Like what you've read?

On Line Opinion is the only Australian site where you get all sides of the story. We don't
charge, but we need your support. Here�s how you can help.

  • Advertise

    We have a monthly audience of 70,000 and advertising packages from $200 a month.

  • Volunteer

    We always need commissioning editors and sub-editors.

  • Contribute

    Got something to say? Submit an essay.

 The National Forum   Donate   Your Account   On Line Opinion   Forum   Blogs   Polling   About   
On Line Opinion logo ON LINE OPINION - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate


On Line Opinion is a not-for-profit publication and relies on the generosity of its sponsors, editors and contributors. If you would like to help, contact us.


RSS 2.0

Howard's future: a question of leadership

By Stephen Barton - posted Thursday, 15 August 2002

With Howard’s sixty-third birthday, speculation over Peter Costello’s leadership aspirations have re-surfaced and intensified. Whether this is a symptom of boredom in the media, a desire to see Howard go, or insightful journalism, only time will tell. The speculation does, however, reveal the media’s preoccupation with ‘leadership’.

Political scientist Jean Blondel observed that people in Western liberal democracies view ‘great leaders’ as a thing of the past. Certainly there does appear to be an attitude of "they don’t make ‘em like they used to". There are no more, the argument goes, Churchills, Roosevelts, Kennedys or Lloyd Georges, and in the Australian context perhaps no more Curtins or Menzieses. It is hardly surprising. There is an almost ‘end of history’ ennui about politics; there are no more great dictators (Saddam Hussein’s days seem numbered) or great wars, and no more depressions. September 11 not withstanding, the challenges seem all the more complex and yet all the more mundane. Coupled with this is the dramatic growth of the media; leaders are under increased levels of scrutiny. They are more familiar, less distant, and ultimately more human; witness Bill Clinton.

Despite this lost ‘golden age’ of heroes, or perhaps more accurately because of it, the notion of political leadership excites a considerable degree of attention in Australia’s media. Scarcely a week goes by without an opinion maker, usually someone like Robert Manne or Hugh Mackay, calling on some political leader somewhere, usually the Prime Minister, to display political leadership. All too often it seems that when community and interest groups, journalists and commentators demand political leadership, in reality they wish to see office holders display an uncompromising stance in the pursuit of policies they find agreeable. Those who pursue policies that they find disagreeable lack political leadership and are either poll-driven or pandering to One Nation, or the supposed innate xenophobia of the Australia electorate.


Supporters of one brand of reconciliation with Australia’s Aborigines claim that the Prime Minister lacks political leadership because he refuses to say ‘sorry.’ The argument follows that the Prime Minister lacks leadership because he refuses to support the republic, heroin trials or any number of fashionable causes. Leadership is reduced to a ‘buzzword’, a question of perspective and opinion, pop psychology and spin.

Leadership must extend to something beyond mere 30second sound bites, opinion polls and opinion pieces. It can be deeply subjective, and leaders are mistakenly judged by the virtue of their intended goals and the nature of their promises, rather than their delivery. Judging a leader by image and style is akin to placing a cardboard cut out of a leader on an overhead projector and judging their size by the projection. Gough Whitlam and Paul Keating are the chief beneficiaries of this approach. This is a flawed analysis of political leadership to say the least.

Leaders set goals and set out to achieve them. They attempt to change, renew, restore, or dismantle elements of their society, but in liberal democracies this is on a small scale. Liberal democracies are about good government and good public policy; office holders are administrators and managers, and we must judge them as such. Successful political leadership in a liberal democracy hinges upon the achievement of goals, doing what was promised, not the promises. Visions of New Jerusalem, or a Great Society, are well and good, but to display successful political leadership a leader must achieve these goals. Furthermore, while visions of New Jerusalem, or rather New Australia, may warm the hearts of some intellectual elites (who are sometimes neither intellectual nor elite), it is far too melodramatic for the humdrum of public policy.

Many influential commentators do not share John Howard’s policy agenda, or vision, for Australia. This is nothing knew, indeed it is probably healthy for a liberal democracy, but to say Howard lacks leadership and wants nothing more than to ‘wind the clock back to the 1950s’, and to wax lyrical about Keating and his ‘big picture’, misses the point. Howard’s leadership must be assessed by the delivery of what he promised, not by what others think he should promise. He said he would deliver tax reform, and, overcoming constraints in the Senate, he did. Howard also promised to increase the flexibility of labour relations in Australia, and under successive Ministers, this rolling agenda is achieving results. Howard wanted to reform the social security system, and the work for the dole programme epitomises those changes.

If we are to examine political leadership we would be far better served to dismiss grandiose visions and ‘big pictures’, and judge leadership qualities by the actual delivery of what was promised. Successful politics leaders are those that can deploy their institutional powers, overcoming economic or social constraints, and achieve their goals. It is the achievement of their goals that matters if we are serious about assessing political leadership, not inspirational speeches to the party faithful, adoring biographies, heroic images, opinion polls and spin doctoring.

  1. Pages:
  2. Page 1
  3. All

Discuss in our Forums

See what other readers are saying about this article!

Click here to read & post comments.

Share this:
reddit this reddit thisbookmark with Del.icio.usdigg thisseed newsvineSeed NewsvineStumbleUpon StumbleUponsubmit to propellerkwoff it

About the Author

Stephen Barton teaches politics at Edith Cowan University and has been a political staffer at both a state and federal level. The views expressed here are his own.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Stephen Barton
Related Links
John Howard's home page
Photo of Stephen Barton
Article Tools
Comment Comments
Print Printable version
Subscribe Subscribe
Email Email a friend

About Us Search Discuss Feedback Legals Privacy