Leadership is a recurring theme in political debate. It refuses to go away. It is a dependable subject for journalists wondering what to write about next and adds spice to any subject. Leadership means different things to different people, certainly to different journalists. Indeed, Alice in Wonderland-style the word ‘leadership’ means whatever they want it to mean: "When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean − neither more nor less."
So is it with journalists.
D Mick Weir and I had a conversation about leadership on my last piece. He concluded; “I can't explain leadership to you but rest assured you will know it when you see it”
, which reminded me of Robert Pirsig’s telling line in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
: "Quality is hard to define but you recognize it when you see it."
Then in an opinion piece by Shaun Carney in the National Times
of 13 August: Australia's best-kept secret: we're not doing too badly
he began: “The curious thing about leadership is that it's hard to define but you know it when you see it.”
So here we go again about leadership. And it seems as mystifying a concept as ever. There have been several pieces about leadership on The Political Sword
. I enjoyed reading them again before writing this piece. Instead of rehashing them, I will make passing reference only.
In February of this year, I wrote Leadership – what do the people want?
In it I referred to several pieces on the same subject.
One, a year ago, on 15 August, there was: The enigma of leadership
, and on 21 November: What does Julia Gillard stand for
, and a couple of weeks later for good measure: What does Tony Abbott stand for?
There was another piece, back in June of last year that expressed my exasperation at the media’s seemingly insatiable but poorly argued demands for a set of attributes it expected in our nation’s political leaders. It was titled: The media’s specifications for an Australian PM
Time and again, the question of what constituted leadership and an admirable leader has been addressed. Reading over these pieces, we seem no closer now to consensus on what leadership is, than we did then. It seems that like ‘quality’, leadership is hard to define, but we feel we can recognize it when we see it. Can we? On the sporting field we can identify quality and leadership without being able to easily articulate our reasons. Does the same apply on the political field of play?
So instead of going over old ground, this piece will examine recent leaders in an attempt to tease out what constituted leadership in them, and the opposite.
His followers would rate John Howard
as a great leader. His political longevity is partial testimony to this. Even his detractors would credit him with great persistence, determination and grit - some might label it stubbornness, in the face of adversity and defeat. 'Lazarus with a triple bypass' is how he described himself.
He could also be credited with being a reformer In that he brought in the GST, which history shows has been a very substantial reform.
He was a good communicator on talkback radio, which he made his special forum. This way he connected with the ‘vast majority of the electorate’ as he termed it; the ‘Howard battlers’ as the media labeled them. On TV he was sure of himself even if his detractors disagreed with him. It was only near the end that his confidence left him to reveal a tentative man beneath.
His determination was evident in the lead up to the Iraq war. Even the casual observer could see he was intent on taking Australia to war, although he insisted in public he was still considering his options. It was then that admiration of his determination turned to dismay at his lack of transparency.
Another aspect of his term was his willingness to go back on his promises, leading to his infamous quote about ‘core and non-core promises’, which led to the slow erosion of confidence in his word.
Another negative for him was his disingenuousness, which was manifest starkly in the ‘kids overboard’ incident, the truth of which he kept hidden from the public until after the 2001 election. ‘Honest John’ became a phrase of derision.
The final nail in his coffin seemed to be the length of his prime ministership. Even people previously enamoured of him stopped listening and believing. So the positive attributes of determination, persistence, reformer, communicator and ‘battler’s friend’ were eroded by his discard of ‘non-core’ promises, his deceptiveness, his political longevity, and at the end loss of confidence and a listening electorate and public support. Kevin Rudd
began with strong electoral support. Almost as soon as he became Opposition Leader, his ratings began to rise and reached almost stratospheric levels at the height of his prime ministership. He seemed almost unassailable as the nation’s leader. Why? In the public’s eye he took on the aura of the fresh, energetic, enthusiastic young leader with new ideas and vision that contrasted sharply with the diminishing image of the older man. He was articulate, even if somewhat verbose and bureaucratic in his language. He was confident and assured.
Notwithstanding his status with the public, News Limited began a slow process of hacking away at him, at eroding confidence in him, and when he took ‘decisive action’ that kept Australia out of recession, it took to highlighting the negatives in the hurriedly rolled-out program of stimulus, so that few now give him and his core group credit for placing this nation in the best position of any of the developed nations. Instead the mantra of ‘waste and mismanagement’ comes to the public’s mind. This continual attack eroded confidence in the once-confident Rudd, something that eventually showed on TV and talkback as aggressive interviewers hammered him. The more eminent journalists insistently asked about Rudd’s narrative. Paul Kelly led the media pack with his usual gravitas; lesser journalists soon echoed his words. This assault fostered an impression of a directionless leader, never a good look.
