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The lawyer versus the negotiator

By Randal Stewart - posted Monday, 26 October 2015

Parliament resumes this week throwing light on the leadership struggle between the Lawyer (Turnbull) and the Negotiator (Shorten). Of course, Bill Shorten is a lawyer too. The Lawyer has the advantage of clarity but the disadvantage of not being a team player. The Negotiator has the advantage of inclusiveness but the disadvantage of not having a firm point of view. How will it play out?

Lawyers present and solve problems in lawyerly ways. They take instructions and assemble facts. They identify relevant laws or law-like frameworks, crystallise the problem(s) in legal ways and analyse their client's situation and other relevant considerations. Lawyers outline response(s) or remedies very precisely and then recommend a course of action.

Negotiators work with other parties aiming to make all parties to negotiations feel it was worthwhile and that they got something out of the negotiations, that their specific needs were satisfied. Negotiators aim to ensure that all parties leave the negotiations with their self-respect intact, that they have achieved the majority of their objectives and that they would not mind negotiating with each other again.


The last time our national political leadership struggle was The Lawyer versus The Negotiator was 1985 to 1989. Liberal Opposition Leader, John Howard, and The Lawyer challenged Labor Prime Minister Hawke, The Negotiator. Hawke is a lawyer too, of course. Hawke and Howard went on to become among the longest serving Prime Ministers in their party's history, Howard for eleven years and Hawke for eight years

However, Howard and Hawke are very different people to Turnbull and Shorten. Howard did a long apprentice ship in the Liberal Party before being elected to Parliament in 1974 serving as Treasurer from 1977 to 1983. He became Opposition leader in 1985, eleven years after entering Parliament. Turnbull, on the other hand, re-joined the Liberal Party in 2000 after a twenty-year career in journalism, law, and business. Turnbull did not do a political apprenticeship. Turnbull entered Parliament in 2004 and became Opposition Leader a mere four years later.

Hawke and Shorten share a background as union organisers and negotiators. Shorten was active in the Labor Party while at university and became AWU national secretary in 2001 at the age of thirty-four, entering Parliament in 2007. Hawke rose through the union movement to become ACTU President from 1969 until he entered Parliament in 1980. By the time, he entered Parliament; Hawke was a nationally known public figure. Shorten by contrast was unknown.

The difference between Hawke and Howard and Turnbull and Shorten in their leadership roles is that Hawke and Howard were able to disrupt their default leadership style as and when required. Hawke, The Negotiator, dropped his negotiating style when the situation called for it. For example, he did not negotiate with Chinese students in Australia during the Tiananmen Square massacre, he went on TV blubbering uncontrollably about the tragedy and offering all students immediate asylum. Contrast this with the subdued response by Shorten to the Syrian refugee crisis. Hawke disrupted his negotiated style, he rationalised, in sympathy with the Australian people, a special bond he believed he had established during his long eleven years as a very public President of the ACTU.

Howard, the Lawyer disrupted his lawyerly style to survive eleven years as Prime Minister. Howard's understanding of politics was forged during his long political apprentice ship and in his particularly brutal experience as Malcom Fraser's Treasurer. Howard's political instincts are legendary from the Tampa incident to ending fuel indexation. By contrast, the only time Malcolm Turnbull has really disrupted his lawyerly style and opted for politics is in his years as Opposition Leader when he attempted to bring down Prime Minister Rudd, so ineptly handled that Turnbull lost his leadership. When Howard failed to disrupt his lawyerly style and ignore politics, on the 'Sorry' statement, and Work choices, he failed.

Of course, the political context for Howard and Hawke is different to the current context for Turnbull and Shorten. Howard and Hawke were not operating in the manic context of the 24/7 news cycle where every move and utterance is revealed and examined on an avalanche of social media communications. Howard and Hawke had time to think through their leadership in a way not easily done by Turnbull and Shorten. Ironically, in this clever age, this lack of time for strategic leadership thinking and analysis may make them less likely to disrupt their default leadership style as required.


Ironic also, is that the unwillingness to change their default leadership style by both leaders, may mean that good policy cannot be achieved under Turnbull or Shorten. Good policy outcomes require a leadership style different to either the lawyerly style or the negotiating style. Good policy work is contextually specific not related to established frameworks as in law. To try to achieve good policy operating a legal analysis usually means you sound clear and authorative but do not win the hearts and minds of others including your own team. This happened to John Howard in the end. However, nor can good policy be achieved solely through negotiations either. The danger of this approach is that you produce a position that people can live with , a lowest common denominator decision but which no one respects and reflects lack of leadership. This happened to Bob Hawke in the end.

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About the Author

Randal Stewart is a Canberra-based consultant, trainer and author. He is co-author of the popular politics textbook Politics One.

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