliamentary party room, even when faced with internal and external challenges. Bateman’s argument that on the whole Howard skilfully managed relationships within the party supports this view, providing a reason for the lack of a serious challenge to his authority over twelve years as leader.42 This is particularly evident in light of the leadership ambitions of Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer Peter Costello, whose presence echoed Labor’s internal struggles. An apparent secret deal with Costello, similar to Hawke’s pact, raised questions of whether this would cause similar destabilisation.43 This never occurred largely because Costello never had the numbers to mount a successful challenge—for leadership to change Howard would have had to step down voluntarily.44 If favours, hope, and personal attachment win the day in an election, Howard effectively used the resources at his disposal to carry the party room. Peter van Onselen and Wayne Errington make note of Howard’s ‘renowned carrot and stick approach to executive promotion’, while acknowledging the importance of his willingness to give hearing to different perspectives.45 Despite his great faith in party unity his permission of debate appears to have satisfied the party room. Doubts that Costello could do a better job and Howard’s own success at managing the ambitions of his colleague therefore complemented his tight control of party discipline, keeping him in the prime ministership even in the face of almost certain electoral defeat.46 The case of Howard therefore gives weight to the argument that incumbent prime ministers must respect traditions and colleagues to maintain their post. External factors such as polling have a strong influence, but politicians are people, and personal relationships and loyalty can have greater power.

Prime ministers have a delicate balance to strike. They must be popular in the Australian electorate and act as a party leader, but they must also respond to the private concerns of their parliamentary colleagues. As this essay has shown, only the particular leadership selection processes of Australian political parties provide the party room with the means to remove their leader. This creates a kind of intimate electorate which a prime minister ignores at their peril. Attempts to strip colleagues of power, the pursuit of unpopular policies, or simple disrespect for parliamentary colleagues can create great incentive for party members to pull the lever on a spill. Electability is important, but—as the case of Howard demonstrates—it can to some extent be overlooked. Interestingly, current instability in the Labor government has raised the question of whether Rudd may yet return.47 If this is to occur he will need to convince his colleagues to forget his management style and their personal hatred in favour of his public popularity. The party room will need to weigh the electoral chances of Gillard against their distaste for Rudd, and inside the party room decisions are made based on their own logic. Personal resentment may trump the desire to win a seat, other times it may not. For this reason the prime ministership is constantly exposed to attack. As Weller has claimed, in Australian politics it is always open season.

This piece was originally published by Meanjin.

