JOHN MENADUE & IAN McAULEY: A new “leader”, but no sight of leadership.

Aug 29, 2018

The Liberal Party has a new “leader”, but there is still a dearth of the leadership in the Liberal Party, which seems to be unable to deal with hard issues, such as meeting our emissions target and coping with the effects of climate change. And there are much harder problems of economic structure calling for political leadership.

In the calm following the attempted Dutton putsch the consensus seems to be that “the Liberal Party leadership is settled”, to quote a typical media source (the authoritative Sydney Telegraph).

The question of leadership, however, is still wide open.

All that’s happened is that Morrison has replaced Turnbull in the position known as Liberal Party “leader”.  The question of “leadership” remains no less settled than it was last week, or indeed, than it has been for the last two years, because in the name of party unity the Coalition has assiduously avoided the hard task of leadership.

That task is to mobilise the community to engage with and make progress on difficult problems requiring adaptive change, to use the concept of political leadership developed by Ron Heifetz of Harvard’s John F Kennedy School.

Unfortunately many journalists and even some academics slip into the assumption that because someone occupies a position, usually a position of authority, called “leader”, he or she is exercising leadership. But as Ron Heifetz points out, many people in authority, while they may carry out the tasks of administration, do not lead.

Writing in Pearls and Irritations two years ago, John explained what leadership entails:

Leadership is a set of activities in which the group – small or large, corporate, government, religious or social, is persuaded to make necessary but difficult changes. It is about asking the hard questions and pursuing them until a resolution is found. It requires disequilibrium to force us outside our comfort zone. Change and reform does not occur in comfort zones. Vested interests whether in a political party or church will invariably oppose change and seek to keep us comfortable in the status quo.

Leadership is not the same as authority or position which are usually bestowed . Authority is designed to keep the organization on an even keel and to observe the ceremonial. Authority figures like the group to be comfortable.

Dealing with climate change – developing a policy to reduce our national contribution to global emissions, and accepting that its effects are already manifest Australia – has turned out to be one of those difficult problems calling for leadership.

Judging by the hysteria whipped up by the Liberal Party’s Right, one may have believed that Turnbull’s proposed National Energy Guarantee was some extreme “green” proposal, but even before Turnbull caved in and dropped the 26 per cent target it was insipidly weak on emissions. With projects already in the pipeline we would have to start smashing solar farms and pulling down windmills not to reach that modest target, and the idea that there is a tradeoff between reducing emissions and electricity bills is bunkum.

The NEG itself was not what drove Abbott, Abetz, Dutton and their co-conspirators.

Rather, the threat lay in the symbolism of these proposals. Because Labor and the Greens have been advocates of strong action on climate change, any policy that looked like aligning with their agenda had to be opposed. After all, the very raison d’etre of the Liberal Party has become “to keep Labor out of office”, in the same way as one does not have to argue a case for protecting Australia from an outbreak of anthrax. Climate change policy has become a defining point of differentiation.

On a deeper level climate change is the latest manifestation of a conflict between reason and faith, a conflict that goes back to the trial of Galileo, and more recently the not entirely settled question of creationism versus evolution. Virtually the entire platform of the Liberal Party has become a matter of faith – faith that climate change isn’t happening, faith that cutting corporate taxes will promote jobs and growth, faith that Australians prefer tax cuts to public services, and faith that a Labor Government will wreck the economy and open the floodgates to refugees.

Turnbull represented what they did not want to confront.

Although the discontents had managed to put roadblocks into most of his agenda, they still wanted him out because what he represented took them way out of their comfort zone. Even though he had capitulated on many issues, just his presence was unsettling.

These issues transcended traditional left-right or progressive-conservative divides. And worse, as Australia developed along lines not in line with the Party’s far right liking, they were proven to be demonstrably wrong. Multiculturalism has succeeded without race riots or dreaded foreigners taking our jobs. Legalising same-sex marriage has not led to an outbreak of licentiousness. And South Australia’s 50 per cent renewable energy target has not led to a $100 roast.

As Heifetz points out, a time-honoured way that groups use to deal with people who raise hard issues is to expel them. He refers to the Old Testament (Leviticus 16) story of the scapegoat – the unfortunate animal chosen by the faithful to convey their sins away into the desert.

Scapegoating solves nothing because it’s simply a stopgap way to push issues out of sight for a little time. Most of the problems we should be dealing with are much harder than meeting emissions targets, because while it is reasonably easy to minimise any adverse consequences of meeting our Paris  commitments, dealing with other issues will involve many difficult adaptive changes.

The issue that is right in Morrison’s court is the economy. While some economic indicators are positive, there is a raft of economic problems that have been building up over many years of complacency and neglect. The principal medium-term problem is a taxation base that is not only inadequate to fund necessary expenditure on health, education and economic infrastructure, but that is also grossly distortionary and unfair, particularly on the young.

The longer-term and more serious challenge lies in achieving an economic structure that can rescue Australia’s present form of market capitalism from its own destructive tendencies. An economic structure that lacks strong links between contribution and reward, that distributes benefits to property speculators, financiers and rent-seekers rather than to those who contribute to the real economy, and that results in many feeling aggrieved because they have been left behind is unsustainable. Left unchecked the populist-induced outcomes are all dismal – dogmatic socialism (Venezuela), isolationist mediocrity (Britain), authoritarian dictatorship (Turkey), or crony capitalism (USA).

If the Liberal Party, held hostage to a group who reject evidence and reason, cannot deal with a problem as simple as setting a modest emission target, they are clearly unable to address these wider problems.

There remains a failure of leadership.

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