An initial positive was his concern about climate change and his determination to do something about ‘the greatest moral, economic and social challenge of our time’. This inspired those worried about global warming, a substantial majority at the time. This was leadership directed towards a looming problem. And because it was such a positive for Rudd initially, it became the most serious negative when he postponed pursuit of his CPRS, an event that led the people to believe that he had abandoned a principle that he had previously elevated to lofty prominence. In the view of most commentators this was the beginning of the end for Rudd, even although we know now several other factors operated to bring about his spectacular downfall.
Kevin Rudd could be described as a ‘middle distance’ leader. At the height of his prowess he had the Australian people in the palm of his hand, and while that was so, discontent closer to home was obscured. Rudd had never been a factional man, and indeed flouted factional imperatives when he determined to appoint his own ministry contrary to the tradition of the Labor caucus doing so. He earned no friends then. As time went by stories emerged about his non-consultative and arrogant approach, his apparent disdain for ministers’ portfolio responsibilities, his belief that he had all the answers and was the smartest person in the room, which in an intellectual sense he probably was. This eroded support for him within his own party, but with public opinion of Rudd and his Government so high, they were content to go along for the ride, unappealing though it was for many of his ministers. But when that waned and the polls and focus groups began to give Rudd the thumbs down, they abandoned him with a ruthlessness rarely seen, even in the brutal game of politics. His ‘short distance’ leadership failed.
Although his international credentials were highly regarded initially his ‘long distance’ leadership turned out to be not as effective as predicted. The most spectacular international ‘failure’ for Rudd, his supporters and the nation turned out to be Copenhagen. So much hung on agreement there, that when this failed to live up to expectations, not only was Rudd crestfallen, so were his ministers, and the public was disappointed and disillusioned. Support for an emissions trading scheme began to erode and reached levels below a majority, and with it support for Rudd. Although Rudd can hardly be blamed for Copenhagen where he worked tirelessly for a good outcome, it has been viewed by most commentators and many of the public, as ‘his failure’. So Rudd initially exhibited leadership qualities of youthful energy and enthusiasm, a well-articulated vision about how to address important problems like global warming, the promise of reforms to health, education, the tax and transfer system, IR, communications and infrastructure, and generated excitement and confidence in his ability and plans. For some, this get-up-and-go morphed into frenetic activity with too much unfinished business.
He exhibited strong and courageous leadership during the GFC, and showed great promise in tackling climate change with the Garnaut reviews, green and white papers, and a design for a CPRS, which he negotiated with Malcolm Turnbull, but which fell over when Tony Abbott toppled Turnbull. He made progress with health reform, but the initial mining tax failed because of inadequate consultation with the stakeholders who flexed their considerable muscles to defer it.
The negatives included not bringing his team behind him, not being able to deliver on his most important assurances, and most of all, in the face of poor opinion polls and focus group outcomes, abandoning his pledge to effectively tackle global warming. Brendan Nelson
was a Leader of the Opposition but briefly. He said: “Leadership is everything, whether of a political party, company or school. Vision, inspiration, character, judgment, temperament, humility, intellect and courage are just some of the qualities that will define our party's success.”
How well did he rate? He was not high on vision or inspiration, but was very sincere and concerned about the welfare of the people, ex family doctor as he was. Some of his more dramatic performances in the house with cans of baked beans and lurid descriptions of a Tarago loaded with kids at the petrol pump, were over the top.
He was always vulnerable to the marauding Malcolm Turnbull who from the day Nelson was elected set about taking his job. Nelson lacked the political skills and party support to counter the erosion of Turnbull and soon succumbed. He was a good guy but naïve politically and no match for Turnbull. Malcolm Turnbull
looked like a leader from the outset – tall, good looking, urbane, successful and well heeled. When he spoke he sounded impressive, plausible and usually convincing. He seemed destined for prime ministership, and was soon rewarded by John Howard with a ministry.
Then it became clear that he was at his best only when advocating a cause in which he had his heart; when that was not so, he was less convincing, less believable. This has been a consistent feature. Remember how well he spoke about global warming and the need for action. Remember how his conviction caused him to cross the floor on emissions training. Reflect on how he now speaks on this subject although Coalition policy is opposed to an ETS. Contrast that with his relatively ineffective talk about the NBN, which Tony Abbott commissioned him to ‘demolish’. It seems obvious he has not got his heart in the demolition, is already saying nothing will be ‘dug up’ if the Coalition assumes government, and he is now talking about the high cost of reversing the NBN. Extrapolating from these observations, it seems that Turnbull’s capacity to lead rely on his being in control and able to call the shots. He excels at advocating his own ideas, but falls down when asked to advocate the ideas of others when he does not believe in them.
