Regular readers of The Australian newspaper may have noticed the recent debate between journalists Paul Kelly and Niki Savva on this question: does the instability we have seen recently in the office of prime minister indicate that there is something wrong with the political system generally?

Kelly began this debate in his 2014 book Triumph and Demise in chapter 33 titled 'The Australian Crisis'. He opens by saying: “The deepest lesson of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd era is that Australia’s political system is failing to deliver the results needed for the nation, its growth in living standards and its self-esteem. The process of debate, competition and elections leading to national progress has broken down. The business of politics is too de-coupled from the interests of Australia and its citizens. This de-coupling constitutes the Australian crisis.”

At a time when Tony Abbott was still prime minister, Kelly had this to say: “The last three prime ministers fell at the reform hurdle – Howard over WorkChoices and Rudd and Gillard on a mix of climate change policy, mining tax reform and flawed fiscal management. It would be wrong to deny the responsibility of these leaders for their own downfalls. It would be equally wrong to deny that their collective experience suggests a serious problem in Australia’s political system.”

The response of Savva, in an article published just after Malcolm Turnbull had replaced Abbott, was to take the opposite view to Kelly. According to Savva: “None of what happened was the fault of a flawed system but the deeply flawed people within it.” Savva went on to argue that none of Rudd, Gillard and Abbott was “up to the job”. Consequently the good news for Australia is that “the system mobilised to eject them”.

Kelly then responded with a lengthy article in The Australian on Wednesday 23 September titled 'Negative politics the biggest enemy of reform'. There he re-stated the position he originally took in Triumph and Demise. Frankly I find Kelly’s argument unconvincing. My own take on it was set out in my article published on 22 September titled Turnbull to win next two elections. I said: “Rudd was a dud, Abbott was a dud but Gillard was failed by circumstance.” Therefore, my view is substantially the same as that of Savva. 

I return now to that passage in Triumph and Demise that I quoted above. Extending the list of the fallen prime ministers to include now Howard, Rudd, Gillard and Abbott, what do these four have in common? Answer: they thought they could get away with deceit.

John Howard did not actually lie his way into WorkChoices but he was highly deceitful about his intentions. He developed a plan to get control of the Senate. When the plan worked he blithely announced that the Australian people had voted for WorkChoices. Kevin Rudd, on the day before his election win, stated categorically that he favoured turning back asylum seeker boats. Then he dismantled the entire Pacific Solution which, under Howard, had stopped the boats.

Julia Gillard famously declared that “there will be no carbon tax under the government I lead” – and we all know about that! Finally Abbott, on the day before his election win, lied to the effect that he would not do several things when his real intention was to do all of those things.

The two big failures on the conservative side of politics were WorkChoices and the 2014 budget. Both failed because they combined unfairness and deceit. Here I must dispute one opinion of another regular commentator in The Australian, Henry Ergas. His general argument is correct and is summed up by the headline 'Labor must get over its bad case of Malcolm envy' (Monday 19 October). The comment I dispute is this: “Appeals to envy usually strike a chord in the electorate as surely as does bashing the banks. Labor’s claim the prime minister isn’t sufficiently ‘ordinary’ to run the nation’s affairs ought to have been a guaranteed winner.”

Not so. The politics of envy always fails. So, why did Labor succeed so spectacularly with WorkChoices and the 2014 budget? Again, it was the combination of unfairness and deceit. Unlike Howard, Rudd, Gillard and Abbott our new prime minister has deceived no one and, notwithstanding his wealth, he understands the concept of fairness in public policy. That is why I have no difficulty in predicting that Turnbull will win both the 2016 and 2019 elections. When that happens we’ll get over the false idea that changing the prime minister fairly frequently indicates instability in our system.

It is asserted by many commentators that there is another problem, the Senate. Here I offer a simple solution. In the short term the government must learn to negotiate with the Senate. In the long term there must be a PRINCIPLED reform of its electoral system. For a description of a principled reform see my article on this website (Why ABC’s Antony Green is wrong about the ‘feral’ Senate, Monday 27 April). My reform would bring the Senate’s electoral system back to the Australian Constitution.

So I return to the above-quoted passage from Kelly: “It would be wrong to deny the responsibility of these leaders for their own downfalls. It would be equally wrong to deny that their collective experience suggests a serious problem in Australia’s political system.” I agree with the first sentence while disagreeing with the second. I am, therefore, drawn back to Savva’s opinion that the above-named flawed prime ministers have damaged their own reputations but they have not demonstrated any serious flaws in the system.

Malcolm Mackerras is a visiting fellow at the Australian Catholic University’s Canberra campus. malcolm.mackerras@acu.edu.au