In order to win government, John Howard – like Anthony Albanese a quarter-century later – campaigned on greater accountability. A ministerial code of conduct was put in place. He soon suffered for this righteousness. Within two years, several ministers and two staffers had resigned over various rorts or oversights. Then the crisis ended. The remaining 10 years of the Howard government saw an almost total absence of ministerial resignations.
By now, this story is hackneyed. Even in 2005, under the headline “If you’re a Howard minister it’s bloody hard to get sacked”, commentator Shaun Carney wrote: “It has been observed many times that the Prime Minister has developed a powerful aversion to the removal of ministers ever since he saw his political life flash before his eyes”.
In other words, the explanation for the sudden pause in ministerial disasters was not that the government cleaned up its act, but simply that the prime minister became sick of sacking people.
This story is usually told as an illustration of the dive in ministerial standards since. But it is illuminating, too, as an explanation of which issues turn into political crises. What Howard eventually realised was that the crisis was caused not only by problems themselves, but by his decision to call them problems. If a travel rort was guaranteed to cause a resignation, then it was, by definition, newsworthy. The reverse was true too: once it became clear Howard was unlikely to respond to all but the most egregious errors, smaller errors stopped attracting public attention. A crisis could be avoided simply by refusing to treat it as such.
It has been fascinating to watch the fast change in atmosphere since the election of the Albanese government. In much of the country, there was relief, in some quarters hope, but three weeks in it feels as though the largest shift might be the sudden sense of crisis. There is inflation, of course, and gas. The word “recession” is heard often on the airwaves. But there are others, too. It feels as though we are hearing more about hospital overload. The climate crisis is building.
There was some sense of this before the election, as you could tell from the Coalition’s ads that emphasised uncertainty – but the shift since then feels seismic. Some of this is based in reality. The last interest rate rise was larger than the first. But how much of this new atmosphere can really be explained by new facts on the ground?
Even before the campaign we knew it would not be long before rates rose; and that once they did, they would not stop. We knew house prices were high. Gas was definitely a problem, as was inflation, as was wages, and it’s not as though the relationships between these various factors was a mystery. Similar observations can obviously be made for hospitals and for climate.
So, where did this sudden sense of crisis spring from? Or, to put this question another way, why was it not there before? Is it a sinister plot by those parts of the media opposed to Labor, exaggerating problems they previously ignored? That might be part of it. But I suspect the greater problem is more insidious. As Howard learnt, a government unwilling to act on an issue will eventually stop being asked to act, as though the problem simply does not exist. This, too, is to some extent a media failure, allowing governments too much power to define their own realities.