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Genuine leadership: we'll never need it more and we've never had it less

By Peter McMahon - posted Wednesday, 28 May 2003


Real political leadership has never been more important to Australia. At a time when the whole socio-political landscape, as well as the physical landscape, is undergoing fundamental change, our political leaders reflect the growing failure of our political system to promote talent.

Australian politics has become almost devoid of substantive debate. This has happened for a number of reasons, but perhaps the most important is the increasingly pervasive role of the mass media in shaping ideas about our society and world. In reality, the mass media have pretty much taken over political discourse in this country. Newspapers set the agenda for the main players, who can still read, and TV and radio keep the punters informed with five-second sound bites.

This is of course a disaster, the scale of which will only become clear to the next generation who will have to pay for the self indulgence of the baby boomers. They will - as things currently go - inherit grave environmental problems, a dangerous international situation and a mix of socio-economic problems reaching boiling point.

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The most successful politician of recent times has shown how the mix of a dominant media and a scared and ignorant public can be exploited to gain and maintain political office. John Howard has proved himself a master at following the lead of the media, a lead basically and increasingly constructed in the United States. Howard, an early convert to the neo-liberal ideas emanating from Chicago University, was already primed to take on this role, but his manipulation of growing insecurity has been something to see.

So political leadership in Australia has come down to who can most closely follow the script provided by the mass media. Howard is just the most effective actor, not the only one. The ranks of our political leaders - those who are at or near the top of our state and federal political power structures - are filled with such unprincipled opportunists. By and large, our political leaders are not very intelligent, not very honest and loathe to do anything that Sir Humphrey Appleby of Yes, Minister might call "courageous". How did it come about that the people making the key decisions for Australia are so inept, shortsighted and unprincipled?

The main problem is our political system and the kind of culture it creates. The hard fact is that political life is brutal. A politician has to negotiate conflict with the political opposition and the invariable disappointment of the electorate, all the while fighting the most vicious battles within his or her own party. Only the most emotionally tough personalities survive, and a lack of intelligence and sensitivity actually helps to grow a tough hide.

The reality of Liberal Party leadership is clear enough. Howard rules absolutely, and when he goes we face the gloomy prospect of Peter Costello or else Tony Abbott. Both are at best competent machine politicians, and neither has shown he has any bigger vision for Australia. The Democrat leadership problems need no commentary, and only the Greens' Bob Brown stands out as having real class. However, the small size of the Greens means he is unlikely to wield much power.

Let us, then, briefly consider the ALP leadership conundrum. After three unusually intellectually capable Labor prime ministers - who were in power when politics still held sway over the mass media in Australian life - Simon Crean, who had successfully negotiated the snakepits of union and ALP life, is undoubtedly something different. If a leader does not have a substantial intellectual capacity himself, he or she must be able to mobilise those around them who do. Crean's main fault so far seems to be that he has not been able to do this.

Kim Beazely - the man born to rule - was, as Barry Jones put it, Labor's most right-wing leader. Even then he could not win power - the only real interest of the right - and so stood down. His recent flirting with a return - again, thanks to the mass media - and the inevitable weakening of Crean and the ALP shows where his real loyalties lay. A new Beazley-led federal Labor would be a true sign that the ALP is heading back to the past, and real trouble.

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But where are the other challengers anyway? The names most commonly put forward are Kevin Rudd, Stephen Smith and Wayne Swan. They are all competent machine politicians, but none of these men has shown the least tendency to think outside the box and show intellectual leadership. By contrast, those who have put in the hard mental yards, such as Mark Latham and Lindsay Tanner, just do not appear on the radar. These two have put forward more or less comprehensive and coherent programs for the ALP in books and articles, but that sort of vision does not seem to be an important leadership criterion within the ALP.

As for the state leaders, their role is severely limited due to Federal-state power relations, so they are not really asked to do much. None of them is really anything more than a competent economic manager.

A real problem for the ALP is the rise of a party culture that discourages actual talent. Too many Labor personnel are effectively professional politicians, and have little other life experience. They come through student politics, unions or some other limited experience, always seeking the main chance. They learn all the wrong lessons, like head-kicking and number-counting, and very little about the great changes surging through the big, wide world.

The ALP, even - or especially - when not in power, has been the political party that most generated ideas and programs for change in this country. The current quality of the ALP leadership is therefore something of a national tragedy. Unless Latham, Tanner and the other smart people in the ALP can gain the leadership, the party and ultimately the nation will suffer.

After the Howard years, when Australia slept and dreamed of ever-greater sporting successes, hard decisions will have to be made, and it will likely be up to Labor to clean up the mess again. A politics-as-usual leader will just not do, so Labor had better start looking for someone who can see beyond his or her own self interest to energetically tackle the big issues.

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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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