March 2007



By Judith Brett
Barack Obama poses in front of the Superman Statue in Metropolis, Illinois.
Barack Obama poses in front of the Superman Statue in Metropolis, Illinois.

“There is a tide in the affairs of men / Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.” But tides also recede. The big question for observers early in this election year is: Has the tide finally turned?

Still running John Howard's way are the economy and the resources boom, as well as the momentum of incumbency. But there are also powerful currents pulling the other way, deeper than the surface froth of political debate and the play of issues. There are three turning points with the potential to shift the basis on which Howard has built his political success: from age to youth; from fear to hope; from private to public.

From age to youth. This is the most obvious. When he turned 65, Howard promised to stay in the job for as long as the Liberal Party and the voters wanted him. And he reiterated the promise when Costello challenged last year. There is a deep disingenuousness in this promise. Taken at face value - and this is how Howard wants it taken - it disavows personal ambition and puts him at the service of the party and the nation. But it also says, If you want me to leave, you will have to throw me out. Hence Keating's rather improbable image of Howard as a coconut glued to his chair, and his reminder of the brutality of his own disposal of Hawke. "You know, prime ministers have got Araldite on their pants, most of them. They want to stick to their seat. And you either put the sword through them or let the people do it."

Howard, of course, will argue for the benefits of experience and a wise head. But whatever he says or promises, he cannot escape the fact that he is getting old. And all of a sudden, with Rudd rather than Beazley as his opposite number, he looks it. Howard turns 68 in July this year. When the next election comes round, in 2010, he will be 71. What is he to say to the electorate about his intentions? Elect me and I promise to say on till I'm 71, and then I may even run again, like my hero Robert Menzies, who stayed on till he was 72! Or: Elect me, and at some unspecified date before the next election, I will retire and pass the leadership on to my loyal and patient deputy, he of the down-turned mouth, who lacks the common touch and already looks worn out from all those hard years in Treasury.

Old leaders often believe that after them, the deluge: it seems to be a hazard of the psychology of ageing. So, on the whole, they stay on too long. It would have been much better for Menzies' subsequent reputation had he lost the credit squeeze election in 1961 (which he won on Communist preferences); for Margaret Thatcher not to have waited till she was pushed; for Mao Zedong not to have launched the Cultural Revolution. At stake here is not just the age of leaders and their waning physical and intellectual energy, but their inevitable disconnection from the social and cultural worlds of people born 20, 30, 40 and even 50 years after them - and from their futures. Sometimes, ageing leaders are reckless with their country's future because they won't be around to bear the consequences. So Howard seems remarkably unworried about the consequences of global warming, responding to it more as a political challenge to be managed than a real-world danger.

From Fear to Hope. Critics of Howard argue that much of his political success is due to the way he has used fear: fear of asylum seekers, terrorists, rising interest rates, loss of jobs and so on. The most sustained argument for this is found in Carmen Lawrence's book Fear and Politics, and it is a standby of the so-called Howard-haters. I don't completely agree with this position: it is overblown, and relies on a sloppy conflation of Howard's characteristics with those of the Australian people. Because it interprets Howard's political success in essentially negative terms, it fails to engage with the full range of reasons why voters have supported the Coalition. The Coalition has always been the preferred party of the cautious, and caution is not the same as fear. However, I think a slightly different and more complex claim takes us to the heart of Howard's prime ministership.

Howard's leadership style is shaped around combat and control. He thrives in a crisis, is quick to point out threats in the environment and to create division between friends and enemies. He believes that one should stick to one's guns, never give ground, stay till the job is done, and so on. Howard has embraced the war in Iraq with such enthusiasm because war suits his leadership style, and he focuses on enemies real and imagined, because he needs them. Real terrorists are a boon, but his obsessive battle with a largely imaginary left-wing educational establishment shows that there is more going on here than a hard-nosed confrontation with a nasty reality. It is a timeworn cliché, but if he didn't have enemies, he would need to invent them. Howard needs the war in Iraq and the War on Terror at the top of the political agenda because this is his psychological home ground.

