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The Ozminster System Is An Extraordinary Departure From Stable Government

02/10/2015 6:30 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:50 PM AEST
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New Zealand's Prime Minister John Key, standing before flags, addresses a joint sitting of the Australian parliament in the House of Representatives chamber at Parliament House in Canberra, Australia, Monday, June 20, 2011. (AP Photo/Alan Porritt, Pool)

One of Australia's most important inheritances from the United Kingdom was the stability and predictability of the Westminster system and Cabinet Government.

While it is easy to take these virtues for granted, one only has to look around the world to find that political instability and unpredictability can have dramatic and catastrophic effects on social cohesion, progress and wealth creation. Neither citizens nor business invest their time, intellect, virtue or capital in unpredictable societies with unpredictable governments.

For Australia to have had five Prime Ministers since 2007 is an extraordinary departure from both the tradition and expectation of stable government.

Labor learned through bitter experience that there is no polling dividend for the removal of first-term Prime Ministers. As a result we changed our rules so that a future Labor Prime Minister could not be removed, and could govern without internal disruption.

We recently had to endure another new Prime Minister announcing in solemn tones about a return to Cabinet Government. It has become a disturbing national ritual for such promises to be made. It begs the question about when exactly we departed from Cabinet Government and the principles of the Westminster system.

As Mr Abbott has confirmed as he washed up out of the surf, he was not warned by his Ministers of his impending removal from the office of Prime Minister. It may seem like a trifling point but Ministers have a duty as outlined in the House of Representative Practice, the authoritative text on procedure and practice of the House, to resign under certain circumstances, in accordance with the Westminster tradition. Two of the examples given for ministerial resignation are, firstly, misleading a Prime Minister and, secondly, if a Minister disagrees with the actions of a Prime Minister.

These were duties Ministers used to abide by. Charles Cameron Kingston was the first resignation in 1903 after a policy disagreement with Prime Minister Barton. Malcolm Fraser, while defence minister, dramatically resigned from the Gorton Government and outlined his reasons for doing so in the Parliament. Andrew Peacock resigned from the Fraser Government in similar fashion.

There were many Ministers who breeched their duties to former Prime Minister Abbott. This was more than a House of Cards style betrayal; it was a fatal undermining of Cabinet Government in Australia.

No Prime Minister can govern if secret cabals can form within his or her Cabinet. No Prime Minister can govern if we condone or even celebrate the ambush of leaders no matter how objectionable or unpopular they may be.

A Prime Minister must be able to trust and rely upon his Ministers to give frank and fearless advice in all things but especially matters of leadership. That advice presumably must be timely as well and not just be delivered at the coup de grace.

If, as a Minister, you arrive at the conclusion your Prime Minister must be removed for some well-formed reason, your duty is clear, advise the Prime Minister, resign and outline your reasons to the Parliament.

This dramatic act of sacrifice has the important constitutional function of warning the Prime Minister, the backbench and the public of an impending dispute in a structured and public manner.

It now seems to me that the new bunyip aristocracy that constitutes the political elite of this country have completely disposed of the fundamental tenets of ministerial duty and Cabinet Government.

These tested institutions have been replaced with the Ozminister Cabal, where power is lauded over process, where disloyalty is both celebrated and rewarded with high office, and where no Liberal Prime Minister is safe from ambush from their own Cabinet Ministers.

The Abbott-Turnbull Government is now a reality, but what will the Liberal Party do to guarantee a degree of stability? Or, should the polls descend once more, will we again see a former Prime Minister washed up on a Sydney beach giving interviews to the media?

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