Anabell Crabb’s Quarterly Essay
on Malcolm Turnbull aptly titled: Stop at Nothing
, highlights a strength and a weakness of Turnbull. He takes risks and backs his judgement. He did this when he took on Kerry Packer, and the British Government in the Spycatcher case. But sooner or later this risky strategy was bound to fail as it did in the Godwin Grech episode. So sure was he that he had Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan on toast over the OzCar affair that he neglected to carry out due diligence, chanced his arm, laid down his cards with a flourish and found himself trumped by a fake email sent by a disturbed Coalition Treasury mole. His humiliation was complete and his reputation damaged. Had he succeeded in rolling Rudd and Swan with him, his own demise as Opposition Leader would likely have been avoided. So we see in Turnbull a man with many leadership attributes. Presence, style, charisma, high intelligence, plausibility when arguing positions he owns and a principled approach to those positions, and a crash through or crash approach. His risk taking, his impetuosity and his ‘stop at nothing’ approach was his undoing, along with his adherence to a position on climate change different from that of the hard core conservatives among whom were many climate skeptics. He still looms in the background irritating the conservatives in the party, threatening to come back into leadership contentions. But because he has not developed a base of support in the party, somewhat like Rudd, he is unlikely to become leader again.
Is Tony Abbott
a leader? In the sense that he has improved the position of the Coalition in the polls to the point where it almost took government on 2010, he is an accomplished leader of his party. The extent to which he leads the members of his parliamentary party is unclear. There are murmurings of lack of consultation, going off half cocked on policy issues and changing his position without notice, but as was the case with Rudd, support for him is poll generated – when they’re on a winner they will stick with him.
His many changes of position and his naked opportunism have earned him the weathervane tag. Events that have occurred after his recent return from overseas have underscored his ‘say anything to anybody and say the reverse the next day’ approach. A media that has afforded him much liberty is now noticing his inconsistency, his evasive approach to awkward questions and the paucity of his policies. This is not sound leadership. Nor is going around the country talking the economy down over the carbon tax, with threats of escalating living costs and fabricated images of massive loss of jobs, business failures and ghost towns, thereby contributing to the decline in business and consumer confidence and falling retail sales. Leadership is talking the economy up and giving people confidence. Overwhelmingly, in place of vision and an inspirational narrative, we have seen a succession of short negative slogans, which on the face of it have been successful in elevating the Coalition in the polls. His ‘leadership’ has been characterized by unremitting pugilism, negativity, destructiveness and nastiness, all aided and abetted by a compliant media, a prominent part of which seems intent on ‘regime change’.
His leadership attributes seem sharply limited to his capacity to improve substantially the position of the Coalition, such that it would sweep to power were an election to be held now. But should that happen, Abbott’s capacity to lead this nation would be sorely tested, and his leadership attributes found seriously wanting.
Which brings us to Julia Gillard
. What leadership attributes does she possess?
To believe the rhetoric that emanates daily from the Opposition and much of the MSM is to accept that Julia Gillard is an incompetent liar, a hopeless communicator and a poor dresser to boot, entirely undeserving of prime ministership, and therefore illegitimately occupying that post and The Lodge. She has no vision, no policies, no plans, and is entirely directionless. She ought to be forced from office by a fresh election before she ruins the country. One shock jock would have her ‘cast into the sea in a hessian bag’, with Bob Brown; others suggest assassination.
Where does the truth lie?
What is her vision for this nation? She has told us often enough. I’m tired of repeating it, so if you’re still uncertain, read What does Julia Gillard stand for?
written last November, and in exasperation in June this year another piece: What Julia Gillard DOES stand for
She has repeatedly outlined her vision for employment, IR, education, the economy, review of the tax and transfer system, climate change, health, mental health, aged and disability care, asylum seeker policy, indigenous policy, and she has articulated a myriad of other visions, some announced in the winter break. It seems almost every few days some other initiative is announced, the practical manifestation of political vision. Compare that with the vision of Tony Abbott – a chalk and cheese contrast.
Some hark back to Chifley’s 1949 ‘Light on the Hill’ address, somehow longing for that heady rhetoric. But look at it again in What does Julia Gillard stand for
, and you will see that she is reiterating that same message time and again. How often does she have to talk about the dignity and security of work and value of opportunity?
So let’s stop looking for her vision with blinkers on – she has vision enough for us all.