His foolish attack on the American Democratic candidate Barack Obama, in an interview with Laurie Oakes on the Sunday program, shows this clearly. He said, "If I were running Al Qaeda in Iraq, I would put a circle around March 2007 and pray as many times as possible for a victory, not only for Obama, but also for the Democrats." Obama's position on Iraq is shared by many American politicians and by most of the American public. So why was it Obama he singled out? I think Obama is such a threat to him not because of his different position on Iraq, but because he works with a very different psychological palette. "We can build a more hopeful America," Obama told the crowds at his campaign launch. "And that is why, in the shadow of the Old State Capitol where Lincoln once called on a house divided to stand together, where common hopes and common dreams still live, I stand before you." Howard knows that if the political mood in the US and Australia shifts from fear to hope, he is done for.

Harold Stewart and James McAuley's Ern Malley put into the mouth of Lenin a truth political leaders mostly ignore: "The emotions are not skilled workers." Sometimes, no matter what the penalties in their AWAs, people simply down tools and go looking for a different boss who will allow them to feel things differently.

As my late friend and colleague Graham Little showed in his work on political leadership, all leadership styles are unstable. Each has a particular emotional and psychological shape, but each also casts the shadow of the emotional possibilities it excludes. Strong leaders, like John Howard, are emotionally organised for survival in a difficult world. They thrive on competition and stress the virtues of independence, individual responsibility, hard work and tough decisions. Competitors are often treated as enemies, even if they are only the mild-mannered members of the parliamentary Opposition. When real enemies appear, such leaders rally their team behind them for the fight. Graham Little contrasted strong leaders with group leaders, who pay attention to the many ways human beings need and depend on each other and believe in the creative possibilities of collective action. Group leaders specialise in the politics of sympathy and compassion; strong leaders dismiss them as weak and not to be trusted with the tough tasks of national leadership. They, in turn, see strong leaders as uncaring and many of the dangers that they guard us against as delusional.

Little also had a category of inspiring leaders, leaders who are able to break through the habitual stand-off between strength and compassion and suggest that perhaps we can find political solutions that encompass both. This is a less coherent leadership style than the other two, a sort of midpoint, but it captures the way some leaders can break through with the promise and hope of solutions.

Each of Little's leadership styles has characteristic strengths, and characteristic ways of failing. The danger for strong leaders is that they become too rigid, demand too much repression of individual initiative in the name of loyalty or security, invent enemies and stifle the new ideas needed to respond effectively to a changed world. They may offer a safe pair of hands, but the hands are often only holding solutions to yesterday's problems.

The characteristic shortcomings of strong leadership are displayed on our television screens every time Howard has to discuss the challenge of climate change. Human-induced climate change is a new and urgent problem, and it transcends all the battlelines and solutions of the old politics. Facing up to it, Howard squares his shoulders, sets his chin and stares resolutely into the camera. Everyone knows he has been denying the reality of climate change for the past decade at least, and everyone knows that the politics of this situation are changing fast. But he can only do what he can do - so he gives ground slowly and reluctantly. Having been forced to accept the scientific consensus that carbon emissions are causing the earth's climate to change, he refuses to admit any link between either of these and the drought, even though a connection is highly probable. He searches for enemies to attack: global panic merchants, loony greenies. And he tries to turn the problem into a conventional conflict of economic interests. In this scenario, he presents himself as the guardian of a national economy pitted against other national economies. And he turns the challenge from one of the long-term sustainability of life on the planet to short-term issues of economic prosperity, and the threatened jobs of coalminers. You can almost hear the cogs whirring as he calculates the margins in the Labor electorates with coalmines.

It is abundantly clear that Howard simply does not get climate change, and certainly that he has no solutions. He may well be able to win the next election by targeting voters with jobs in the old energy sector, but this is not a solution to climate change.

From public to private. Obama called for more than hope in his launch speech. He called for generational change, and "an awakened electorate". "It hasn't been an absence of sound plans that has stopped us," he said, "but the failure of leadership, the smallness of our politics. People have looked away in disgust and disillusion. We're here to take politics back."

