In praise of our resilient democracy

This was first published in late August 2018, in the immediate aftermath of the leadership challenges that brought down Malcolm Turnbull.

Canberra Circus

So, what really happened in Australia last week? Well, a whole lot of politicians and journalists got excited, there was plenty of grouching on social media, but, really, not much else.

Life in Australia went on exactly as normal. People got up and went to work, came home, and got on with their lives. Economic and social life continued pretty much exactly as it had the week, months and years before. Markets didn’t crash, business people didn’t run around like helpless worker ants whose queen had just been killed. In fact, the stock market quietly climbed all through the past month of political drama.

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The economy quietly grew, even as Turnbull’s leadership spectacularly collapsed

Government services also puttered on, no more or less reliably than they ever do.

There were no riots in the streets. The military weren’t called out, with fire hoses and rubber bullets. Cars weren’t set on fire, or cities trashed. Some twerps through rocks at a window, and spicy memes proliferated, but that was about it.

For all the editorialising about “chaos” and “instability”, “paralysing the country”, the truth is that the latest round of Canberra leadership shenanigans was little more than the circus show it resembled.

Because Australia’s Westminster democracy is remarkably resilient. For nearly a decade, Australia has endured revolving-door prime ministers, hung parliaments, and minority governments. Rivers of political blood and ink have flowed from the chambers of government and the press gallery, but besides generating enough hot air to trigger runaway global warming, life has gone on much as normal.

The effect of the political instability on the nation’s economy seems to be grossly overstated. Sure, business groups complain about “uncertainty”, and it’s true that constant to-and-fro-ing on policies such as energy policy especially, make the task of business planning even more difficult. But many of those policy changes have occurred as a result of changes of government at election, and the standard backflips and reversals that are par for the course in politics.

gdp-PMs
Economic growth and fall has been more strongly correlated with mass immigration pump-priming than leadership antics in Canberra

Certainly, looking at Australia’s economic growth, the picture is confused, but the ups and downs seem to have little correlation to the chops and changes of leadership in Canberra. The biggest hit to Australia’s GDP was the Global Financial Crisis, for all that we fared much better than many Western countries.

Confusing the picture is the continued use of mass immigration to prime the economic pump. Successive governments have resorted to surges in immigrant intakes as a kind of fiscal viagra: good for stiffening a flaccid economy for a short burst, but still not treating the underlying economic erectile dysfunction. How the economy would have fared otherwise is impossible to say.

Business confidence seems to be correlated more with the party in power than the leader: going limp under Labor, and zooming back into action when the Coalition hops back in the sack.

But, all in all, Australia’s got along perfectly well throughout this continuing bedroom farce of leader-swapping by both parties. It did so as well during the 2010 hung parliament, when for two weeks there was effectively no government. The U.S. similarly sailed through just over a fortnight of government shutdown in 2013 without the sky falling in. A three-day shutdown this year passed with barely any notice. A few million government employees stayed home and did even less work than usual, but who missed them? It’s not like the queues at the DMV could get any slower, anyway.

This is not to say, of course, that we don’t need governments at all. While governments usually do more harm than good, they still have necessary functions: I’m a small-government classical liberal, not an anarcho-capitalist.

What this shows, instead, is the admirable endurance and in-built stability of Western liberal democracies. Centuries of, in our case, Westminster-style parliamentary democracy have slowly but surely put in place structures of civil governance, and more importantly, civilisation that history shows wear the storms and stress of outrageous political fortune. The U.S. republican democracy, with its famous system of checks and balances, has achieved much the same.

Among the many gifts of Western civilisation, this is yet another to be celebrated and cherished: the creation of an edifice of stable civil structure that enables citizens to carry on their lives in (relative) peace and harmony, even as their “leaders”, egged on by a self-important mainstream media, squabble and fight like brawling school-children.

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