LAURA TINGLE. People grumble about political leaders, but there’s a deeper malaise afoot (ABC News, 17.09.18)

Sep 24, 2018

People always grumble about political leaders. But there is a deeper malaise afoot now.

Zoom out from the daily inanity of the domestic news cycle. Zoom out even further from the point where you shake your head in disbelief at Trumpian political developments around the world or local Liberal Party madness.

Consider something a little unlikely as a sign of our leadership discontents.

Youth attracted to worlds with broken-down societies

Young people’s fiction these days comes in ever faster waves of franchises seeking to ride particular crazes: wizards, zombies, vampires or the post-apocalyptic.

In many of these books, TV series and films, the same themes recur: societies in which the rules have broken down, in which there are no people in positions of authority, or even formal leadership structures.

These are stories built on disillusionment and a suspicion of social structure — which often acts as a threat to our heroes, who invariably are just average kids.

Rugged individuals must make do, striving to stay alive, at least until the end of the book or episode.

Our young people absorb, but are also attracted to, these worlds with their broken-down societies or absent leaders.

This might be no more than a reflection of the slightly maudlin phase many of us go through as teenagers.

At first glance, an obsession with the post-apocalyptic would seem more understandable in those of us who grew up during the Cold War, rather than the second decade of the 21st century.

But the disillusionment reflected in fictional domains coincides with the global return of the strongman to politics.

And with these two conflicting trends comes a belated alarm that the world is not naturally tending to the Western democratic model that many of us smugly assumed had triumphed and become irresistible at the end of the Cold War.

We need a more sophisticated discussion about leaders

It is just too easy to say our current leaders aren’t up to scratch (even if they aren’t).

We need to have a more sophisticated discussion about what they might lack and how we judge what they need to give us.

But instead, when our young people look back at the real world, they see a deep cynicism about political leaders but also an unhealthy obsession; and a focus not so much on what they might have achieved for their communities, but merely on their personal traits.

In Australia, for example, the recent debate about Adani’s controversial proposed coalmine in Central Queensland descended at one point into a discussion of Bill Shorten’s personality and honesty, rather than the merits or risks of the massive project.

It became a discussion of the different messages Mr Shorten sent to different audiences and what this told us about his character.

Similarly, Malcolm Turnbull’s prime ministership was overwhelmingly considered in light of his personal qualities and life story, with little regard given to the circumstances that constrained or shaped his day-to-day political management, let alone that the prime ministership is but one dynamic in a larger play of political forces.

Mr Turnbull’s fractious and self-indulgent Coalition partners in the Nationals, the reckless wrecking of Tony Abbott — we just wanted the prime minister to make these things go away, or to govern as if they don’t exist, just as we expected the same thing of Julia Gillard when it came to the realities of minority government.

Turnbull destroyed by those wanting to achieve their ends

Self-indulgence on a grand scale is a relatively recent thing in Australian federal politics.

Of course, individuals have long blundered through the narrative from Canberra, causing chaos for the government or opposition of the day, and providing colourful copy for journalists.

From Jim Cairns and his “kind of love” for Junie Morosi, to Barnaby Joyce and his victimhood view of his imploding personal life, there has always been something colourful to watch in federal politics.

But until the past 10 years, politicians largely acted on the understanding that their individual actions ultimately had to take into account the good of the party and the survival of the government.

Not anymore.

The tearing down of Mr Turnbull’s prime ministership has been perhaps the most incomprehensible example of this.

Mr Turnbull was destroyed by people in the Liberal Party who, whatever they said about trying to save the Government, were actually prepared to lose it to achieve their ends.

Impediments treated as a sign of leader’s weakness

Labor has had its own waves of self-indulgence, notably in the vengeful form of Kevin Rudd.

Though he was himself a victim of the factions, his downfall as prime minister followed a very short period of disloyalty, which stands in stark contrast to his own relentless undermining of his colleagues.

Ms Gillard as prime minister had the smallest of circle of ministers on which to rely in government, with Mr Rudd and his colleagues constantly circling.

