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. 

The good thing about changes to Senate voting

In discussing the impact of the changes to Senate voting, Amanda Vanstone observes that the changes will affect three groups:

“The third group, about whom we hear little, is the Senate candidates from the major parties – Liberal, Nationals and Labor – who are not the highest on their party’s ticket. They could lose their seat to an independent because of the smaller quota required under a double dissolution. It doesn’t suit the independents who want to be seen as the victims to have any focus on the fact that these senators from the major parties face the same challenge.”


 Amanda Vanstone never faced the scrutiny that will now be directed at Senate candidates

She also notes that there is a second group of senators who will fall foul of voter anger. Expect Eric Abetz and Cory Bernardi to have a difficult job being elected.

untitled 12.jpeg

 The door’s that way

One of the good things that may emerge from these changes is that the Australian electorate may now start taking their preferences in the Senate more seriously. It will also be easier because they won’t need to number preferences from 1 to 100 (or how many candidates may be standing).

Given that 25% of the Australian electorate vote for minor parties, there is a distinct possibility that there will be an increasing number of independent senators elected, particularly if the minor parties are able to arrange transparent preference swaps with candidates who have similar political persuasions.  If this were to happen, we can expect a similar number of independent centres to be elected. The difference will be that this time they’re likely to reflect the will of the people rather than some arcane set of preference swaps.

The next election, be it a normal one or a double dissolution, may see a significant change in the Australian political landscape as the major parties lose control of a delicately balanced Senate. Jacqui Lambie has shown that, wants in the Senate, a politically savvy Senator  can attract significant media attention that enhances their chances of re-election.  There is a very good chance that it will be extremely difficult to dislodge Lambie, even without the powerful financial support of Clive Palmer.

There is a distinct possibility that the traditional patterns of election for Senate candidates of the major parties will be drastically changed. People who vote below the line will be able to pick and choose which senators they elect, even if they continue to vote for of the major parties.

This means that people like Labor Senator Joe Bullock, who was given the No 1 position on the Western Australian ticket for the ALP.  Bullock, a long-term union official and opponent of same-six marriage, was elected after series of back room deals within the Labor Party.


The situation now is that being first on the ballot paper may not necessarily ensure your election. And no bad thing.



Transmissions from political Lala land resume

Clive Palmer is back in parliament and he is nothing, if not interesting. His latest transmission from political Lala land is that Malcolm Turnbull is just a seat warmer for Tony Abbott and he will stand down after winning the next election and let Abbott regain the prime ministership.


 Another comic turn: Clive Palmer doing a Les Patterson impersonation

It’s another one of those ideas that are so stupid, it’s difficult to know where to start explaining why. But then, it got Clive into the newspapers yet again, not for any useful contribution to policy or public debate but because he’s a clown.

 In fairness to the man, he is not unpleasantly malicious in the way some members of the government have appeared this week. So give me Clive anytime of the day before Cory Bernardi, Luke Simkins or George Christensen.

Nationals MP George Christensen.jpg

Nationals MP George Christensen who seems to think that being an MP is a license to say the most outrageously offensive things he can think of

Then there was this other little zinger, Fairfax Media revealed that

Faced with electoral annihilation, Clive Palmer has held a secret meeting with two Senate crossbenchers in which he proposed dissolving the Palmer United Party and forming a super-micro party. Mr Palmer met with Liberal Democratic Party senator David Leyonhjelm and Family First’s Bob Day in Mr Palmer’s parliament office on Thursday.

This is to try  to protect themselves against a double dissolution and political oblivion. We can probably safely assume that Palmer will stand for the Senate in the next election as his chances of being elected in his lower house seat are in the category of snowballs surviving in hell, so a coalition of cross bench senators  makes some sense in terms of political survival.

The bizarre aspect of this is that this group of people have nothing in common beyond the desire to save their own political skins.  The chances of them being elected in the first place are probably slim given the electoral changes that will probably be passed  through parliament, but not as slim as being able to have a coherent policy view on the issues that face the nation..


 Not long for this life: the cross bench senators. Only Xenophon has a chance of re-election

 It’s been an interesting week, enlivened by news of the Prime Minister’s dinner for the cross benchers. Senator Jacqui Lambie stormed out of the dinner, somewhat predictably, as staying wouldn’t have got into the newspapers and then, Senator The Brick with Eyes left early because he wasn’t getting enough to eat and had to go to Macca’s for a decent feed.

Policy debate anyone?



The concept of a mandate in politics

It is extremely common for elected governments to claim a “mandate” to implement their policies. Christopher Pyne was the latest to make this claim in The Age

“There can be little doubt the Abbott government has a firm mandate to initiate a review of the national curriculum”

This, in fact, is not the case. What the Abbott government has is a majority in the House of Representatives, which entitles it to form the government. This gives it a mandate, and power, to introduce and pass legislation in the lower house. What it does not currently have is a mandate in the Senate because it doesn’t currently hold the balance of power in the Senate. It may not have it when the new Senate sits. There are many who now recognise that the voting system in the Senate is not producing results that the electorate wants. However imperfect this system may be, the Senate was designed to be a curb on the power of the House of Representatives. In other words, the balance of power in the Senate is a qualification on the “mandate” of the majority in the House of Representatives.

The current results in the Senate, notwithstanding the possibility of another election in Western Australia, indicate that the Australian people has not granted the Abbott Government a mandate to implement all of their policies. What the electorate has granted the government is a mandate to implement those policies that it can negotiate through the Senate with the support of the minor parties that hold the balance of power. A majority in the House of Representatives does not mean that those parties necessarily must support all government policies.

Part of Christopher Pyne’s argument in support of the curriculum review is that “the Coalition promised it before the past two federal elections”. This assumes that the electorate has a perfect memory in this case going back six years. However, if we accept Pyne’s argument that the electorate was perfectly informed, then we must also accept that it was perfectly informed when it elected representatives of the Palmer United Party, The Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party and the Australian Sports Party and that it has granted them a “mandate” to vote in line with their policy positions in the Senate.

It’s an imperfect system and perhaps one that needs reform. But as the system stands at present, the current government only has a mandate for legislation that is supported by the minor parties in the Senate. The Abbott government’s majority in the lower house does not mean that these minor parties necessarily must accept all government legislation.

One can only hope that the members of the government who claim the “mandate” are just jawboning and that they do actually understand how the Australian political system works.