Australian politics, society & culture

Comment: Political Leadership in Australia

Paul Keating in 2007. © Idpercy/Flickr

Don Watson

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It is now all but universally agreed that the Australian Labor party is a near-ruin, ruled body and soul by factional bosses and opinion pollsters. To the public the party presents the spectacle of governance either by faceless men, or by men with unappealing faces. These bosses decide Labor’s leaders, Labor’s candidates, Labor’s policies and Labor’s tactics. Finding they are mere spectators with no more influence on the direction of policy than unaligned Australian voters, unaligned is what hordes of party members have chosen to become.

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As the bosses’ grip grows tighter, the membership declines and branches fold. Recently, the stalwart Senator John Faulkner used the word ‘anaemia’ to describe his party’s present condition. Leaping to his side, Kevin Rudd, who was deposed in a factional putsch last year, declared the factions were a “cancer”. The former NSW Labor minister Rod Cavalier said they were “killing” the party and that in much of Australia Labor was “stone-cold dead”. The factional leaders deny all this, of course, but why are voters flocking elsewhere? Why, even when the party is standing for something (such as a mining tax or a carbon tax), is it perceived as standing for nothing, or for less than the Greens or GetUp! stand for, or unlikely to stand for it any longer than is politically expedient? Why was their last campaign derisory in almost every detail? Why does Bob Brown feel able to say the Greens will soon be the major party of reform?

It is possible, however, to agree with Faulkner’s judgement and with the broad sweep of media opinion since he came forth with it, and yet suspect that while this is not the wrong tree, there is another one to bark up. The other one is that uncommon combination of sound and imaginative policy with articulate politicians of character – which, along with a lot of baloney, tends to go under the heading of ‘leadership’. Indeed, for all its legends of grassroots organisation and democratic trailblazing, the party’s history is no less a story of leaders strong enough to drag a creaking and complaining Labor movement with them. In the modern era, think of Whitlam, Hawke and Keating: albeit with interventions, they led by force of personality and big ideas, and the factions either made themselves useful and followed willingly or were dragged along by the undertow. More recently, until the awful inner child took hold of him, they followed Kevin Rudd.

The point can be made by watching Julia Gillard in two television appearances: a Monday night ABC interview with Chris Uhlmann, which she managed expertly, and an address to the nation the day before, which was feckless and embarrassing. In the interview she was assured, unhesitating, in command of the policy detail and alert to the political traps. There were the sharply ordered intelligence and the equal instincts for advantage and danger of a serious political animal. But in her address she hinged her usual pedantry to confected inflections and a wildly veering tone: one moment defiant, the next didactic, the next ingratiating. It was like watching a bad method actor. No meaning could survive such a performance.

To be fair, Gillard is not the first prime minister to struggle in the first 12 months of office, and she has had more against her than any of the others. Less well known than Hawke, Keating, Howard and even Rudd were when they ascended, she has also had to contend with the facts of a hung parliament and being a woman in the role. Every day has been a struggle for legitimacy. All this, plus a hostile tabloid press and radio, and an outrageously unprincipled and unchecked opponent; her most bitter enemies have to concede she wants for nothing in resilience and steel.

Of course she has made some of her own problems and given the public reason to doubt her honesty. But there never was a successful politician who did not have avowals to live down and embarrassments to hide. Politics is a game played with two sticks of equal length – principle and pragmatism – and successful politicians are those who wield them well in combination: so well, in some outstanding cases, that folk give up trying to tell one from the other and roll over. What the German sociologist Max Weber called ‘charismatic authority’ is partly made of this. And it’s what Julia Gillard so far lacks in spades. The problem is not a want of sincerity or conviction, but any means of exercising or displaying them.

Now, it might be that the Labor Party is beyond salvation by any leader. And just as possible that politics itself is too far gone to produce a leader capable of testing the proposition. To borrow something else from Weber, while passionate conviction and shrewd pragmatism are characteristics of great political leaders, what really distinguishes them is their detachment – not their proximity to the electorate but their distance from it. The natural posture for a politician has always been ‘chief among equals’. But modern media does not allow this. Now it is at best ‘equal among equals’ and commonly last or least among them. Listen to talkback, watch Q&A, tune into the internet and ask where the power and respect lies. Who lays strongest claim to the record, the knowledge and the authority, charismatic or otherwise? Not the leaders. Most of what used to be theirs is shared between the host and the audience, for whom pretty well any opinion is as good as another. The politicians scramble for the residue.

Every day they do what they used only to do in election campaigns. There is Tony Abbott, aspiring prime minister, in a hard hat or gauze one, staring down a mine, fiddling with a tractor, filleting a fish. The people are sovereign, he says. To hell with the sovereignty of scientific facts: popular opinion will determine if the Earth is warming and what to do about it – just as it determined the answer to polio and the movement of the planets. There was Prime Minister Rudd, tin-eared and ineffably graceless but a mind to be reckoned with – where else should we see him every day but surrounded by babies or hospital patients? And there is Julia Gillard, prime minister of the Commonwealth, daily risking her dignity in the nation’s malls and school grounds, confessing her insecurities at the National Press Club, bringing herself close to tears as she asks to be understood, surrendering to the maw of magazine culture and afternoon television, and taking the office with her. The Oprahisation of Australian politics is now pretty well complete.

No generation of Labor leaders has been so devoted to opinion polls as this one, yet it is doubtful if any has been more inept at moving opinion when it needed to. Perhaps the organisation is too rancid to attract, or (vide Lindsay Tanner) retain, the talent from which leaders might be drawn. It could just as well be that such leaders as it has, though capable negotiators and effective scrappers, are victims of dodgy political fashions that in time will fade.

The other possibility is that the wretchedness of Gillard signifies a more general upheaval in the social and political setting. The clichés, the tortured and oppressive cadences are habits of the language she was raised in. Demotic it may be, but this language carries only the shallowest meaning. The phrases are not to inform or inspire the audience but merely to echo it and satisfy its narcissism. The spin the public loathes is made expressly for them. 

So it is with contemporary politics: not enough formal culture remains to support a well-made argument over a fallacy or a speech over a slogan. The art is lost for want of belief in it. Which might be why, when called on to make the case for something as bold, complex and remote from immediate gratification as a carbon tax, an old codger such as John Hewson makes the case with twice the force of anyone in the Labor government.

Don Watson

Don Watson is an award-winning author and former speechwriter for Paul Keating. His books include Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart: A Portrait of Paul Keating PM and American Journeys.
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