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Politicians: the epitome of bland

By John Töns - posted Thursday, 16 July 2009

In South Australia the Liberal Party has just elected its third leader in as many years. In the lead up to the ballot there was much discussion as to which of the three candidates would make the better leader, but few asked the question whether or not there was anyone in State Parliament who was worthy to lead their party, let alone be premier. Reflecting further I cast my eyes beyond the state and asked the question: where are our political leaders?

This is not an exercise in partisan politics. Rather it is an attempt to ask the question whether or not the very nature of political life is such that it frustrates the chances of any genuine leader taking charge of his or her party; and whether or not we are so jaded and dulled that people who are able to make a real contribution to political life are bound to fail to win sufficient support to form a government.

So what are the characteristics of political leadership?


Ideally a political leader is one who can communicate a new vision for the future, inspire the nation or state with that vision and has the expertise to implement that vision. I suspect the reason that we do not appear to have people with those qualities is that we have embraced the politics of safety first.

If we are perfectly honest with ourselves we would acknowledge that most of us are uncomfortable with visionaries. We do not wish to be shaken out of our comfort zone, it is much easier if we can stick our heads under the blankets and hope that tomorrow will be very much like today - change is threatening and politicians who remind us of ways things could be done better are also telling us that we are not living in the best possible world and that changes need to be made. So year after year we play safety first and elect these dark suits, these colourless, uninspiring people. When a leadership challenge is in the offing more often than not victory will go to whoever is the blandest.

Yet when they retire these self same people more often than not become a revelation: for the first time they show us what contributions they could have made. Many of these politicians who were the epitome of bland become the sort of people who would have made great premiers and prime ministers. We hear them suggest visionary ideas so solve problems that beset the nation or the state; they throw themselves in public life and begin to make a contribution that one can only wish they had made while still in politics. Meanwhile their places have been taken by a new generation of faceless, unimaginative people whose only ambition is to win government, and having won to not do anything that might place their government in jeopardy.

The Rudd Government is a prime example. What exactly has been achieved?

We have had the apology to Indigenous Australians, of which we can all be justly proud, but has anything been done to improve the quality of life for Indigenous Australians? Will we find ourselves in a situation that in 30 years time we will have another sorry speech - sorry that many of the descendents of the original inhabitants of this country continue to live in abject poverty?

We have signed the Kyoto Protocol: at last, we all thought, a government that takes climate change seriously. Only to find that the response is to introduce legislation that will reward the polluters and do precious little to reduce our emissions.


We have had talk, lots of it, on the Murray/Darling, the health system, fuel prices, grocery prices, education, employment conditions and so on. But what has actually been achieved?

The really sad feature of all this is that there is no evidence the opposition would do any better.

No doubt should Kevin Rudd leave parliament we will discover that he actually does have some really good ideas about what we could do about the various challenges facing this country. Similarly when Peter Costello finally leaves politics we will no doubt find that he has some really good ideas. Like Gareth Evans, Tim Fischer, Fred Chaney, Malcolm Fraser before them they will show us a side of themselves that we can only wish had been more prominent when they were in a position when they could have done something.

It is easy for us to blame the politicians but in reality we have to ask the question: is it the nature of our political system that stifles any chances that a genuinely inspiring leader will emerge?

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About the Author

John Töns is President of the Zero Carbon Network a network established to promote clear thinking about the issues associated with climate change. In addition to operating the only zero carbon boarding kennels in South Australia he is also completing a PhD at Flinders University in the area of Global Justice. John is a founding member of a new political party Stop Population Growth Now.

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