Leadership. One of the most important words in Australian politics is also one of the most misused. What does it mean to exercise leadership? And how does understanding leadership help us to gauge John Howard and Mark Latham?
According to the typical business text, leadership is about influencing, persuading and mobilising others to follow your goals. Successful leadership requires a modicum of strategy, and a pinch of charisma, or what Austin Powers would call "mojo". Leadership of this type is value-free. Bill Clinton and Adolf Hitler had vastly different philosophies, but both were highly charismatic and succeeded in influencing others to follow them.
John Howard's critics have often sneered at his lack of charisma. Working a room, Howard lacks the magnetism that characterised Bob Hawke's prime ministership, or the soaring oratory that Alfred Deakin, Robert Menzies and Paul Keating so relished. Yet if we are to measure Howard solely on his ability to influence the electorate, he must be counted as a success.
As political scientist Murray Goot has pointed out, the characterisation of Howard as a poll-follower is mistaken. On issues that mattered to him - the privatisation of Telstra in 1996, the GST in 1998, the republic in 1999, and the war in Iraq in 2003 - Howard took a stance at odds with public opinion and set about persuading the electorate.
Howard's persuasive skill is reflected in results from the Australian Election Study. When first elected in 1996, 54 per cent of the population thought that Howard provided strong leadership. By 2001, this figure had risen to 72 per cent. Yet persuasive prowess is not synonymous with honesty: over the same period, the fraction of people who agreed that Howard was honest fell from 74 per cent to 55 per cent. It seems that the more people believe Howard is a strong leader, the fewer believe that he is honest.
What do we know about Latham's skills of persuasion and influence? While it is more difficult to judge an Opposition leader than a prime minister, three pieces of evidence are relevant. First, despite most pundits predicting that the Labor caucus would select Kim Beazley as leader on December 2, 2003, Latham was able to persuade a majority of his colleagues that he would do a better job. Second, he then managed to dominate the political news agenda for several months - presenting Labor's policies in a compellingly straightforward manner. Yet against this should be set the published views of how a Latham cabinet might operate. When Latham biographer Barry Donovan asked Simon Crean whether it was true that Latham sometimes turned up to shadow cabinet 10 minutes late, saying "I'm going to do this", Crean agreed. It appears that Latham's powers of persuasion may not extend to all members of his shadow cabinet.
The bottom line? On the traditional definition of leadership - influencing others to follow you - Howard is probably the better leader, with a proven track record of moulding his party in his own image and convincing the nation to support him at several critical moments. Yet in Sunday night's debate, Latham "wormed" his way to victory - indicating that if he is to win on October 9, he too may be able to transform his party and persuade the nation to adopt his agenda for change.
A more challenging form of leadership is creating the conditions in which people can come up with their own solutions to difficult problems. Harvard University's Ronald Heifetz argues that leadership should not be viewed as influence at all, but rather as providing an opportunity for a group to tackle a difficult problem. What Heifetz calls "adaptive leadership" can only take place when people delve down to the root of a problem, rather than merely dealing with its symptoms. Eschewing easy answers, adaptive leadership requires that people take ownership of a problem, and devise a solution themselves.
So far, the 2004 election campaign has been narrowly focused - fought over a suite of hip-pocket issues that would have been familiar to voters 20 years ago: Medicare and taxation, welfare and private school funding.
This has left precious little space for the parties to debate fundamental questions of national identity. Aboriginal reconciliation, for example, is one of the most difficult issues facing the nation today, and a natural opportunity for a leader to put adaptive leadership into practice. Seven years after the Reconciliation Convention, and four years after the Sydney Harbour Bridge walk, reconciliation seems to have lost its way. Part of the reason for this was Howard's preference for "practical reconciliation", with its emphasis on improving the living standards of indigenous Australians; and the downplaying of interpersonal reconciliation, which seeks to change the relationships between indigenous and non-indigenous people.
At certain moments of his prime ministership, Howard has displayed adaptive leadership. His 1999 Regional Australia Summit encouraged local leaders to find local solutions to reinvigorate the bush, rather than looking to Canberra for additional assistance. As the Deputy Prime Minister said in his closing address, securing the future of the bush should be guided by the philosophy "that we do things best when we do things from the bottom up and from the inside out". Likewise, Howard's Stronger Families and Communities Strategy is aimed at giving communities "the power to develop their own solutions to local problems and helps them help themselves". Yet in other areas, the Howard Government has tended to operate from the centre, instead of turning difficult problems back to the communities themselves.
We know less of Latham's ability to employ adaptive leadership, but his emphasis on community-driven solutions offers some reason to believe that he might be willing to encourage local groups to solve their own problems. In his 1998 book Civilising Global Capital, he wrote that "social democracy needs to give closer consideration to the relations between citizens rather than simply working from the assumption that all social issues can be resolved in the state-to-citizen relationship".
A third form of leadership is policy entrepreneurship - the willingness to engage the public in debate about where the nation should be in 20 years, and pursue new and innovative solutions to policy problems. In Looking for Leadership: Australia in the Howard Years (2001), Donald Horne argues that over the past 30 years, Australia has never had a leader who can communicate on matters of economic policy as effectively as Franklin Roosevelt did with Americans during the Great Depression. If the people running Australia rust up, Horne argues, Australia will rust up.