Julia Gillard has been Australian Prime Minister now for almost two weeks and the mutterings have begun about whether she is the right person for the job based on her mining compromise and her apparent willingness to sacrifice refugees on the barbecue of marginal outer Sydney electorates.
But few people in Australia have questioned her right to be Prime Minister. Despite the very presidential style of modern elections, it is MPs and Senators that people vote for and it is MPs and Senators who 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 practice without a murmur as “the Westminster system”.
In her first media conference as Prime Minister, Julia Gillard acknowledged she had not been elected Prime Minister by the Australian people. “And in coming months I will ask the Governor-General to call for a general election," she said, "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 once mentioned the word in any of 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 despite the birthright, having been elected unopposed by her party with the backing of powerful union bosses.
If the Australian media are mostly sanguine about this turn of events, voices 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. The Americans are right, of course. Sure, there was no blood spilled or tanks on the lawn. Nevertheless, Gillard’s ascension shares this in common with coups more common to South America, Asia and Africa: it was ruthless overthrow of a country’s elected leader without the consent of the people who elected him.
Australians have been blinded to this fact 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 for the Federal Opposition with both Labor and the Liberals changing their leaders many times in the last 50 years when out of power. But it is surprisingly rare at the highest level of Government. Only twice has an Australian Prime Minister ever been dumped by their own party while 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 still goes by the name of www.kevin07.com.au.
Meanwhile 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 ok for Opposition leaders to be treated that way.
Though he probably 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 there is no reason it cannot be changed. The Australian Constitution is silent on the matter of Prime Ministers and what exists are conventions that supposedly “assist the smooth operation of the legislature.”
Smooth doesn’t begin to describe the operation to depose Rudd. It is easier to describe the shock, distaste and a sense of powerlessness among the wider public (despite goodwill to towards Gillard) about the ugly process of succession. 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.