  1. See James W. Davis, Leadership Selection in Six Western Democracies(Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1998), 172; Glyn Davis, “Leader of the Gang: How political parties choose numero uno,” Griffith ReviewSingle Issue (2011): 4; and Patrick Weller, “Cabinet Government: Australian Style,” inCritical Reflections on Australian Public Policy: Selected Essays, ed. John Wanna (Canberra, ANU Press,2009), 82.
  2. Ulrich Sieberer, “Party Unity in Parliamentary Democracies: A Comparative Analysis,”Journal of Legislative Studies 12, no. 2 (2006): 151-152.
  3. Dean Jaensch et al,Australian Political Parties in the Spotlight(Australian National University: Democratic Audit of Australia Report No. 4, 2004), 21.
  4. Stephen Lunn, “John Howard warns disunity is death,” The Australian, 20 February, 2009, available: 1 June 2012).
  5. Sieberer, “Party Unity in Parliamentary Democracies: A Comparative Analysis,” 152.
  6. Lawrence D. Longley and Reuven Y. Hazan, “On the Uneasy, Delicate, yet Necessary Relationships between Parliamentary Members and Leaders,” The Journal of Legislative Studies5, no. 3-4 (1999): 13.
  7. Thomas Quinn, “Leasehold or Freehold? Leader-Eviction Rules in the British Conservative and Labour Parties,”Political Studies 53 (2005): 793-794.
  8. J. Davis, Leadership Selection in Six Western Democracies, 168.
  9. William Cross and André Blais, “Holding Party Leaders to Account: The Westminster Cases,” inHow Power Changes Hands: Transition and Succession in Government, eds. Paul ‘t Hart and John Uhr (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2011), 153.
  10. G. Davis, “Leader of the Gang,” 28.
  11. Weller, “Cabinet Government: Australian Style,” 76.
  12. Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Cabinet Handbook, 7th Edition(Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia, 2012), 8.
  13. Mark Bennister, “Tony Blair and John Howard: Comparative Predominance and ‘Institution Stretch’ in the UK and Australia,”British Journal of Politics and International Relations9, no. 3 (2007): 329.
  14. Richard Heffernan, “Prime ministerial predominance? Core executive politics in the UK,” British Journal of Politics and International Relations5, no. 3 (2003): 349-364.
  15. Weller, “Cabinet Government: Australian Style,” 81.
  16. Quinn, “Leasehold or Freehold?” 795-796.
  17. G. Davis, “Leader of the Gang,” 24.
  18. Quintus Tullius Cicero, translated by Philip Freeman with commentary by James Carville, “Campaign Tips From Cicero: The Art of Politics, From the Tiber to the Potomac,” Foreign Affairs 91, no. 3 (2012): 21.
  19. Annabel Crabb, “Gillard, Rudd and Labor’s Personality Tragedy,” The Drum, updated 12 September 2011, available: 28 May 2012).
  20. G. Davis, “Leader of the Gang,” 28.
  21. Alan Ramsey, conversation with “The Fall of Australian Prime Ministers” class, Melbourne, 2012.
  22. Bridget Griffin-Foley, “Sir Frank Packer and the Leadership of the Liberal Party, 1967-71,” Australian Journal of Political Science 36, no. 3 (2001): 506-508.
  23. Malcolm Fraser, conversation with “The Fall of Australian Prime Ministers” class, Melbourne, 2012.
  24. ibid.
  25. Paul Hasluck, The Chance of Politics(Melbourne: Text Publishing Company, 1997), 175-178.
  26. Laurie Oakes and David Solomon, The Making of an Australian Prime Minister (Melbourne: Cheshire, 1973), 39-40.
  27. Alan Reid, The Gorton Experiment: The Fall of John Gorton (Sydney: Shakespeare Head Press, 1971), 392-393.
  28. Oakes and Solomon,The Making of an Australian Prime Minister, 36-37.
  29. Gerard Henderson, “Sir John Grey Gorton,” InAustralian Prime Ministers, ed. Michelle Grattan (Sydney: New Holland Publishers, 2000), 311.
  30. Joel Bateman, “Australian Prime Ministers and Deposition: John Gorton and Bob Hawke Compared” (paper presented to the Australasian Political Studies Association Conference, University of Adelaide, 2004), 10.
  31. Stephen Mills, The Hawke Years: The Story from the Inside(Ringwood: Viking, 1993), 78.
  32. Michael Gordon, Paul Keating: A Question of Leadership (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1993), 149-150.
  33. Paul Kelly, The End of Certainty: The Story of the 1980s (St Leonards: Allen & Unwin, 1992), 455.
  34. Graham Richardson,Whatever it Takes(Sydney: Bantam Books, 1994), 283.
  35. Pamela Williams, conversation with “The Fall of Australian Prime Ministers” class, Melbourne, 2012.
  36. Crabb, “Gillard, Rudd and Labor’s Personality Tragedy.”
  37. Alexander Downer, “Meet the real Kevin Rudd,” The Spectator, 17 June 2010.
  38. David Marr, “Power Trip: The Political Journey of Kevin Rudd,” Quarterly Essay38 (2010): 5-6.
  39. James Walter, “Can Kevin kick the command culture?” (paper presented to the Australian Political Studies Association Conference, Hilton Hotel Brisbane, 2008), 13.
  40. Mark Evans, “The rise and fall of the magic kingdom: understanding Kevin Rudd’s domestic statecraft,” in The Rudd Government: Australian Commonwealth Administration 2007-2010, eds. Chris Aulich and Mark Evan (ANU E Press, 2010), 269-271.
  41. Laurie Oakes, On the Record: Politics, Politicians and Power(Sydney: Hachette, 2010), 353.
  42. Joel Bateman, “John Howard’s Loss of Leadership,” (paper presented to the Australia Political Science Association Conference, University of Melbourne, 2010), 1.
  43. Gerard Henderson, “The Howard Government: Success but not Succession,”Sydney Institute Quarterly no. 33 (2008): 10-14.
  44. ibid., 17.
  45. Peter van Onselen and Wayne Errington, “Evaluating the extent of Howard’s political genius,” (paper presented to The Australian Sociological Association Conference, University of Western Australia and Murdoch University, 2006), 6.
  46. Peter van Onselen and Phillip Senior,Howard’s End: The Unravelling of a Government(Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 2008), v.
  47. Williams, conversation with “The Fall of Australian Prime Ministers” class.