Thomas Playford in South Australia and Henry Bolte in Victoria had similarly long stretches as heads of government in the 1950s and 1960s. They, too, could take decent breaks.
These days the unrelenting and unremitting 24-hour news cycle makes such breaks impossible. The nine heads of government in Australia are in the public eye and at the media’s mercy morning, noon and night.
The used-by date is a maximum 10 years. Howard went for 11, but the last year was clearly past his used-by date. Small wonder, then, that ACT Chief Minister Jon Stanhope has decided 10 years in the top job is enough, though I suspect he could have batted on to beyond Canberra’s centenary. If he had, it would have been because the media is not quite as relentless in this smaller city than in the other capitals, as much as his own capacities.
But on the whole, Stanhope has done a good job. In particular, he has been true to himself and his underlying belief in human rights and human dignity and in a role for government when no-one else will do it – particularly public art and the arboretum, both of which will part of his legacy. And he stuck to his principle of never succumbing to media stunts.
His retirement enables us to reflect on a few things.
First, the relationship between media and government. I suspect that in any other jurisdiction Stanhope would have either been ejected as Labor leader in 2007 or lost the 2008 election as a result of the News Ltd campaign against him. Daily Telegraph polemicist Piers Ackerman and the Telegraph in general ran a “Stanhope-less” campaign out of the blue. The word “Stanhope-less” was even splashed across its front page one day.
Fortunately, the Telegraph’s circulation in Canberra is but a trickle. But if that sort of tabloid shock-jockism had been the main media in Canberra – with the trickle across to commercial radio – Stanhope would not have weathered it.
If News Ltd had owned the main daily paper in Canberra, there is no way Stanhope would have withstood the sort of daily barrage that the Rudd and Gillard Governments have copped from The Australian. It is one thing to hold a government to account; quite another to actively enter the fray.
And if Stanhope had been driven out it would have been to Canberra’s detriment. By all of the economic criteria set by the jockists, Stanhope has done exceptionally well. But they could not stand his social and human-rights agenda. They were frightened by it.
Mercifully, the mainstream media in Canberra did not buy in. The commercial radio stations could not afford their own Canberra shack jocks, instead taking the drip feed from Sydney whose unsubstantiated vituperousness only affected the NSW and federal jurisdictions. The ABC, The Canberra Times and the City News remained moderate.
Secondly, that of all the state and territories the ACT is among the best, if not the best, governed in Australia. There has been no corruption and very little wholesale incompetence in the 22 years since self-government.
Sure, there have been a few follies. They are in the nature of any human endeavour. Gungahlin Drive is the stand out. But that is nothing like what we have seen elsewhere – state banks destroyed in Victoria and South Australia, any amount of rorts, ministerial misbehavior, incompetence and corruption in NSW, a state overrun by the hydro and forestry industries in Tasmania, the rottenness uncovered by Fitzgerald in Queensland, land deals in Western Australia and self-aggrandising spent on the Northern Territory’s parliament.
The ACT, perhaps because it is the heart of federal administration has followed the federal model of clean government.
Secondly, that minority government is no bar to good government. Indeed, it acts as a buffer to arrogance and abuse of power.
Thirdly, we should look at our system of government and see whether it needs some tweaking. It certainly does not need a wholesale makeover, but Stanhope’s departure reveals a couple of weaknesses.
The countback system of replacing departing MLAs is a dud.
The multi-member Hare-Clark system, though complicated, has by and large served the ACT well. In a homogeneous city like Canberra, if we had single-member seats as in the Federal Parliament, we would get huge majorities for the winning party. In 1995 Labor would have been lucky to win one of 17 seats no matter how the boundaries had been configured. Then the ACT Labor was an ineffectual irrelevance. But in 2004, the Labor would have won the lot. The Libs had done their dash. There would have been no Opposition. Not good for democracy, even if one thinks the present Opposition is little better than no Opposition at all.
That said, when an MLA retires the system of choosing a replacement by re-counting the votes cast in the previous election as if the retiring member had not stood is flawed. Inevitably someone who was rejected by the voters last time gets the seat.
In Stanhope’s instance, it is likely that one of the failed Labor candidates from 2008 will get the seat: Dave Peebles, Adina Cirson or Chris Bourke. The last is a dentist. The first two are youthful Labor or union machine people.
At election time, the main parties’ five- or seven-member tickets, after the winnables are in position, are often filled with novices, triers, non-entities and machine people.
It would be better to adopt the federal system and allow the party of the retiring or dead MLA to nominate one of its own to take the seat. It allows for talent drafting.
It can happen under the Hare-Clark system. It is not incompatible with it.
Experience tells us that party nomination is better. We had party nomination before 1995. In 1990 a party-nominated vacancy was filled by the late Terry Connolly who served ably as Attorney-General and later on the Supreme Court bench.
The other difficulty Stanhope’s departure highlights is the smallness of the Assembly. Seventeen is not enough. The government benches usually have between seven and nine members. It means the Chief Minister has to wade into the shallow end of the gene pool when selecting a Ministry.
We have done OK with 17, but we would do better with between 21 and 25. It would be worth the money.
The ACT went kicking and screaming into self-government. After Stanhope’s Chief Ministership it would be fair to say that the ACT is much better off than if it had been ruled by a federal territories minister and used as a political guinea pig for whatever the federal agenda was on at the time.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times on 14 May 2011.