Paul Kelly is the respected elder statesmen of political commentary in Australia, so his column today critiquing the “fiasco” of the past eight years and attacking our media culture deserves consideration.

As with many journalists, Kelly’s language can be exaggerated, simplifying complex situations and overly focusing on conflicts, leaders and so-called “squeaky wheels”.

Interestingly, he doesn’t provide a single example of what, exactly, he thinks is the problem with the media, beyond bagging his colleague Niki Savva and saying the Canberra-based press gallery (which apparently is a single personality) is thin-skinned. Kelly is plainly pained by Savva’s recent claim that the system isn’t broken, and instead our problem has been three poor leaders in Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott.

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The Kelly narrative for quite a while has been that the system is broken, but it is clearly an exaggeration to now dismiss the past eight years in Canberra as one giant “fiasco”.

There’s been no recession, no violence, no widespread corruption, no externally triggered early elections and no real coups that have brought down a democratically elected government. What has actually happened is that struggling and unpopular leaders have been democratically removed, but these events should not consequentially wholly condemn the parties or the governments involved. Indeed, they say never waste a good crisis, and the signs are already good that we are headed for a positive period of governance and reform in the period ahead.

The wheels of government have continued to turn since John Howard was voted out in 2007 and there has been plenty of policy achievements along the way. Was the apology to the stolen generation a “fiasco”? The NDIS? The nimble response to the GFC? The new free trade agreements? The disruption to the business model of people smugglers? When talking to school kids, Probus clubs and the like, I often conclude by boiling down the issues to the following four important things that are needed for institutional success:

  1. Great leaders who are inspiring, educated, emotionally intelligent, flexible, energetic, reasonable, determined and strategic. These sorts of people are not easy to find;
  2. A well-designed system with the right incentives for those leaders to operate under;
  3. Timely and accurate information on the performance of the system and the leaders; and
  4. An ability to change the leaders and reform the system in a timely manner based on the accurate data about how they are performing.

Savva is right that Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott were not great leaders and our system allowed them to be removed before any more damage was done. However, they weren’t all “hopeless”, either. You can debate their quality — and, for mine, Abbott was the worst because he was a high-conflict and controlling personality rooted in the religious right, which is out of touch with modern Australia. Abbott’s News Corp-backed negativity also made life very difficult for an overly controlling Kevin Rudd and an overly union-controlled Julia Gillard.

The media plays a key role in points three and four as they are the chief conduit to the public about how the leaders are performing and certainly influence the polls, which, in turn, drive party room decisions on leadership selection. The quality of our political parties and leaders, the system they work within and the media all need to share some of the blame for the perceived problems in Canberra over the past eight years.

These are complex systems with no easy fix, but here are a few suggested reforms that might improve things going forward:

  1. Improve the pay of politicians to offset the Latham reforms that slashed pensions, in order to attract better talent to Canberra;
  2. Fixed four-year terms for both houses of Parliament with tenure limits of eight years for prime ministers and 20 years for individual MPs;
  3. Embrace the principle of “one vote, one value” to reduce the distorted and excessive power of unions within the ALP, smaller states in the Senate and Rupert Murdoch in the media;
  4. Strive to make FOI laws redundant through a political culture that aims to disclose as much factual information as possible to the public to inform policy formation;
  5. Relentless pressure on the media to seriously cover this deluge of new factual information, rather than focus on celebrities or “he said, she said” political conflict;
  6. Have a far more mature approach to lobbying, vested interests and conflict of interest by ensuring maximum transparency around rent-seeking, including by opening up the opaque system of campaign finance;
  7. Embrace diversity through mechanisms that wind back current levels of over-representation (too few women on the right, too much religion in conservative politics and too much unionism in Labor politics);
  8. Encourage and promote Keating-like political bravery and those prepared to have a go at sometimes unpopular reforms;
  9. Reduce the power of prime ministers by having more checks and balances in determining who serves in what executive positions and have PMs report quarterly to an elected party board of non-executive directors; and
  10. Increase federal power relative to the states on service delivery but reduce federal revenue raising capacity so that more money is raised at the level of government where it is spent.