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.