It’s not a question of feeling sorry for Mr Turnbull or Ms Gillard, but of understanding that a lack of internal discipline and room to manoeuvre circumscribes what leaders can do before they even get out of bed in the morning.

Instead of such problems being recognised as impediments that have to be dealt with, they tend to be treated as not just the leader’s own fault, but also a sign of weakness.

Thus, even as the Nationals and the conservative rump of the Liberal Party provide the daily colour and debacle of today’s episode of The Young and the Restless, the trend is still to focus on the leaders, rather than those around them.

The discussion becomes a one- or two-man play under a single spotlight, instead of a chaotic musical where the whole stage is lit to reveal an all-star cast, an unruly chorus and a Wagnerian-sized orchestra.

How likely is it that we will understand what is really driving events when we view them this way?

Media player: “Space” to play, “M” to mute, “left” and “right” to seek.

It is a leader who succeeds or fails alone

Until relatively recently, the idea of collective cabinet government set the frame for federal politics in Australia.

Prime ministers may always have been first among equals, but the discussion was about how the prime minister wrangled the views of his colleagues, or led them to a particular view, as the first best exemplar of wider consensus-building.

Alternatively, the narrative may have been about the tussle of a particular minister to sway his or her colleagues, or a battle among ministers for policy supremacy.

But now it is a leader who succeeds or fails alone.

Yet, in Australia at least, the evolving structures of our government — particularly the complexities of federation — have reached a point where it is simply not possible for any one person to bring about a dramatic change in complex national policy (if it ever was), no matter how persuasive an advocate they might be, or how clever they show themselves to be at manipulating the system.

It’s not that dramatic change isn’t possible. It’s not that we ultimately don’t need someone to set a direction.

It’s just that any sort of transformation requires not only that a leader master the mechanics of two levels of government and the circumstances of the day, but also that the rest of us have a clear-eyed understanding of all the factors a leader must manipulate in order to bring about that change — so that we can decide whether we will follow, and what we really think of the person leading us.

Complex change, involving several levels of government and a multitude of political interests, requires more political time and space than we seem prepared to give our leaders these days.

A rejection of strongman tactics?

But it is not just we who are experiencing these symptoms of paralysis.

There was much of the appeal of the “would-be strongman” in the election of Mr Abbott in 2013.

Having fomented an air of chaos, weakness and dysfunction around the man he deposed as Liberal leader, and then around the Rudd and Gillard governments, Mr Abbott promised voters he would lead a government that would be “back in charge”.

Issues that had seemed to run out of control, not just of government but of voters, would be put back in their box: “boat people”; the “carbon tax” he argued the government wanted to introduce; national debt; expensive government projects; red tape.

Australia voted primarily for an end to the sense of chaos around the Labor government, but never quite embraced Mr Abbott’s strongman tactics in office, particularly when they were turned against voters themselves in the punitive 2014 budget.

Mr Turnbull’s return to the Liberal leadership in 2015 could be seen as a rejection of the strongman, even if there was a yearning that he should shift politics back to some central place from which it had been dislodged by Mr Abbott.

Voters’ frustration with Mr Turnbull was not primarily over policy paralysis but because of a lack of any clear policy at all, or at least of the sort of policies many thought he would introduce.

It was not complicated rules that thwarted Mr Turnbull, nor a community-wide “vetocracy”, but a “vetocracy” within his own parliamentary party.

Mr Turnbull’s inability to wrangle these internal political forces — or perhaps his refusal to ostentatiously stare them down — left voters frustrated and ate away at his authority.

The leadership challenge from Peter Dutton only highlighted all these trends: the self-indulgence; the lack of any commitment to collective responsibility; the complexity of policy issues; polarised and divided electorates; the slow undermining of prime ministerial authority.

And, ominously, it pointed to the prospect of another tilt to the right, to populism and to strongman politics.

Finding a way to deal with these trends, something that eluded Mr Turnbull, was the real task facing Scott Morrison when he became prime minister last month.

Laura Tingle is 7.30’s chief political correspondent.  This article first appeared on ABC News

This is an edited extract of her Quarterly Essay 71, Follow the Leader: Democracy and the Rise of the Strongman, out today.


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