Et tu, Malcolm: Why are Australians so fond of knifing their leaders?

Two days ago Australia got a new Prime Minister after Malcolm Turnbull challenged Tony Abbott for the leadership of the Liberal party, and won with 54 votes to 44. The whole state of affairs has left the Australian Right doing something of a walk of shame, having relentlessly mocked the previous Labor government for similar mid-term leader-swapping. The Australian Left, for all its schadenfreude, is in a pickle: Malcolm Turnbull is a better PM than Tony Abbott simply by virtue of the fact that he isn’t a caricature of blistering pugilistic incompetence – which will make him harder to beat at the next election. The Leader of the Opposition, Richard di Natale*, has considerable work ahead of him.

The Australian Prime Ministership has been held by such a frequently changing set of characters in recent years that it has been compared to the Defence Against the Dark Arts teaching position at Hogwarts. Bewildered parents have been calling talk back radio appalled that “my child is only four and in his lifetime there have been nineteen Prime Ministers!”, proving that – if nothing else – children can be put to work as a neat rhetorical device.

But when I ask why Australians are so fond of knifing their leaders I don’t mean what has happened to our political culture to make trust such a rare resource in Federal Parliament that leaders can’t hold on to power for even a whole term, but why do these leadership changes get described in such violent terms? I mean, come on:

defend forgive


For example, according to a magnificently titled Salon article the earlier PM Kevin Rudd was “knifed by his deputy, Julia Gillard” and “Australian politicians across the spectrum enthusiastically send their leaders to the scaffold“. In amongst that are references to warfare and dethronement, because apparently we’d much prefer our political sphere to be scripted by George R.R. Martin. The Courier Mail describes Abbott as having faced a “lightning-fast and brutal political execution“. The BBC goes all out:

Covering Australian politics feels more like conducting a triage of the wounded and slain. The bloodletting has become so brutal that party rooms have come to resemble abattoirs.

Even The Irish Times, which at least uses political ‘killing season'” in scare quotes, describes Turnbull’s challenge as a “coup d’état […] carried out with military precision.” The article also refers to the revolving doors of the Australian Prime Ministership and notes that “Not for nothing was a recent documentary on Australian politics called The Killing Season.”

Not for nothing, no, but just the fact of frequent leadership challenges – orderly if embarrassing ones – does not automatically call for a killing metaphor. Something else is going on.

Linda Trimble has argued in Feminist Media Studies (DOI:10.1080/14680777.2013.826268 if you have access) that the coup metaphors used to describe the leadership triumphs of  Helen Clark, Jenny Shipley and Julia Gillard “reinscribed patriarchal norms of political leadership” in a space where “women’s very presence is anomalous, thus disruptive.” No argument there, but patriarchal norms don’t exactly need reinscribing when you’re going from Abbott’s blokey (albeit wiry and tense) athleticism to Turnbull’s sleeker corporate masculinity.

So why does the axing, the knifing, the killing, the finishing off and executing persist?

Australian political culture is very confrontational: there is an all-or-nothing attitude to electoral success and nuance is not exactly a national sport. But even then the normalisation of violence in political metaphors seems excessive. Does the bloodlessness, the by-the-numbers tedium of peaceful electoral process sit so uneasily with the myth of Australians as outdoorsy frontier types that we can’t help but jazz up the scenery a bit? Was the Game of Thrones comment not that far off the mark – are decapitations and blood feuds now the standard measure of political life? Or is the stab-a-thon that graces Australia’s media in these transition periods simply symptomatic of a country untroubled by any real threat of civil unrest? Perhaps I could think of the violent language as a good thing: we probably wouldn’t be throwing words like coup and execution around so easily if they really meant something to us (but then, how far removed are we from the rest of the world that these words don’t mean anything to us?).

Maybe one day we’ll come to refer to these unseated midtermers as  what they are: demoted. They continue to walk among us, collect their still sizeable superannuations and check the proofs of their updated biographies. They live, they breathe – and wonder what will happen to Jon Snow.

*Buzz off, it’s my blog.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s