This is usually the point at which your correspondent reminds himself and us all that we are governed by a Westminster system, that the prime minister is not a president, and that there is nothing untoward about changing a prime minister within the parliament, rather than through an election.

Cabinets of ministers change all the time, after all, and we don’t have a new election every time that happens. The prime minister is simply another minister, appointed by the governor-general, and the role is unmentioned in the constitution.

But it’s a measure of how long this has been going on, that this has now become a traditional article, to be trotted out every 18 months or so, as the mainstream op-ed press gallery bays for “leadership” like the needy sycophants most of them are.

What’s ironic is that my heart’s not in it at exactly the point that the Westminster system starts to emerge from beneath the waves, like a lost Laocoon. The essence of the system is that MPs will act as individuals, representing their constituencies best interests, as they see them, and voting accordingly. We’ve seen in recent years how the chaos in the Senate started to turn the Senate into what it was meant to be — a states’ house — with SA First, Tasmania First and (largely) Queensland’s One Nation groupings emerging. Now it’s happening in the Reps.

Darren Hogan threatens to sit as a National on the crossbenches if there’s another leadership vote; Cathy McGowan and Rebekha Sharkie make it clear they won’t support a Dutton government in confidence and supply; Krazy Uncle Bobbity Katter says he’s done with Turnbull. The individual member is thus staring to determine who the prime minister might be. We don’t have the most chaotic Westminster system in the world; we have the only one that’s working as the manual intended.

Why then is it seen a such a shambles? Because our Westminster system was always a con. The Westminster system may have arisen from individual aristocrats coming to town to represent whatever half-submerged duck island constituted their constituency, but ours was party political long before the institution itself existed.

Our labour parties instituted solidarity voting rules before anyone did, our non-labour parties followed out of necessity, and by the time a federal parliament came around we had one of the most rigid internal party systems in the world. Australian federal parliament has always seemed like an exasperating game, because when it’s running smoothly, nothing is decided there. It’s only when it all collapses that the system emerges.

But of course that isn’t really what’s going on. No one wants an actual Westminster system per se; the result would be chaos and the de facto rule of the governor general. The Westminster system, in its purest ideal, is always oriented to a monarch who, by being immune to it, acts as a guarantor of its legitimacy.

What we want now, what we are clamouring for is real democracy, not this absurd system in which we are effectively ruled by the combined SRCs of Melbourne and Sydney Uni from 25 years ago. Parliament House is now like a ratty old student union building, everyone huddling in the coffee shop or the newspaper’s bromide room, bribing the overseas students with hot chocolates and friendship, and trying to find the mooky kid we put up to fill the ticket, and who got up on the Dungeons and Dragons vote. I’m just glad Scott Ryan has changed that beige windcheater he used to wear, because I swear to God Mr Senate President, we were going to strip it off your back and burn it in front of you, in a show of true bipartisanship.

We don’t want the system we have, as evidenced by the discord that occurs when it “works”. But the system we don’t like is cemented in so tight to a political caste, within a larger knowledge class, that the very reason we hate it — its capacity to autonomously reproduce — ensures that we can’t change it. Part of its unchangeability is that the press gallery regards any such systemic speculation as outside their professional remit of endless, breathless relaying of who’s up who.

And the Republican movement is now just a wing of it. And it all will have changed since I wrote this, and on we go …

Do you think this kind of bastardry is inescapable under the current system? Let us know by writing to [email protected]

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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