August 2013


Changing prime ministers

By Judith Brett
What Kevin Rudd could learn from Julia Gillard about leadership

In her gracious resignation speech after Kevin Rudd finally succeeded in his campaign to oust her, Julia Gillard canvassed the role of gender in her experience as Australia’s first female prime minister. Her gender, she said, “does not explain everything about my prime ministership, nor does it explain nothing ... it explains some things”. For the most part, this discussion of what it does explain has focused on misogyny and sexism, on the dark, deep loathing of women’s sexuality and the day-to-day prejudices about a woman’s place. Both were at play, in different places and among different people, but so was something else: the assumptions about gender built into our political institutions.

Women in parliament are no longer novel. They are effective local members, and since the 1980s we have become used to seeing women in cabinet positions. But a female prime minister was always going to be different. The top job draws out our assumptions about leadership in a way that being a local member or even a minister does not. And our assumptions about what makes a good leader carry the origins of our political institutions in male rivalry and aggression.

Parliaments acquired the power to choose the government over several centuries. Battles with words and votes came to replace battles with swords and axes as the only legitimate way of settling political differences and rival ambitions among groups of men competing for political power. In elections and in parliament, this conflict is rule-bound and ritualised, just as it is in team-based sport, which emerged in Britain around the same time as the English parliament was taking executive power away from the monarchy.

The resulting political system, known as the Westminster system, was designed to deliver clear majorities to one team of men and its leader and to concentrate political power in the cabinet and in the office of the prime minister. Power is exercised both through the collective decision-making of the cabinet and by a strong and decisive prime minister as the leader of the government. The key to successful government is the capacity of the prime minister to balance their role as cabinet chair with their role as leader of the country. The way prime ministers strike this balance differs. Margaret Thatcher dominated her cabinets. Bob Hawke was an experienced negotiator and built consensus through his skilful chairing. Robert Menzies gave his ministers a good deal of autonomy.

In our media-saturated age when the prime minister is the face of the government, being an effective chair of cabinet is not enough, no matter the leadership style exercised. The PM has to be able to project decisive, coherent and authoritative leadership and defend the government both in the fight with the Opposition and in the media.

The leadership style of this public face of the government differs from that required to be a good cabinet chair. The former is hierarchical and power wielding, the latter is consensual and power sharing. These two leadership styles are often distinguished using gender-based terms, as male and female, respectively. Although women are more likely than men to employ the consultative approach, the two styles do not map neatly onto actual men and women. There are men who operate through consensus and power sharing, and there are women who do not. And there are leaders who are hybrids, able to use either style as the situation demands.

In 2010, with a hung parliament, it was Julia Gillard’s superior negotiation skills that won the independents’ support for her government and gave her the capacity to hold it for three years. Such skills are rarely required in Westminster parliaments, in which hung parliaments are exceptional. In multi-party systems, where coalitions are the order of the day, women leaders are more common. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel leads a coalition government, as does Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt. Governing majorities have to be stitched together, which puts a premium on power-sharing leadership styles. Similarly, in Australia, women have had more success in becoming leaders of minor parties aiming for the balance of power in the Senate, such as the Australian Democrats and the Greens.

When Thorning-Schmidt became prime minister in 2011, it was a case of life imitating art. The popular TV series Borgen, a fictional account of the experiences of Denmark’s first female prime minister, had just finished filming its second series. Borgen shows just how tough the power-wielding aspect of the prime minister’s role is for women. In each episode, Birgitte Nyborg is forced to make sacrifices to retain power: her commitment to a range of progressive causes, her loyalty to friends, her husband’s job, her sense of herself as a nice person. The message of Borgen is that women have to harden up to be effective in the top job. Nyborg succeeds because she is a skilled communicator, able to persuade the public that she’s in control and knows what she’s doing, even while her family life is falling apart.

Gillard was never able to persuade enough Australians that she knew what she was doing. Her projected image as prime minister was of someone who was assured, confident and tough. It was as if she had decided that this was how to be the strong leader the system demanded. Not only did this leave her exposed when she changed political direction, as with the carbon tax, it also sat awkwardly with her renowned skills in negotiation and the personal warmth reported by all who worked with her. The resulting public image was confusing, making it hard for people to build a coherent sense of her as a person, to feel they knew who she was. So some decided she was a fraud, others turned off, and a minority gave her the benefit of the doubt. Her approval ratings, though low, were not nonexistent.

In comparison, the public were never confused about Thatcher. Uninterested in consensus or power sharing, she was a wielder of power, pure and simple, a “conviction politician” who dominated her cabinet and projected a tough and ruthless image as PM. Yes, she was a woman, but she was emotionally at home in the competitive, power-focused halls of Westminster.

Hawke offers another instructive comparison. Like Gillard, he was good at non-hierarchical, consensual leadership, as well as being an experienced negotiator. After the divisive politics of the Malcolm Fraser years, he promised power sharing and led successful reforming governments. As people ponder the lack of will governments have shown to carry out tough economic reforms, the reputation of the Labor governments Hawke led has increased, and with it his reputation as an effective prime minister. Hawke’s flexible style did not make him seem weak, except perhaps to Paul Keating, who was already shaping up against “old jelly-back”. Effective at adversarial politics and a natural communicator, Hawke also had an extravagantly masculine public persona, along with his drinking and his love of women and sport. Everyone felt they knew what sort of bloke he was, so he could get away with a leadership style that might have otherwise seemed weak and feminine.

What then of Rudd in his second go as prime minister? He has similar problems to Gillard in the disjunction between his public image as PM and his interpersonal skills, though inverted: an outstanding capacity to successfully project his authority as prime minister against a disastrous record of managing cabinet and interpersonal relations. At present, Rudd’s skills in public communication are at the fore, and he is essentially in campaign mode, so the disjunction is not too apparent. Nor would it be in the simpler, more focused position of Opposition leader. But if he is still prime minister at the end of the year, expect it to re-emerge with disastrous consequences. Unless, of course, he’s changed as much as the government would like us to believe.

Judith Brett

Judith Brett is an emeritus professor of politics at La Trobe University. Her latest book is From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage: How Australia Got Compulsory Voting.

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