The meaning of a coup

Barely a week ago Australia was gripped in political drama – a clumsily organised coup was unseating a Prime Minister. News stations had rolling 24/7 coverage of panels of journalists talking to unfolding events. Breathlessly they read out texts from conspirators on-air, while claiming no part in the fiasco that has become Australian politics.  There were a lot of “unprecedented” and “poisonous,” and very few reflections on the events of the past, even the very recent past that has seen three other Prime Ministers succumb to similar insurgencies. There were many references, in exasperated words, to disbelief – amplified because this coup did not enthrone its preferred leader. Its only success was the destruction of Malcolm Turnbull, who had become an icon of moderate, centrist government, and so a hated figure for the frenzied and confused conservatives who engineered this messy coup.

“What was all that about?” people asked in the media and on the streets. I sat with colleagues watching the climax of the reportage on the internet at work. The outgoing Prime Minister accurately captured the mood of the nation, not his strongest skill ordinarily, when he said Australians would be “dumbstruck and appalled” by these events. Above all, the public was asking what was the meaning of this coup, and I take that question one step deeper to ask: why have the political institutions of this wealthy democracy become stained by the compulsive repetition of such symbolic violence?

Coincidentally, I have been reading over the same time Simon Sebag Montefiore’s astonishing, page-turner history of the dynasty of the Romanovs – a work of fine scholarship that is advertised with commendations from fellow scholars and this squeal of excitement from Oprah Winfrey, no less, “Turn off thy Kardashians. Pick up thy Montefiore”. This book is remarkable for its craft, but mostly for its content – the truly astonishing sequence of stories of the Romanov tsars, their courts and their conspiracies.

The dynasty begins in the near extinction of the Russian polity in the Time of Troubles, and it ends in the clumsy extermination of the Romanov family in a cellar near Ekaterinburg following the Bolshevik coup of 1917. Along the way we read how fathers and sons, wives and husbands, brothers and sisters, courtesans and barbers, courtiers and generals betrayed each other, killed each other, conspired against each other, and all succumbed to the monstrosity of power.

Against such a backdrop. the hamfisted organisation of a party ballot seems less melodramatic. Prime Minister Turnbull, after all, left the building smiling, kissing his family, clutching his grandchild, ever optimistic, with a wealthy man’s confidence about the future.  He was not killed, brutally bashed and strangled in his bedroom like Emperor Paul. He was not imprisoned and isolated in a remote dungeon like the deposed infant Emperor Peter. He was not tortured by his own leader and father in the way that Peter the Great tortured and killed his unfavoured son, Alexei. Things could get a lot worse.

And yet there is surely something rotten in the state of Australia. The explanations proffered by the participants – personal animosity, vengeance, an ideology of conservatism, a betrayal of party identity, the dismay of the base, the stopping of the bleeding of votes to minor parties – all circle around the decay of the political party system. Turnbull like Rudd was an outsider to this system, and sought to govern beyond the parties, ultimately unsuccessfully.  Gillard and Abbott were the leaders of the partisans, each in their own way representatives and instruments of the modern, professionalised and hollowed out political party.

As the party system has decayed, it has created the conditions for the unstable contest for control at the top that Australia has witnessed with its governing parties since 2008, and among its opposition parties for longer still. The Rudd/Gillard years of instability, after all, followed a long sequence of temporary Opposition leaders of the Labor Party and the entrenchment of minor factional warlords, pursuing fragmented and incoherent sectional goals, as memorably described by one deposed Labor Leader, Mark Latham in an appendix to his Latham diaries.

The phenomenon of the decline of political parties as institutions has broad implications. that make coups such as Australia has experienced for the last ten years more likely Their crumbling ethos contributes to a lack of purpose and an absence of moral constraints on the competitive gangs – nicely called factions – that run the parties. Their decline leads to failing systems of internal selection of elites. Parliamentarians are recruited from a smaller pool and subjected to little real tests of leadership ability. Faced with the immense difficulty of large social problems and major institutions of government, they shrink into lazy and easy media and factional games. The decline of the parties spurs on the vicious cycle of waning confidence in democratic institutions, and the powerless lose what little power virtue gives them – what after all can an ordinary citizens do, except to shake their heads and mutter the words, dumbstruck and appalled? Despite all the mea culpas from political parties – that they spend too much time talking about themselves, and not enough about the wishes of the electorate – no-one is fooled.

Sadly, these problems of institutions and culture are not fixed easily. Coups may bring a sense of accomplishment to the flailing elites in parliaments, but they are a sign of despair about political culture. The educated citizens of the wealthy liberal democracies have many more years ahead of this sad story of distressed republics. At most, we can remind ourselves that not everything is politics, and seek to salvage something from the wreckage of our cultures, and turn to our deeper selves to create a garden of beauty. As Catherine the Great’s enlightenment plaything, Voltaire, said through his characters in Candide:

 “We must take care of our garden… Work then without disputing. It is the only way to render life supportable.”

Image source: Malcolm Turnbull at his final press conference ABC news

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