Monday, 19 November 2018

Changing the leadership of a political party in Australia does not constitute a “coup”

Nor is it a “mutiny”. But David Speers, the Sky News journalist, has just published a book about the removal of Malcolm Turnbull as leader by his political party that uses this kind of language in its title. It is titled, alluringly, ‘On Mutiny’, and it is part of a series being produced by Melbourne University Press.

I reviewed Katharine Murphy’s contribution to the series, ‘On Disruption’ on 9 July this year. I thought Murphy’s was a thoughtful book that made some valid points about the state of contemporary politics in Australia. I thought that Bernard Keane’s ‘The Mess We’re In’, which I reviewed on 28 July this year, contains more cogent reasons for the political malaise that we seem to be frequently facing in Australia, with party leaders being removed between elections by ballot.

Murphy has done an interview for the Guardian – where she works – that features Speers and that addresses the matters he raises in his book. For my part, I think that we do not benefit from the kind of dramatic use of language that Murphy and Speers are promoting. It does nothing for the quality of debate and only serves to more deeply entrench some popular misconceptions in the minds of less-well-informed members of the community. Such as that the prime minister is elected by the people, which is not the case; he or she is appointed by their party room by ballot.

The inaccurate use of such words by journalists as they try to make sense of the world we now live in has a long tradition however. In the case of Julia Gillard’s push to remove Kevin Rudd from the leadership of the Labor Party in 2010, the word “knifing” was parlayed about indiscriminately by journalists and everyone else in order to raise the temperature of debate and to make things seem more dramatic than they were in reality. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation made a documentary titillatingly titled ‘The Killing Season’ that covered the period occupied by the removal of Rudd from his position by Gillard and her faction of the Labor Party, which aired first in 2016.

Murphy told me in a tweet that the use of such words as “mutiny” and “coup” is “entirely accurate in the context in which they are deployed”. “This may be obvious the closer you are to events,” she went on, hopefully. But I’m not convinced. You don’t have to take much time to look at the word “knifing” to understand that it is a mere case of hyperbole that, because of the element of violence that it carries, can only be detrimental to the tone of debate. Likewise with “killing”.

As for “mutiny”, this is a word that has been optimistically borrowed by Speers from the vocabulary of the armed forces. It means to remove a captain from his or her command and to take over control of their ship. In the Australian Navy, command of a ship is given to a captain by the Navy hierarchy and the crew has no say over who their captain is. So there is no logical connection between the word “mutiny” and the removal of a party leader by ballot, which is something that is entirely licit and normal depending on the circumstances. The word “coup” comes from the language of politics; it is a shortening of the French term “coup d’etat” (etat” meaning “state” and “coup” meaning “strike” or “punch”). It is normally used to describe what happens when the armed forces takes over the government of a country by force regardless of the wishes of the broader community. The community had elected the government and now it has been taken away by the generals. Again, the applicability of this term to a case where a party leader is removed from his position by ballot is entirely spurious.

Is there drama in these kinds of events? Of course there is, which is why the language that is used to describe them is amped up to high volume. It appears to deserve amplification because these stories seem to speak to something essential about the kind of public sphere we now live in. Times have changed and the language changes with them. But what happens if there is an actual coup? Does the leader who takes control merely laugh at the use of a word that has now been emptied of its core meaning? Donald Trump has banned a journalist from the White House because he didn’t like his tone, just a day after the mid-term elections gave his leadership a blow he might never recover from. Is he just softening people up for the day when he decides not to call an election because, like Xi Jinping, he wants to stay in office until the day he dies?

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