Was it right?

Tony Abbott wasted no time in conjuring up the “midnight execution” imagery to describe Julia Gillard’s usurpation of power, and a little later trying to explain why this wasn’t precisely the same thing that he himself had done to Malcolm Turnbull six months earlier. (He probably had to go all out, because Gillard out-polls him by quite a distance.)

Abbott can argue that his coup was motivated by policy, unlike Gillard’s, but the policy in question – Abbott’s apparent political raison d’être – hardly serves to exonerate him. That policy was climate change denialism (contrasted against Turnbull’s compromise deal with Labor on emissions trading), which is the product of blatant, willful ignorance and hollow ideology, and is precisely the reason Abbott isn’t fit to govern. I rather like the idea of our government heeding the advice of experts (in any field); indeed, this would be the principal factor upon which my vote would rest, if only I could see into the heads of politicians. Gillard’s coup was at worst motivated by cynical populism, which is still frankly the far lesser of two evils.

Abbott’s gloating over having been the instigator of Rudd’s downfall is juxtaposed against his apparent outrage over how it happened. But if it was going to happen at all, how could it have happened any better way? Leadership tensions often play out over months and even years, as Peter Costello will attest. Such continuing leadership instability in the Labor Party would have been good for Abbott, but not particularly good for the country. Though the position of Opposition Leader doesn’t naturally lend itself to nuanced pontification, it still seems a little silly for Abbott to spend his entire waking life denouncing the Prime Minister only to then bemoan his rapid removal from office. Was a slow political death the only acceptable option, in his professional opinion?

(This seems to be standard practice in politics, though. A deposed leader is no threat, so the other side can suddenly afford to heap on retrospective praise to make it seem as if the change is a step backwards.)

Of course, there is the democratic argument. One side argues that we didn’t elect Gillard (at least, not as PM), so what right has she to assume the Prime Ministership? The other side points out that we don’t actually elect the Prime Minister but the government as a whole; there is certainly no suggestion that anything unconstitutional has occurred. The first side might retort that, although this is the case in theory, it was the “Rudd” label that won the election for Labor in 2007.

Even the last point is a bit academic though. What happened in 2007 was nearly three years ago, and the polls strongly indicate that people have changed their minds in the mean time. Democracy doesn’t just happen every three years – it should be a continuous process. While statistically-sampled polls don’t have the same aura of legitimacy as an election, they are based on legitimate scientific methods and do, after a fashion, reflect the will of the people.

Surely democracy is best served by putting forth the best possible candidates for election, as indicated by the electorate itself. There may have been some sort of academic expectation that Rudd would serve out his full term, but nowhere is it written that this is necessary in a healthy democracy. Replacing a leader with a more popular one is how representative democracy works. (That’s not to say that replacing the leader ought to be done lightly, because government stability is also an important consideration.)

Some might argue that they wouldn’t have voted for Labor if they knew that Gillard would take over, but I wonder. If it was known that Gillard would take over, she would have been more a part of Labor’s 2007 election campaign, and she would have been much more in the public eye. She would have had more of an opportunity to cultivate her image – which is what this is really about after all, Abbott himself having argued that Labor’s policy approach remains the same. This is little different in principle to any other change in government direction . You can’t expect the government to map out precisely what it will do at election time, because events are guaranteed to overtake it (as in the case of the global financial crisis).

In previous elections, the Labor Party itself made much of the idea that John Howard wouldn’t serve out his full term, but would hand over the reins to Peter Costello. I’ve always found this to be a bizarre and unconvincing argument. As politicians are fond of saying, we ought to focus on the policies and not on the people. Unfortunately, this is surprisingly difficult.