ALLAN PATIENCE. Australia’s American Leadership Distraction

Oct 11, 2016

Back in the 1960s, in his book The Lucky Country (a title he meant as irony), Donald Horne noted that Australia was a lucky country despite being run by second-rate people. Considering today’s leaders across Australia, we would have to conclude that Horne’s judgement is much too generous. The reality is that it’s mostly third-rate people who are now running the country. And they do so with impunity. The barely concealed contempt the four bank CEOs displayed towards their questioners at the recent parliamentary inquiry is a case in point. It appeared they couldn’t have cared less about their institutions’ responses to ruinous financial advice given to unsuspecting customers, unjustifiably high interest rates, and related grubby business practices.

It is ironic that this crisis in Australian leadership (i.e., the lack of it) is presently being masked by what John Tulloh has described as “the Americanization of Australia” (Pearls and Irritations, 3/10/2016). He notes:

The fact is that our news, lives, lifestyle, fads, habits, speech and outlook are shaped by what American marketers deem best for Americans. Its own enormous domestic market gives it the capital to exploit smaller ones like Australia. Yet it is as if we ourselves cannot get enough of this cultural and commercial imperialism. It is overwhelming and invasive, slowly infecting our identity.

The compulsive manner in which the Australian media are so furiously focused on the US presidential race between a second-rate political functionary and a fourth-rate lout illustrates the point. The voracious appetite of the Australian yellow press and associated media for tales about Trump’s oafish sexism and/or Hillary’s shiftiness is sickening.

This is because it is distracting us from critically and comprehensively analysing our own political, business, professional, academic, and religious elites. The media’s adolescent obsessing about America has completely shifted the spotlight away from shocking weaknesses in leadership in this country, at all levels. This problem has been with us for decades. In the 1980s the late Hugh Stretton observed: “For seventy years past, Australian business and political leadership has been generally mediocre and uninventive, missing many good opportunities.” He went on to say: “For eight or ten years past, business and political and a good deal of professional leadership has been positively reactionary, and has encouraged popular values and beliefs that now make effective leadership in any productive, inventive, or compassionate direction more difficult and less likely than before” (Australia: The Daedalus Symposium, pp. 225-6). Things have worsened since Stretton published his views. What we have in the 21st century is verging on a leadership catastrophe in this country.

Let us focus on two current political leaders.

As widely agreed, Malcolm Turnbull is a great disappointment as Prime Minister. He came to the job after two jarring years of Tony Abbott’s authoritarian and ideological leadership. The result was that many voters longed for an entirely different approach to Abbott’s dismissiveness of the science of climate change, his “Anglophilia,” his cavalier use of Royal Commissions to nail political opponents, his inhumane policies on asylum seekers, his opposition to marriage equality, and his thuggish political style. Abbott wanted to take the country back to the dullness of the ‘fifties, much as John Howard had tried to do. Most voters have progressed way beyond this kind of nostalgia. They want to see progressiveness, inspiration, hope and a vision for the future in their politicians. Turnbull fooled everyone into thinking he was the man to provide it. But he has failed dismally to deliver. His timorous approach to public policy reform suggests that in Turnbull we have a hollow man as leader.

Bill Shorten is a similarly limited political creature. In the public mind he remains a prisoner of his party machine and faction bosses. His claim that he almost won the last election ignores the fact that neither he nor his party is trusted following his (and its) propensity to change leaders and react to opinion polling rather than enunciating a strongly principled and progressive policy platform. So, for example, we see Shorten hiding beneath the government’s coat tails on the asylum seeker issue – an issue that is contributing to Australia becoming the “new South Africa” (as in the apartheid era) in global affairs.

The problem here is a matter that two great German intellectuals warned about early in the 20th century. In his famous essay, “Politics as a Vocation,” Max Weber identified two tribes of politicians. The first he described as those in politics for themselves – to satisfy their own egos, accrue wealth, to taste and exercise power, to do favours for cronies. This tribe he predicted would grow as the institutions of representative government ossified over time. And ossify they have, especially in Australia. The people in the second tribe (now almost extinct) were in politics to act for the greater good.

In his equally famous book Political Parties, Robert Michels proposed his “iron law of oligarchy” in which he warned about the emergence of a class of professional politicians bent on shoring up the institutions of government for themselves, families, cohorts and successors – creating, in short, a self-perpetuating oligarchy ruling in the narrow interests of those in Weber’s first tribe.

It’s time to get over the Donald and Hilary circus and focus on increasingly undemocratic developments at the core of Australia’s political system. The solution is not to be found in Hansonist populism or being taken in by papal-like bulls issued by media commentators like Alan Jones, Paul Kelly, Greg Sheridan, and Andrew Bolt. And what is wrong with our political leadership extends to big business, the public service, journalism, academe, and our religious hierarchies.

What we badly need is to see intellectually astute and highly principled people like Gillian Triggs, Waleed Aly, or Julian Burnside governing in our parliaments. It is unlikely they would fit into any of the existing political parties. Maybe it’s time to think of an entirely new political party with an agenda that is inclusive and concerned about the wellbeing of all citizens – one the befits an independent country able to offer real leadership in its region and the world. Until that happens we are likely to remain in pathological thrall to the Americanization of Australia.

Dr Allan Patience is a political scientist in the University of Melbourne

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