Is it too hard to be prime minister in 2016?

In the future, Andy Warhol said, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes. In Australia’s future, everyone will be prime minister for 15 minutes, before being brutally rolled.

We’ve had five prime minsters since John Howard powerwalked away after 11 years, and not one has served a full term. Our political system’s become as volatile as Kanye West on Twitter.

Voters are realising they rejected Labor’s musical chairs only to sign up for the Coalition version. Polls recently hit fifty-fifty and the PM is running against both the Opposition leader and his predecessor, who’s been dubbed “Tony Rudd“.

It’s eerily reminiscent of 2010, when Craig Thomson held the balance of power and Peter Slipper the speaker’s chair. Another Convoy of No Confidence can’t be far away.

Why are we trading leaders as regularly as our smartphones? Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott won landslides, and Julia Gillard and Malcolm Turnbull were installed because they seemed competent. Surely there’s more behind their difficulties than coincidence or bad luck?

Although each leader has unique shortcomings, the similarity of their fates raises questions about our system. Since Howard, the job has become harder, to the point where no leader can be confident of survival.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott departs after the partyroom meeting after losing the leadership ballot at Parliament House in Canberra. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

For a decade, Bob Carr dominated NSW headlines with a carefully-curated stream of “announceables”, but nowadays it’s harder to control the news cycle. New policies only get brief coverage before we return to Tony Abbott’s surfing antics or whichever sideshow has captured our fancy.

The front page and the 6pm bulletin were once key, but today’s news beast needs feeding 24/7. Via clicks and shares, it’s not editors or producers but the public who determine which stories have impact. We like personalities more than policy, which is why our politics are merging with our soap operas. And we reward leadership spills with poll boosts, but lose interest when our adrenaline fades.

John Howard held on despite months of trailing behind both Kim Beazley and Mark Latham, but modern leaders aren’t afforded that luxury. The political scientist Sally Young has shown that poll coverage increased significantly through the 2000s. Opinion polling now rivals cricket as our national sport.

This has rendered our politics more pain-averse. The carbon tax and 2014 budget reforms died after backlashes, and it’s hard to imagine the dollar’s flotation or the GST’s introduction today. Scott Morrison pondered a GST increase only to yank it off the table when the prospect of more tax was, astonishingly, not welcomed by the electorate.

Proposals like Tony Abbott’s parental leave policy are gradually undermined by their critics and, when a leader like Julia Gillard is determined to hold the line, the pressure drives marginal MPs to become colleagues of no confidence.

We love a good backlash. The likes of Andrew Bolt and Alan Jones stir up dissent on radio, TV and in print, while chatty new websites like Buzzfeed, Pedestrian and Junkee are always on the lookout for a target. Their criticisms are amplified by social media, and then the reaction becomes the story.

The political conversation’s now a two-way street. Focus groups are obsolete when we can tell our leaders what we think immediately. It took seconds for the news of Prince Philip’s knighthood to be followed by the first jokes on Twitter.

Governments have tried to adapt. Instead of launching new policies, they float test balloons. When they founder, worthwhile proposals get abandoned and the government becomes inert and reactive. Before long, the dice is rolled on a new leader.

In recent weeks, Malcolm Turnbull has gone from criticism for drifting to praise for boldness, but his ploy of proroguing parliament was quickly tainted by mass amusement at a line that was reminiscent of the TV show Veep.

He might look enviously at his NSW counterpart, who’s taking advantage of fixed, four-year terms to implement extensive reforms. But fixed federal terms would require a referendum, which seems about as likely as Mike Baird opening a nightclub.

Over the past decade, technology has transformed the media, and our politics along with it. To borrow a Turnbullism, our politicians will need to be agile in order to survive.

There may never have been a more exciting time to be prime minister, but it’s probably never been this difficult to govern. While the pace of political reporting and voter reactions have become dizzyingly rapid, our need for considered, long-term policymaking remains the same as ever.
Originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald