Systems Theory tells us why Malcolm Turnbull is in so much electoral trouble

One of the central tenets of Systems Theory is that structure determines behaviour. The implications of this are that it is the way the system is put together, rather than the actions of individuals, that determines the way the system functions.

It follows that if an individual wishes to change the way a system functions, they must first change the way the system is structured.  This has been Malcolm Turnbull single greatest failure. He has been unable to make any change to the in ideological and policy structure of the of his party.

As a consequence of not being able to change the structure, he is working with the policy and framework that Tony Abbott built. With the system structure unchanged, it is not surprising that Turnbull’s political behaviour is the same as Abbott’s.


Malcolm Turnbull has good cause to be glum

 A second central tenet  of systems theory is that the structure of the system is manifest in patterns of behaviour.

This (June 2016) graph plots the two Turnbull manifestations which have come together at the same low point with 11 per cent more voters questioning his performance than praising it.


This constitutes what Systems Theorists would call a pattern and this, In turn, suggests that there is a structure underlying Turnbull’s approval over time.

Certainly, Turnbull himself is part of the system, but if we accept the structure determines behaviour argument, then we need to ask what are the structural elements that determine this pattern of behaviour.

Most popular commentary in the media would suggest that Turnbull has been unable to fulfil the expectations of the electorate, particularly those who would have changed your boat, and that  eventually period of disillusion sets in.  These expectations were held, the argument follows, across a fairly wide spread of the political spectrum and hence the voting intentions. As these expectations were not met, voting intention changed back correspondingly.

There would be few who would doubt that this is the structural element in his current declining popularity as Prime Minister.

There is another element to this argument and it is that Turnbull has been unable to alter the power structures within the Liberal Parliamentary party that brought him to the Prime Ministership. These power structures were, in part, the power structures that kept Tony Abbott in office.

These power structures are closely aligned to the ideology of the party. While these power structures may have shifted slightly to elevate Malcolm Turnbull, there was no fundamental change in either the power structures or the ideological and policy structures.

So, when the Prime Ministership changed hands, the only thing that changed was the person who was Prime Minister. The fundamental structures of the Parliamentary party did not change.

Consequently, Malcolm Turnbull has been forced to continue with many of Tony Abbott’s policies: climate change, same-sex marriage, carbon tax, constitutional reform, affordable housing etc.

So what we have seen under Malcolm Turnbull is the return of the Liberal party to the electoral position that it held under Tony Abbott: Labor 52%  Coalition 48% on a party preferred basis.

The second major problem, not just for Malcolm Turnbull and the Coalition but also for the Bill Shorten and the Labor party, is demonstrated in this second graph.

There are two quite clear emerging patterns. The first is a decline in the both of both major parties and the second is a corresponding rise in support for the GIMPs ( Greens, Independence, Minor Parties).

VOting patterns.jpeg

This pattern has now been emerging for over 30 years, so the Systems Theorists would assure us that this is an indication of changes the structure of the political landscape of Australia.

How far this pattern of change will continue is difficult to assess but at present it does not look like achieving an equilibrium. It may be that the three major voting blocs will have fluctuating first party preferences somewhere in the 30% range.

So the challenge now for both major parties is how to attract the second preference votes of the GIMPs.  The Labor Party can be  reasonably certain of the Greens’ preferences, either through a formal arrangement or simply because the Greens are a left of centre party. The Coalition can be certain of the votes of One Nation and a small handful of right wing candidates.

But neither of these will be enough to secure government particularly if the current trends continue.

What is certain is that neither of the major parties will be able to control the Senate.  The Senate is now a more accurate reflection of the  political preferences of the electorate, given Malcolm Turnbull’s new improved voting system.

Unfortunately for the Liberal Party, its parliamentarians do not understand this simple first principle of systems theory. They think that changing the Prime Minister will change their electoral fortunes. It won’t, and most certainly won’t if they are foolhardy enough to reinstall Tony Abbott.

The signs are not good.

When asked by host Q and A host Tony Jones if he could see the party going back to Mr Abbott, Senator Sinodinos, who backed the spill motion against Tony Abbottt hat saw Malcolm Turnbull ascend to the leadership, said he supported Turnbull because “I think he can take the Coalition forward in a stronger, better direction”.

Malcolm Turnbull is now less popular than Tony Abbott at the time he was dumped, with the prime minister’s satisfaction rating just 29 per cent in a new poll.

In Tuesday’s Newspoll in The Australian, Mr Turnbull’s support is below Mr Abbott’s final approval rating of 30 per cent in September 2015.


Peta Credlin advises Tony Abbott on how to seize the Prime Ministership. 

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