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Still the lucky country

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 3 August 2018

“Australia is a lucky country run mainly by second rate people who share its luck.” This is how the late Donald Horne once described the West Island in The Lucky Country (1964).

Half a century later, Horne’s double characterisation of the country and its political leadership applies more than ever. If proof was needed, it was provided by the overthrow of a sitting Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull by his own party last week. It was the fourth political assassination in just eight years.

Despite such political instability, the Australian economy is doing well. Australia continues to increase its record as the country with the longest uninterrupted economic growth. The economy has been expanding for 27 years, this year at an expected rate of 3.1 percent.

A booming developed country with the government of a banana republic: Donald Horne sends his regards.

Even for Australians it has become difficult to follow the confusion of their federal politics. There is now a Twitter channel (@WhoIsPM) that announces the name of the prime minister every half hour. Because you never know.

So if even Australians have become so confused by their politics, how could it be explained to outsiders?

Well, it might go like this: Australian politics is what you get when you encourage an amateur cast to perform House of Cards in Canberra. It is the transformation of representative democracy into a soap opera, a Machiavellian psychodrama with Shakespearean ambitions.

Little of the turbulence of the past decade had much to do with policy. Much more can be explained by personalities. In Australia, the comparative forms of enemy are arch-enemy and party colleague.

On the Labor side, it started with Kevin Rudd whom even his party colleague Kristina Keneally once called a “psychopathic narcissist”. That is among the nicest things said about him. Rudd was dumped by his party, only for him to get his brief revenge on Julia Gillard three years later.

On the Liberal side, arch-enemies Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull have been knifing each other every few years since 2009. That is how Scott Morrison got his job.

Australia has demonstrated that reality can easily keep up with the fiction of House of Cards. Frank Underwood’s Washington seems almost civilised against the snake pit that is Canberra.

But actually Australia has only confirmed Donald Horne’s dictum. Only a lucky country can afford such a second-rate leadership.

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