Hugh McKay reports that among the people he's interviewed over the years, there is a widespread nostalgia for the Whitlam era - and this from people who disliked Whitlam, as well as from the fans. The nostalgia, he argues, is for the political intensity of the times, the sense of engagement and that politics mattered. It's much like the nostalgia sometimes expressed for World War II, that it brought people together, lifted them out of their small lives into an enlarged sense of collective purpose. In an elegant little book called Shifting Involvements, the political economist Albert Hirschman has argued that there is an oscillation in modern Western political history between periods of engagement with collective and public purposes, and periods of retreat into the concerns of private life and the pursuit of individual material wellbeing. This oscillation, he says, can only partly be explained by outside events and crises; there is also a psychological dynamic at play in such turnabouts, which can be very rapid. Hirschman was writing in the wake of 1968, when a new political engagement appeared, as if from nowhere, and swept large numbers of people into public action. And then this spirit ran its course. Disappointed with the inevitable failures of activism, people went back to the more manageable but smaller concerns of their private lives, leaving politics to the professionals.

There is a match between a strong leader and a disengaged polity. The strong leader's message is, Leave it to me, I'm in charge. He may, as Howard has done with the anti-terrorist legislation, demand to be given more power, but he does not ask for more involvement. His peacetime purpose is to provide the safe shield behind which people can get on with their lives. Obama offers a different relationship, inviting people back into public life and the exciting possibilities of public action. Obama's critics point out that he is short on policy specifics. And people may well not heed the invitation - or not quite yet.

But they may. The looming environmental crisis is one which confronts us with our interdependence, not just on the environment but on each other, and so it is likely to propel increasing numbers of people into public action to seek collective solutions to a collective problem. It is becoming blindingly obvious that the West cannot go on as it has done, consuming resources as if there is no tomorrow, year after year, decade after decade, into an open-ended future which is simply more of the same. Popular culture, with its fascination with disasters, knows this. Global business leaders know this. Politics is paralysed.

Many people, I am sure, feel as I do, that they are living in two clangingly discordant timeframes. In one, life goes on as usual, turning on lights and taps, driving cars, complaining about the weather, organising holidays, bringing up children, calculating superannuation ...

In the other, we know that the scientists are right, are haunted by images of polar bears swimming between melting ice floes, and feel powerless to do anything. The enthusiasm with which water is being saved shows that people know things have to change. But most of the solutions are far beyond anything people can do as individuals, and if you think too much about the future, you just get depressed. Howard says he prefers to be optimistic about the future. So would we all.

What Howard doesn't seem to get is that on climate change, our preferences are irrelevant. If the climate is changing, it is changing, no matter what he would prefer or how he describes it. And this is not a problem that can be turned into a conflict between us and them. He can fire insults at the messengers as much as he likes, but if the message is right, there will be simply be more messengers.

Much of Howard's political success has come from the intensity of his focus on the minutiae of day-to-day politics. He knows the margins in all the electorates and the names of his backbenchers' children; he dominates the media; he calculates the days till the next election; he devises handouts for disgruntled groups and keeps money in the coffers for government advertising campaigns; he studies his opponents to find their weaknesses and public opinion polls to craft his arguments. And he has won again and again. But none of this tells us anything about whether the long-term public interest is being served by his victories. Keeping his eye so firmly on the present, Howard seems unable to focus on the long-term future of the nation, let alone the planet.

Howard knows his strengths, and in the coming year, he will play to them. He will warn us of the threats of terrorism and Labor's mismanagement of the economy, try to wedge Labor on climate change among blue-collar workers, blame the Labor states as much as possible for health crises and the skills shortage. He will stress the inexperience of youth against the wisdom of age; he will pour scorn on the illusory and insubstantial promises of hope; he will promise that with him as prime minister, our individual prosperity will continue for ever and ever, and that global warming can be dealt with by the pragmatic politics of incrementalism, in which no one will be a loser. He will fight to keep the election on his chosen ground. It will be a remarkable feat if he can pull it off.

The turning points from age to youth, from fear to hope and from private withdrawal to public engagement have their own separate dynamics. But they also overlap with and reinforce each other. If they start to run together, they will sweep Howard from office. And he knows it.

Judith Brett

Judith Brett is an emeritus professor of politics at La Trobe University. Her latest book is Doing Politics: Writing on Public Life.

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