What about determination and the capacity to battle on in the face of adversity, an essential attribute for those in high political office. Is it not obvious every day that she has buckets of it? With Tony Abbott and his team firing at her every day, shock jocks abusing her, the media criticizing her relentlessly, often disingenuously, with heavy hitters in commerce and industry throwing tough rhetoric and millions of dollars in adverse advertising at her, what does she do? Shrink into a hole in the ground? No, she is out there day after day repeating her message, sticking to her guns, determined to bring in the reforms she has planned, and when these are frustrated, such as by the High Court over the Malaysian arrangement, she patiently waits for resolution. And when she runs into an immovable brick wall, such as she did over her ETS plans, she adapts, even retreats from a position that is no longer tenable, and does it another way. As she points out, the alternative was to just give up and do nothing. I expect some of you will want to remind us all that ‘she broke a promise’, that she is a liar, and that she therefore cannot be trusted on anything. Go ahead, but ask yourself what you do when you meet an immovable object in life. Do you keep smashing yourself into it or find a way around it. Only a fool would choose the former.
How well does PM Gillard communicate?
She has many critics. Some dislike her drawl, her ocker accent, her repetition of some phrases; indeed it amuses producers of the Riley Report
to play clips of the same phrase repeated in the many forums and interviews she does each day. What do they expect – a different phrase on every occasion? Yet if she were clever enough to do that they would be onto her for inconsistency or ‘mixed messages’. If only these producers, or better still their proprietors would grow up, and set aside their obsession with ‘infotainment’. Faint hope.
When she is matter-of-fact on serious occasions, she is ‘wooden’, and of course inappropriately dressed; when she is trying to connect with the people via TV, the adjective is ‘condescending’. She never seems to be able to satisfy her critics no matter how hard she tries.
Yet when she is engaged at close quarters she comes across as warm, humorous, with an infectious laugh, easy to talk to, and above all, genuine. She is a good ‘close up’ communicator; it is her ‘middle distance’ communications that cops so much criticism. If only she had Malcolm Turnbull’s dulcet tones. She can be grateful she is not afflicted with Tony Abbott’s raucous yet awkward laugh, and his nodding silence, which incidentally seem to attract little media attention.
Her long distance communication has turned out to be better than expected. She seems to have got on well with international dignitaries, despite her initial reticence.
Not getting her message across has been a constant criticism. There seems to be a deficiency in her media unit, which seems incapable of scripting clear messages that people can understand, but there is a caveat that applies here. It is difficult to transmit complexities simply, as any teacher knows. It is so much easier to convey simple, if disingenuous slogans, as Abbott does so effortlessly. To test my assertion, try creating a handful of easy-to-understand slogans that capture the complexity of an emissions trading scheme and all that flows from it. If you succeed, please post them in comments.
We have covered vision and what she stands for, determination and communication. Let’s quickly check Brendan Nelson’s other attributes for leaders: inspiration, character, judgment, temperament, humility, intellect and courage.
Is she able to inspire? If Chifley could inspire with his ‘Light on the Hill' address, why does not PM Gillard with her near identical words?
What of her character and temperament? Her character seems strong and her temperament possessed of equanimity. She certainly exhibits humility despite a formidable intellect that allows her to be across all aspects of her brief, and who could doubt her courage.
That is enough about Julia Gillard. I need no more convincing about her suitability to be PM of this country, about her leadership attributes, and about her capacity to be a strong and successful leader of the nation. I believe she is doing a great job; not perfect, but laudable.
Her detractors will scoff. They will scoff at me too for holding such a view. Let them.
Finally, I want to leave you with some insights that came from NormanK in the form of a comment on the last piece: The Convoluted Convey
at 4.14 pm on 13 August. There is not room for all of what he said, so I hope he will post his comment of yesterday, or a version of it, on this piece.
He began with a comment about the first sentence of Shaun Carney's article in the National Times
which read: "The curious thing about leadership is that it's hard to define but you know it when you see it."
NormanK wrote: "Rubbish. "Two things. You know it when you see it when the leader is doing something of which you approve. If they embark on an endeavour, no matter how well thought-out and elucidated, with which you strongly disagree, how can you possibly attribute it to good leadership? Good leadership, as defined by each of our minds, means doing those things of which we approve even in the face of staunch opposition from naysayers who are not in our camp. Carping on about a lack of leadership says more about what the speaker wishes were happening than it does about the leaders themselves. "Yes, there are examples of poor leadership. Gillard gave us a few during the latter half of 2010 but the Press Gallery seems unwilling to accept that perhaps this minority government, with nothing to lose and everything to gain, no longer fits the template the pundits constructed for them last year. “The other important aspect of evaluating good or strong leadership is that it is done in hindsight."
NormanK goes on to elaborate with some telling examples. Do reflect upon his insights. Has he put his finger on the core reason why there are so many conflicting views on leadership, and in particular Julia Gillard’s leadership? Is it simply that she is not doing what her critics believe she ought to be?
So where do you stand on political leadership?
What is political leadership in your book?