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The cult of the leader is not the answer to revive political parties

By Scott Prasser - posted Wednesday, 8 June 2022


The change of leaders and their deputies of the federal Liberal and National parties this week following their recent election loss, highlights both the cult of the leader that now pervades our political parties as well as their very vulnerability.

Although great store is now placed on leaders in our democracy, their high turnover reminds us, as Professor Tiffen once wrote, of their very disposability. Heroes one day, condemned and forgotten the next.

Since losing federal office in 2007 and with the recent changes the Liberals have had six leaders - about one every two years.

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The Nationals, who used to boast of their stability, have succumbed to the same trends. Since 2007 they have had five leaders, and the recently displaced leader, Barnaby Joyce, lasted less than twelve months.

Labor, federally, has done better, having just two leaders, since they fell from office in 2013, but they did have the previous trauma of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd experience which divided the government and the party.

While this turnover of leaders is not a new phenomenon, it has accelerated in recent times for several reasons.

Foremost of these is the presidential style of modern electioneering. The focus today, as we all just witnessed during the campaign, is almost wholly on the leader whether the prime minister or leader of the opposition - in the debates, interviews, parliament, campaigns and in terms of their own personal attributes.

This trend has been enhanced by declining party loyalties and memberships. Voters identify more and more with a leader and their personalities, their beliefs, their life story, their manner, their family, and their style than with a party and its values. The leader, not the party, has become the personification of political choice.

The pervasiveness of the media and modern technology has facilitated this cult of the leader. Leaders can be followed and seen everywhere, thus largely replacing local candidates and campaigning.

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Consequently, leaders are under more scrutiny and pressure than ever before, not just for what they say, but how they look, smile and gesture and for every utterance made in the past regardless of context or time.

Heightening the dominance of the leader in office has been the centralisation of administrative and political power in modern government. Leaders now control all aspects of government, attend every announcement, and thus take credit or blame for every success and every mistake. We no longer have a Liberal or a Labor government, but a Morrison or Albanese one.

Given such pressures it is unsurprising that leaders stumble and make mistakes and soon fall from grace, as oscillating opinion polls show. Every mistake is amplified and subject to merciless criticism from the media and unforgiving disappointment from electorate who have had such heightened and unrealistic expectations of what leaders can do and unappreciative of the burdens leaders now bear and the constraints within which they have to work.

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This article was first published in the Canberra Times.



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About the Author

Dr Scott Prasser is author of Robert Menzies: Man or Myth and is Series Editor of Connor Court's Australian Biographical Series, and has written numerous academic articles and chapters on federal and state Liberal parties and Coalition politics.

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