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Leadership is a balancing act

By Norman Abjorensen - posted Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Leadership is already a key theme in this election campaign, and all indications suggest that it will remain so: the incumbent trumpeting his experience, the challenger spruiking his credentials.

But political leadership in a democracy remains a paradox: quite extraordinary people by the nature of their calling seeking to convince the electorate of their ordinariness (as we saw in John Howard’s opening of his private life to the Nine network).

They are not ordinary people despite their protestations to the contrary. They are members of an elite warrior class to whom, by and large, ordinary standards are not applicable. By the time someone gets to their position, they are battle hardened in a way that few of us can ever appreciate - having fought for and won pre-selection, election to parliament, promotion through the ranks and elimination of rivals to reach the top of a very greasy and strongly contested totem pole.


John Howard has made a virtue of his apparent ordinariness, but a reading of the fascinating Errington-van Onselen biography reveals a different picture. He is a character who has doggedly pursued political ambition rather than lived a life: a figure who is all politician and little else.

Kevin Rudd is eerily similar. That tightly coiled persona, that ever so controlled mouth, that carefully measured phrase, bespeak ambition of a high order: a ruthless determination to reach the top whatever sacrifice of the self that that involves.

But are Howard and Rudd appreciably different in this regard from their predecessors - especially those who have won the ultimate political prize, the prime ministership?

Australians have a generally ambivalent attitude to political leaders: we like them to be like us, but not quite.

Some, of course, never really played the “like me, like me” game. Robert Menzies (1949-66), aloof and sure of his own superiority, had no need to feign ordinariness and, indeed, he reveled in its very opposite. It worked.

Gough Whitlam (1972-75) displayed a similar disregard for the popularity stakes. A cerebral man, an educated man whose humour ranged from the vulgar to Latin witticisms, he was Olympian in manner: uninterested in sport, devoid of small talk: a man intellectually remote from, though not necessarily out of touch with, the average Australian. He also saw no reason to pretend otherwise.


And no-one could ever accuse Malcolm Fraser (1975-83) of playing to the grandstand.  Aloof and reserved, he was respected (even feared) - but never liked. A shy man, he was memorably described by a colleague as confusing command with leadership. His relationship with both colleagues and the electorate was distant.

John Gorton (1968-71), on the other hand, was a most unorthodox political leader; a bloke’s bloke as well as a ladies’ man who liked a beer and a night out - the very qualities that endeared him to voters while simultaneously making enemies in his own ranks. But behind Gorton’s apparent ordinariness was a complex contrariness, not to mention a moneyed background.

Of our prime ministers in recent times we probably have to reach back to Labor’s Ben Chifley (1946-49) for a leader who was quite unself-consciously one of us - a man with such good grace and common decency that when a housewife dialled his direct line in Canberra instead of the butcher’s, he took down her weekend meat order and phoned it through to the butcher.

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About the Author

Dr Norman Abjorensen, a Visiting Fellow in the School of Social Sciences at the ANU, is author of Leadership and the Liberal Revival: Bolte, Askin and the Post-war Ascendancy, published next month by Australian Scholarly Publishing.

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