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Of leaders and leadership

April 3, 2013

By Barry Tucker

Should Australia change its one leader political system?

Should the fate of any political party be tied to the personality and fate of its leader?

Shouldn’t the focus be on policies rather than personalities?

Are we getting too close to the US Presidential system?

Is our increasingly US style campaigning and leadership preparing us for a Republic?

These are some of the questions I ask myself as we limp towards another formal federal election campaign, weary from the brawling of the past three years. Depending on the outcome, we may be heading into another round of dismantling one set of policies and installing another – a disruptive practice with widespread effects.

But I want to focus on leaders, and leadership.

I have seen political leaders from both sides of our Duopoly rise and fall largely due to their personality, their individual style of leadership. When they rise the rest of the talent in their party remains largely hidden. When they fall, the entire party can go down with them – for a while, at least.

I could name names but you might not agree and I might miss someone. I’ll try to stick to principles instead.

A major item that bugs me about our political system is the way the country’s Prime Minister is elected (the same system applies to the State Premiers and the Territories’ Chief Ministers). The people do not elect their primary leaders, at least not directly. This is the main reason why I refer to Australia’s democracy as a Clayton’s Democracy (the democracy you have when you’re not having a democracy). As you know (but I have to spell it out for those who don’t), the political parties elect their leader, the leader then leads the election campaign, the winning party confirms its leader as Prime Minister, Premier or First Minister. The voters in the party leader’s electorate in effect elect the Prime Minister. The electors in the remainder of the country have some idea who the Prime Minister will be, although they cannot vote for her, or him, directly.

Sometimes there is a change of leadership spill, which we fondly refer to as a “knifing”, and we have seen a few of those recently, on both sides of the fence. When this happens the voters are left scratching their heads because the lead-up to it may not have been thoroughly or accurately reported or, in the case of the Northern Territory recently, may not have been reported at all. In these cases the Prime Minister is changed and the vote was won by the stronger of two or more factions — which comes down to a much smaller portion of the voters who indirectly elected the leader in the first place. Is this a diminishing of the democratic process?

There are other reasons why I think we have a Clayton’s Democracy but they are not directly relevant to this article.

I suppose a single leader is the only practical form of leadership. But I can think immediately of examples of alternatives that seem to work. In the UK at present there is a national government led by the leaders of two parties, although only one of them is the Prime Minister, of course. A similar situation applies in Australia when the Liberal National Party Coalition is in power.

The alternatives to one leader are either no leader or several leaders, which can only mean leaderless chaos or leadership by committee – which doesn’t necessarily lead to chaos. I can’t think of an example that I have any worthwhile information about, but “People’s Consultative Council” sounds familiar.

I’ll have to break my rule above and talk about our most recent crop of leaders. A second leader emerges and gets a chance to show what they are made of when the primary leader is overseas or inconvenienced. This is how we got to see our present Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, perform as Acting Prime Minister. I was impressed by what I saw and picked Ms Gillard as the most likely candidate to become Australia’s first female PM.

She was, of course, the only likely candidate to fill that historic role at the time. If the Liberal or National Party had been led by women the possibilities would have been potentially different. The Parliamentary Liberal Party created the sworn position of Deputy Prime Minister in January 1968, when it awarded the title to the then long-serving leader of the Country Party (since renamed National Party) John McEwen (later Sir John).

If the Liberal National Party Coalition wins the 14 September federal election Tony Abbott will become Prime Minister, Julie Bishop probably will remain the party’s Deputy Leader but the Deputy Prime Minister will be Parliamentary National Party Leader Warren Truss.

The Parliamentary National Party’s Deputy Leader is Barnaby Joyce, a colourful and interesting character. Senator Joyce has abandoned his Senator’s place to have a crack at the New South Wales seat of Independent Tony Windsor. The popular and wise Mr Windsor holds his seat with a whopping margin, but some of our biased and bigoted news media say he can’t possibly hang on to it (did someone just whisper “opinion moulding”?).

