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Australian political leadership since Menzies

By Alastair Nicholson - posted Friday, 4 November 2011

An essential quality of a leader whether good or bad is the ability to inspire and convince others that they are suitable to lead. What are the additional attributes of a good leader?

I consider that they should have sound principles, integrity and importantly, objectives that are morally and ethically sound. The manner in which the objectives are achieved is as important as the objectives themselves, because if they are dubious it will defeat or detract from the value of the achievement.

They also require courage, audacity, common sense, intelligence, a capacity for hard work and a preparedness to act and stand upon issues of principal regardless of how unpopular they may be.


Qualities of empathy and humility are often forgotten in assessing leadership, but really great leaders never forget or fail to understand the effects of their decisions upon others and to consider their position. Similarly they are conscious of their own humanity and shortcomings.

I think that former US President Truman put it well when he said:“Men make history and not the other way around. In periods where there is no leadership, society stands still. Progress occurs when courageous skilful leaders seize the opportunity to change things for the better.”

The failure to observe human rights norms in decision making is a classic failure of leadership that we have seen in the US and Australia in recent times.

In Australia there was in the past, an unwritten consensus between the major parties to avoid racism and discrimination, even though it might yield political advantage. Similar considerations applied to the targeting of minorities and dog whistling. In recent times this consensus has been broken, largely on the conservative side and human rights have been ignored.

Good political leadership is one of the most important attributes of any democracy and it is instructive to observe the decline of Australian political leadership since the Menzies era and in particular the lack of adherence to principle.

Most of Menzies early successors were poor leaders and some, but not all were unprincipled.  Significant achievements of Harold Holt were the abandonment of the White Australia Policy and the successful 1967 referendum on Aboriginal issues. Unfortunately, these achievements were overshadowed by the disaster of Vietnam, supported by all relevant Liberal leaders at this time, with its associated sycophancy to the USA.


The most outstanding leader of that time was Whitlam. He was hard working, articulate and as Opposition Leader developed an extensive series of innovative policies He was an imposing figure and a good speaker who had the ability to persuade people to follow him. He showed great courage in tackling the encrusted controllers of the ALP, particularly in Victoria and achieved a significant transformation of his party.

As PM he had his faults but his Government ushered in a raft of reforms that significantly affected Australia for the better. He pioneered the role of the Federal Government in Indigenous affairs, his Government passed the Racial Discrimination Act and there were other outstanding initiatives including the introduction of equal pay for women, to name but a few. He was not frightened to take risks to achieve his objects and in his nineties remains an iconic figure in Australia.

His successor Fraser also proved to be a good leader. He was principled, determined and forceful. He was undoubtedly the best Liberal leader since Menzies and stands head and shoulders above his successors.

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About the Author

The Honourable Alastair Nicholson AO, RFD, QC is the Former Chief Justice of the Family Court of Australia. He is an Honorary Professorial Fellow at the Department of Criminology, University of Melbourne.

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