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No role for the droverís dog: the contemporary emphasis on leadership

By Rae Wear - posted Monday, 7 November 2011


After being replaced as ALP leader in 1983 by Bob Hawke, Bill Haydon made his famous observation that "a drover's dog could lead the Labor Party to victory at the present time."

With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that this was a significant point in Australian politics. Haydon was looking back to an era where the personalities of party leaders didn't matter a great deal in electoral competitions - when 'a drover's dog' may indeed have led a party to victory against a government whose time was up.

Hawke's success pointed in the other direction: To an era where leadership would increasingly take the place of parties and traditional ideologies and to a situation where a once popular leader would be replaced if the polls indicated declining popular support.

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We are now in a situation where we would do well to curb our expectations of leaders and focus instead on regenerating other political institutions.

For much of the twentieth century, political parties and their ideologies meant something to voters. Their programs broadly reflected the interests of their supporters, be they the working class, middle class or farmers. Most voters had a long-term attachment to one of the major parties and voted accordingly. Many belonged to a political party.

This has changed dramatically. Party membership is in perilous decline, party loyalties have been eroded and there are few ideological differences between the major parties. In this context, leadership and a passing parade of issues have filled the vacuum left by the decline in the parties. Electoral contests are now personalised as leadership struggles.

For many voters, Julia Gillard's supplanting of Kevin Rudd was deemed to be illegitimate because "they hadn't voted for her." For these Australians at least, elections are a presidential style competition between leaders rather than a contest between parties for control of the Lower House.

The personalisation of politics can be seen clearly in the contest between Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott. As many commentators have observed, the ideological gap between the two is small. Both of their parties face similar membership decline and have fewer rusted on supporters. Yet the competition between them and their followers is the most personal in Australia's history.

This is undoubtedly aided by the increased use of opinion polling by the media and political parties, and by the opportunities presented by new interactive media. These developments give greater weight to the views of ordinary people unmediated by political parties. Citizens are regularly polled for their opinions on a myriad of issues and new media allow ordinary voters to comment on political stories, sign petitions, or be recruited for political demonstrations and activities that have nothing to do with the party system. Major interests also regularly try to recruit voters to their side in their quest to reshape government policy to their own advantage.

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This highly personalised political sphere provides the perfect environment for populist politics. Some leaders such John Howard and Tony Blair, for a time, skilfully managed this new environment. Because party ties have weakened, both prime ministers were able to appeal to 'the ordinary people' across the traditional party divide. The leaders, rather than their parties, were seen to represent voters' interests.

Both Blair and Howard attracted supporters away from their rivals. Howard won the votes of blue-collar workers and appropriated many of the symbols associated with Labor. Populist leadership of this kind, however, marginalises those whose interests are not aligned with 'the people' and often fails to protect individual and minority rights.

It is a politics of resentment that fosters a kind of righteous anger on the part of the people towards various 'out' groups be they refugees or inner city latte sippers. Both Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott fan the flames of discontent by empathising with people over their exaggerated fears of asylum seekers or financial ruin.

Highly personalised and populist politics downplays the role of institutions in protecting rights and in making government accountable. In an extreme form, it can lead to a belief among followers that all problems will be solved when 'their' leader 'gets in.'

This was particularly evident among the followers of Pauline Hanson at her peak. Many of them appeared to believe that if only Hanson could lead Australia, then difficult policy and political issues would disappear. Some of Julia Gillard's opponents appear to think along similar lines - if only she were to be removed, their problems would vanish. Perhaps some in the Labor Party believe the same thing. Tony Abbott also seems to be operating on the assumption that crossing the finishing line means the end of the race, rather than the beginning.

There are dangers in our obsession with leadership because it masks the transformations that are occurring in many of our political institutions, such as parties and the media. It is unlikely that we can go back to the point where a drover's dog could possibly lead a party to victory. We do need, however, to reflect on what these changes to our party system and the mass media mean for our democracy and what we need to do about them.

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About the Author

Dr Rae Wear is a Senior Lecturer in Political Science at the University of Queensland.

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