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Political leadership and the fear factor

By Peter McMahon - posted Monday, 15 October 2001


Australian politics has to be at some kind of nadir. It is virtually devoid of serious debate at a time when the country is facing unprecedented challenges, including the need for economic reform, growing social unrest and its symptoms, emergent national security problems, and prospective environmental ruin due to both global and national factors. One of the most obvious aspects of this vacuous politics is the almost complete lack of political leadership being shown by any of the major players.

Looking back, Australia has had some great political leaders. Men such as Deakin, Hughes, Curtin, Menzies and Whitlam – love them or hate them – showed strong personal capabilities and the capacity to genuinely shape national destiny through strength of character. In more recent times, even such flawed figures as Fraser and Hawke look good in retrospect, at least in comparison to the dull men who succeeded them. To watch the recycled Howard govern by alternatively boring and frightening the electorate to death and Beazley almost unable to utter any unequivocal statement of substance is increasingly painful. The picture is no better if we go to the states where a bunch of on the whole uninspiring technocrats rule with all the verve and popular appeal of chartered accountants.

Howard, Costello, and the state liberal leaders are manifestly limited men and women, servile to a political ideology (broadly termed economic rationalism in Australia) that allows them minimal political manoeuvrability in any case. In fact, if they were honest about it they’d quit and give the governing reins to an American management consultancy, and be done with it. If these people had any vision to start with, it has been ground out of them by the micromanagement of the conservative political machine with a weather eye to US Republican politics. Anything like vision is anathema to this style of politics, and it promotes people incapable of the sustained intellectual effort, let alone personal courage, that vision and leadership demand.

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The real mystery is why intelligent men like Labor’s Kim Beazley and WA’s Geoff Gallop are so incapable of vision. Both of them were my predecessors lecturing in politics at Murdoch University, so I know they are intelligent men(!). They are also well intentioned men, but when they open their mouths I have to keep reminding myself that they are the present day inheritors of that proud Labor vision, the "light on the hill".

Perhaps the problem is the culture of politics itself. It is increasingly a culture in which it seems only hard-nosed operators who can stack branches and count and electoral swings have any influence. Take the recent struggle over the ALP’s Knowledge Nation policy framework. An almost visionary concept overseen by one of the few people in the ALP leadership who can do more than count, Barry Jones, was mutilated into the increasingly flimsy version that Beazley has been trying to sell. Every serious commentator not obsessed with the miserable orthodoxy out of the University of Chicago agrees that Australia has to develop human resources and not just natural ones if Australia is to successfully negotiate the next hundred years. This will require genuine political commitment, and it will take money, real money. If taxes have to go up to do it, and maintain health and the basic social welfare net as well, then they have to go up. To watch Beazley tying himself in knots to avoid saying this is increasingly distressing.

The lack of leadership is even more obvious in relation to the three big news stories of recent times – the Tampa immigration row, the American terrorist attacks and the Ansett collapse. Howard’s cynical exploitation of Australia’s long history of xenophobia and racism in the Tampa affair is lowest common denominator politics, and Beazley’s failure to unreservedly oppose it is abject weakness. Similarly, Howard’s ‘me-tooism’ in response to President Bush’s predictably bellicose reaction to the World Trade Centre and Pentagon terrorist attacks harks back to the worst kind of ‘follow the leader’ foreign policy of the post-war years when Britain or the US held the reins. And finally, the total failure of government to avert the chaos in the centrally important air transport industry with Ansett’s collapse will resound for years, and probably be the final nail in the Liberal government’s coffin. In each case, the national political leadership completely failed to take an ethical position given added fibre by quiet, sustained reason. Instead we have seen inaction due to ideological bias or opportunistic reaction. And certainly, there can be no real confidence that Labor as it is would have handled things very differently.

It is true that the political leaders feel constrained by the general socio-cultural context, and there are other factors more specific to this country. The role of the mass media in this country – with perhaps the most concentrated ownership in the developed world – in generating certain debates, and stifling others, is of primary significance. No adventurous policy can survive if the few core media commentators decide to give it the thumbs down, and anything that does not match their zealous economic puritanism will be sniffed at as being ‘unrealistic’. They are the high priests of public opinion, after all, and the maintainers of orthodoxy. Indeed, one of the most promising possibilities of the Internet is that it may enable a revitalised public discussion by ignoring these zealous gatekeepers.

But there is another, more basic underlying reason for the demise of real political leadership, and it is a phenomenon haunting the entire developed world. Basically, visionary leadership is based on an appeal to hope – hope that problems can be overcome, and that the future can really be significantly better. This is especially true when times are tough. The great modern leaders, Lincoln and Roosevelt in the US, Churchill in Britain, Mandela in South Africa, and yes it has to said, even Lenin in Russia, arose in times of national crisis and led mostly by convincing their followers that better days lay ahead. In Australia Curtin is revered precisely because he came through when the nation was truly at risk.

Why have things changed so much? One answer is that on a global scale the basic socio-economic conditions have fundamentally changed over the last three decades. Since the early 1970s, after big, increasingly corporate capital got a nasty scare with the international upheaval of the late 1960s, especially the pivotal year of 1968, hope has been methodically replaced by fear as the essential emotional response to prospects for the future. Socialism, whatever it meant in practice, was a millenarian belief promising a new age and even a ‘new man’. The rejection of materialism that inspired the hippies and a whole range of political dissidents at least presented the hopeful prospect of a new kind of human life, more sensual, communal and meaningful. The era’s popular culture - that socio-cultural subconscious where hope and fear continually fight it out - flowered with the result of great music, films and even watchable TV.

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But by the late seventies this hopeful idealism was being messily beaten to death by a combination of rising unemployment and inflation. The hippies and dissidents had to get back to work. Simple economic survival was back as an issue. The anti-socialist project was regenerated by a renewal of the Cold war, embodied in those august personages Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. But the fear had not quite settled in, and popular culture still vibrated with the frisson of resistance and the hope of escape. Even in the mid 1980s one of the best books of the decade, William Gibson’s Neuromancer, actually romanticised the coming global techno-dystopia, suggesting that some lucky individuals could escape into an alternate electronic universe called cyberspace .

By the 1990s fear was well and truly in the driver’s seat. The message was: tighten up, get tough, because you have to compete, and there is no escape. You had to compete with slimming down, predatory firms if you were in management, and with hungry Third World workers if you were labour. Unlike the 1980s, even those making a mint were more looking worriedly over their shoulders than confidently ahead. Increasingly the surveys told us that lots of wealth was being created, but more and more unevenly, and even the winners were feeling the pinch of overwork and undersatisfaction.

You could see the change at work in popular culture. This was the decade of Silence of the Lambs and all its nihilist clones, like The X-Files. Film, television and music were increasingly bland as the narrowing of popular consciousness combined with the accelerated corporatisation which recycled everything as advertising. Genuine artistry was suffocating in a vacuum, replaced by a glib, and cynical, technical facility. The end of hope was particularly apparent in that sociological canary in a coal mine, the generation post-X: their clothes, body ‘art’, music and general attitudes reflected the reactive tastes of people for whom it was already all over.

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About the Author

Dr Peter McMahon has worked in a number of jobs including in politics at local, state and federal level. He has also taught Australian studies, politics and political economy at university level, and until recently he taught sustainable development at Murdoch University. He has been published in various newspapers, journals and magazines in Australia and has written a short history of economic development and sustainability in Western Australia. His book Global Control: Information Technology and Globalisation was published in the UK in 2002. He is now an independent researcher and writer on issues related to global change.

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