A Very Australian Coup

Julia Gillard has been Australian Prime Minister now for almost two weeks and the mutterings have begun about whether she is right for the job after her mining compromise and willingness to sacrifice refugees on the barbecue of marginal outer Sydney electorates.

Few in Australia have questioned her right to be Prime Minister. Despite the very presidential style of modern elections, people vote for MPs and they decide who leads them, and therefore the country. The media, so wrapped up in the exciting specifics of the overthrow, accepted the legitimacy of the Westminster system”.In her first media conference Julia Gillard acknowledged she had not been elected Prime Minister by the Australian people. “In coming months I will ask the Governor-General to call for a general election so that the Australian people can exercise their birthright to choose their Prime Minister.”

Despite the media narrative of her need to get a “mandate”, Gillard never mentioned the word in her early statements. Merrion Webster defines the word mandate in this context as “an authorisation to act given to a representative”. According to that definition Gillard has all the mandate she needs, elected unopposed by her party with the backing of powerful union bosses.

If the Australian media are sanguine about this turn of events, opinions are more uneasy overseas where the Westminster system has less sway. US papers called it a party revolt and a mutiny. Craig McMurtrie from the ABC’s Washington bureau said a Washington Post columnist though it looked disturbingly like a coup d’etat. There was no blood spilled or tanks on the lawn. Nevertheless it was ruthless overthrow of a country’s elected leader without the consent of the people.

Australian have been blinded by its commonness at State level where many premiers, most recently Kristina Keneally have been elevated into office by the backdoor. It is also common at the Federal Opposition level with Labor and the Liberals changing their leaders many times in the last ten years when out of power. But it is surprisingly rare at the highest level of Government. Only twice has an Australian Prime Minister been dumped by their own party in office – Gorton for McMahon in 1971 and Hawke for Keating in 1991. The 20 year symmetry wasn’t quite there for Kevin Rudd but the brutal machinations of backroom party politics were reminiscent of past coups. Even Gillard’s own Party has not yet caught up. The Australian Labor website is still called www.kevin07.com.au.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott came out with a curious denunciation of the coup. He called it a political assassination (though Rudd may yet rise from that particular death) and an “ugly process” and said “Prime ministers should not be treated in this way.” Presumably Abbott must think it is okay for Opposition leaders to be treated that way.

Though he has no intention of doing anything about it, Abbott is correct in his criticism. Prime Ministers should not be appointed out of backroom deals and it can be changed. The Australian Constitution is silent on the matter of Prime Ministers and what exists are conventions to “assist the smooth operation of the legislature.”

Smooth doesn’t begin to describe the operation to depose Rudd. But there was shock, distaste and a sense of powerlessness among the wider public (despite goodwill to towards Gillard). That is not good for democracy. It is time for people power to assert itself and insist the Prime Minister they elected is only removed when they say so.

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