Systems theorists have a simple way of examining organisational and social systems. They examine the system from three interconnected prospectives: Events, Patterns and Structures.
Events are anything that occurs once and is not repeated. Events occur because of a unique set of circumstances that is unlikely to recur. Often, in the day-to-day rush of life, we do not recognise that some events keep popping up and start forming patterns. When this occurs, we need to look to understand the underlying structures that are producing these patterns of systems behaviour.
We can examine Tony Abbott’s desire for a double dissolution in the light of this particular analytical tool.
In the life of the Abbott government, the most significant event was their election victory in 2013. In the light of the ongoing opinion polls, this victory appears to be an event: a one-off occurrence not to be repeated. It is possibly simply just the result of the manufactured unpopularity of both Gillard and Rudd.
Yet this may be indicative of an underlying structure in political sentiment in the Australian electorate: a growing unpopularity of governments of whatever complexion.
Opinion polls since the last election have demonstrated a pattern in the support for the two major parties.
In the light of these results, a system theorist would ask “What are the underlying structures that produce this pattern?”
The Coalition’s fortunes went into an immediate decline after the election and have remained at election-losing levels since then.
What must alarm the Coalition is that their popularity went into decline before they actually did anything, making it very difficult to blame specific policies or actions for the decline in popularity.
There is clearly something in the way public opinion is being structured, or possibly restructured given the lack of an Abbott government “honeymoon period”, that is producing this remarkable reversal of political sentiment.
There is clearly something in the structure of public opinion that is producing these disastrous results. One element is clearly the profound unpopularity of Tony Abbott.
But whether this is sufficient to explain the Coalition’s parlous position is debatable.
There is clearly something else at work and it may represent a significant shift in the way the Australian electorate views the two major parties.
The Coalition is putting great faith in the forthcoming budget to restore its fortunes. However, given the pattern of the opinion polls, it would appear that the first Hockey budget was not a major element in the ongoing unpopularity of the government. If this is true, the next budget with a good better and different, may have little effect on the government standing.
The challenge for the government is to understand what structural elements of public opinion are working against it.
Some would argue that It is simply a leadership issue and changing leaders, from Abbott to Turnbull, will be sufficient to reverse this trend. The risk in changing leaders is that it will prove to be an event, a one-off occurrence that is likely to be repeated and which has no effect on the pattern of voting intentions ,let alone on the underlying structures of public opinion.
The idea of electing Malcolm Turnbull as leader is based on the assumption that of the major structural reason for the unpopularity of the Liberal party is Tony Abbott. If this is not true, and the answer is somewhat more deep-seated, then switching to Turnbull may not produce the kind of turnaround that is required.
What is more likely is that public opinion has now been profoundly affected by a deep-seated distrust and dislike of the two major parties, particularly the one that is in power. Witness the stunning turnaround result in the Queensland election and the defeat of the Liberal party in Victoria.
This represents a far more serious political problem for both the Liberal and Labor parties because it is a problem that affects them both severally but which they are only ever going to try to solve separately.
What could happen in a double dissolution is that Labor wins power only to be affected by the anti-government sentiment that is now becoming deep-rooted in the Australian political psyche. The problem may well be that a significant proportion of the population doesn’t dislike the Labor Party or the Liberal party, it simply dislikes government of whatever complexion.
Given the leadership of both of the two major parties, it is unlikely that either has the political and intellectual horsepower to pull themselves out of this morass.
One thing is fairly certain. A double dissolution will not return control of the Senate to either of the major parties. It may change the people who sit on the crossbenches but is unlikely to reduce their numbers numbers, the diversity of their political views or their political intractability.