That particular leadership and popularity contest is interesting for two reasons. 1) There’s a remote possibility it could give Barnaby Joyce a seat in the Lower House, which he needs to become Leader of the Parliamentary National Party (PNP). When that happens it will be as the result of Mr Truss retiring. Mr Joyce has said he will not challenge Mr Truss. 2) If Mr Joyce becomes Leader of the PNP, he will also become Deputy Prime Minister in a Coalition government and, at some stage, Acting Prime Minister. A lot of people are anxious to see how he will perform, for a variety of reasons. For my part, Mr Joyce is an advocate of regional and infrastructure development and an opponent of the big two supermarkets and I support him in those endeavours (although he seems to be unable to abide Labor party supporters).

In the above we have the germ of an idea, a description of the present system, a view of a possible future, a faint description of a few characters and the terms personality and leadership.

I doubt if the Australian people would seriously consider any radical change or reform of our political system. For one thing, it works so far as they know or care. For another, most of them are too pampered and well-fed to care any more than they do, with little to no interest in policies, no patience for an election campaign every three years and they see polling day as a damned inconvenience.

Personalities are another thing. It is a disaster that Australian politics seems to have become centred on issues of personality. I think only a relative handful of people could produce a detailed analysis of any given policy, say exactly what’s good or bad about it, and why, and come up with a thoroughly good alternative. But mention the name of any politician and you will cop an earful, most of it bad and based on hearsay, rumour, bigotry and impressions garnered from the biased news media.

Television (which Bob Menzies didn’t want and which allowed Gough Whitlam to break through a stalemate for Labor) gives us all the chance to take a closer look at our politicians. It should be used more to allow us to look more closely at our candidates before we have to vote for them. And we need to put more of the Ministers, Shadow Ministers and backbenchers in the spotlight more often.

For this to happen, our thoughts about the role of the leader have to change. The burden of leadership can be shared without the authority of the leader being challenged. I’m sure our present federal Labor government has been doing this to a greater degree than any previous government. It has its dangers, as we saw with the tussles between a very popular Labor Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, and his ambitious deputy and Treasurer, Paul Keating. We are seeing a similar thing today in the public announcements of former Regional Development Minister Simon Crean in regard to changes to taxation on superannuation. Mr Crean, sacked for initiating a leadership challenge, is now a backbencher but is also a highly experienced politician and an elder statesman – he is surely entitled to his opinions and this one is solidly based on his socialist beliefs.

As I’ve written in another blog, Australians are heading into a vital election. As usual, most of the candidates are unknowns to most of the people – not just the ones who have to vote for one of them. I’m not sure this is a good thing for a supposedly open democracy. Given the internal struggles that go on, some of those candidates could suddenly be thrust forward and we begin to see them for the first time.

The other main branch of the mainstream news media (MSM), the newspapers, have so far played a shameful role in informing the public in the lead-up to the 14 September vote. In fact, they have done a first-rate job of misinforming the voters by distorting news coverage, by focussing on one leader (the Prime Minister) in a negative way and by treating the Opposition Leader (Tony Abbott) as a celebrity. As a result we know everything about Labor’s shortcomings (there have been many) and very little about its achievements (some have been spectacular). While the news media generally has been busy attacking the Prime Minister personally and her government’s policies and stuff-ups it has not been giving its audience a decent appraisal of Mr Abbott and the policies of the Liberal Party or its coalition partner. The voters need this information to be presented in an impartial way so that they can make an informed decision.

Because of the news media’s approach, the widespread opinion seems to be that we are about to swap a government that has produced some worthwhile results, including a healthy economy, for one that we know very little about, unless you want to dig up the ghosts of the John Howard government of some years past.

Might I suggest as you consider who to vote for in September that you give your first preference to the candidate who swears to cure the deplorable sickness in our news media, and that if they don’t live up to their promise you kick them out at the first opportunity?

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