The ghost of Abraham Maslov would be having a chuckle right now, or maybe a wry smile at a spectacular confirmation of his hierarchy of needs theory played out in Australian politics. Elected members of the Australian Labour Party so frightened for their psychological health at the prospect of losing their jobs, last night rolled the first woman prime minister in favour of the previous prime minister they rolled when they were feeling a bit more secure.

The short version of events is that Kevin Rudd was elected prime minister in 2007 on a majority. His colleagues deposed him in 2010 in favour of Julia Gillard who, despite starting with a healthy lead in the polls, returned after the 2010 election to lead a minority government in a hung parliament. She and the party fell so far behind in popularity that all seemed lost. The upcoming election would see a wipeout so severe that it would hand power the opposition for several terms. So, almost at the eleventh hour, the party spilled her out to put Kevin Rudd back in. And yes it is farcical — you are probably surprised that it’s not in the alloporus “sounds crazy” series.

Only Dr Maslov has a perfectly sensible explanation. We all fill the safety and security buckets of our emotional hierarchy before the self-actualization one that holds morality, lack of prejudice and acceptance of facts. When the position is precarious self-preservation automatically sets in. We allow ourselves to put aside what, in the good times, we espoused. We do what it takes to save the ship from sinking.

Clearly some of the motivation behind changing the collective mind on who should be in charge [again] came from the need of individuals to survive, to keep their jobs. No doubt this was part of it. Except that we heard many times in the brief lead up to the leadership spill that it was “in the best interests of the party” and “the best interests of the nation”.

Obviously the party benefits if it goes into damage limitation to maybe reduce the margin of defeat at the election or even have an outside chance of a win. Loose by a few seats and recovery can be swift. Loose many and history tells you that it will take many election cycles before those seats are recovered. So if it has to lose, the party benefits by limiting the margin of defeat.

But why does the nation benefit? Well the conventional wisdom is that in party democracies, good government requires a strong opposition and that usually means a two party system. The public gets to pick one of two options — one to govern and the other to ‘keep the bastards honest”.

Sounds sensible enough. Only the smell of self-preservation in this argument is strong. In the long run the two party option favours both parties — check out the hilarious Spitting Image skit below where the Margaret Thatcher and Neil Kinnock puppets explain the logic.

The two party system can work if the process of ‘keeping honest’ produces innovation, new ideas and ideologies that match the circumstances of the day. The parties evolve with the times.

The spillage Australians witnessed last night was because this did not happen. Going back to the future was the consequence of a failure to evolve to cope with the needs of the day. The incumbent and her cabinet did not deliver enough policies that worked for the majority of people. And even when policies did work the government failed to communicate the benefits. They lost the trust of enough of the electorate to suggest a massive election loss and with no more time to get it right the party decided change was the only option they had.

Failure can often look chaotic. It became bizarre because Kevin Rudd was still around to get his old job back and that in itself is telling. If he really was a bad prime minister who dithered, back-flipped and regularly lost the plot with his staff and colleagues, then giving him another go confirms the desperation.

What might send us all cascading down the hierarchy of needs though is that Rudd was still the best option in a two party system.


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