Forty years of Australian politics — a review from outside

If you were an election-night watcher during the period from 1969 to 1998 you would have seen, on one or other of the channels, an Englishman with a clear Oxford voice, a slight stammer, and an air of real authority. That was David Butler, Britain’s ‘teledon’ and the originator of ‘psephology’, or the study of elections. The Greeks, who themselves invented elections, did so by depositing a pebble in the relevant jar, and a pebble to them was a ‘psephos’. Butler coined the term as a bit of a joke, and has had to explain it thousands of times since.

Why was he in Australia? Didn’t we have enough of our own election-night commentators? Well, we did, and I was one of them then. But David was special, and he was no arrogant Pom. He fell in love with our country when he arrived in June 1967, and has returned 18 times. Given good health (he is now 88) he will come back again. His initial interest in Australia was in its role as a political and governmental comparison to the United Kingdom (the USA was too different), but he grew to love the landscape, the light, the social ease of Australians with one another, the accessibility of nearly everything, the wine, and the style of life. Australia became his second country.

In the early 1970s he started to assemble things he had already written about Australia for a book, which came out in 1973 as The Canberra Model, and was widely read and discussed. Butler has a genius for asking good questions, and it is often the case that an outsider can do this more efficiently than those at home. The Canberra Model is still a good read, and on Tuesday a seminar was held at the ANU to reconsider it, with (now, Sir) David Butler as the star attraction. He drew a good audience, one that included senior journalists like Paul Kelly and Michelle Grattan, former politicians and Ministers like Ian Sinclair and Tony Staley, and the senior people in the study of Australian politics, like Dr David Solomon and Professors Pat Weller and Murray Goot. It was an engaging seminar with good humour and great recall.

Much of the interest flowed from what had changed since 1973 and what had remained much the same. Quality of Prime Ministers? Holt, Gorton and McMahon were duds, Whitlam and Fraser were big men in every sense, Hawke and Keating were both heavy hitters, and John Howard surprised everybody by becoming an astute and long-lived Prime Minister. Rudd and Gillard — well, neither is exactly a dud, and Julia Gillard has managed to get her legislative program more or less through both houses of Parliament, which has been no mean feat. Perhaps we’re too close in time for a measured judgment. But Butler had described Holt  in 1967 as ‘not quite up to the job’, when Holt was the PM of the day.

What is really different? Well, apart from a brief period during the Howard Government period, no government has had a sustained majority in the Senate, and none is likely to while six senators are elected from each State. In the fullness of time we will move to a larger Senate in order to enable a larger House of Representatives, which will mean seven senators, and then once again the possibility of a majority. The past shift (to six from five) has greatly enlarged the importance and power of the Senate. In particular, it has enabled the Senate scrutiny of the work of the current government through the Estimates Committees and similar groups.

Another substantial shift has been in the power of the media and in particular of the polls, which were beginning to flex their muscles in 1967. Holt and Menzies did not like television, and it was Gough Whitlam who showed what a political leader could do who was at ease in the new medium. We now have courses for people who need to do well on television, and there are few who are camera-shy among the politicians. Polling has grown and grown. When I first started in the survey research business there was only Roy Morgan’s Australian Public Opinion Polls, which continues as Morgan Gallup. But there are now other majors as well, and almost anyone can do polling, nowadays via the phone.

My own view is that polling has become too powerful — or rather, than politicians have too much faith and interest in it. Politicians are there both to lead and to follow, and Howard and Rudd, in particular, became obsessed with private polling. In Australia, as in Britain, the ’24-hour news cycle’ has changed the quality of political life, in my view for the worse.

And there is federalism, which Butler admitted had not been a key interest of his in 1967. In Australia the federalism issue has moved into the COAG phase, with a great deal more useful and important meetings between first ministers and those lower in the order than there were forty years ago. And the UK has moved into a federal system, through experiencing what is like to be a ‘state’ of the EU, while internally there has been a lot of devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

If you weren’t at that most enjoyable seminar, you can get a sense of it through Professor John Uhr’s excellent interview of Butler on You Tube.


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