Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

'Strong' leadership misses the mark


Campbell Newman with 'Strong' slogan backgroundThe recent Coalition leadership storm was full of sound and fury.  It signified both more and less than appeared. Less, because the lament from many business and media figures that Australia had squandered the opportunity to fix its economy was trivial and self-serving. 

And more, because the turmoil revealed a deeper cause for concern. The priority that culture and politics give to individual will and power over reason and community ultimately cripples good politics.

The focus on power can be seen in the emphasis on the leader, and in the association of leadership with strength and power. The country is thought to be in good hands when it is ruled by a strong-willed leader who is effective in pushing through his chosen policies. All leaders enter office with high hopes of being this chosen one. 

This focus on will and power is also reflected in culture, with its emphasis on the freedom of the individual to choose, not only what to do, but who to be, and on the insistence on being economically competitive. People’s worth is created by the choices they make as competitive individuals. The defining mark of citizens is the choice they make between candidates and parties at elections. This choice is usually presented as the choice between leaders, each exuding power and promising strong and effective leadership. And many people are guided in their choice by the appeal of the image rather than by argument. 

The difficulty with choice, will and power is that they are blind. Strong leaders choose their programs without having to signal, explain or defend them. The slogans and spin with which they adorn them are not arguments to support them but weapons with which to implement them.  In current public life it is increasingly clear that the definition of problems and the policies chosen by leaders reflect the will of wealthy individuals and corporations in order to protect and expand their wealth and privilege. The appeal to the good of Australia made in their defense is rightly seen as spin.  

When politics is based on will and power, it is inherently competitive. In a democracy the power of leaders to carry through their chosen policies is subject to the will and the power of the people who can choose another leader, and the will and power of the other party members who can dump them. Those decisions can be made as arbitrarily as the choice of policies that leader strives to push through. Effectively the leader’s power to implement his chosen policies is limited by the people’s power to reject his government. So in a democracy the cult of power ends in powerlessness. So be ready to hear for calls to neuter democracy. 

In the case of Mr Abbott and Mr Newman the people chose to turn against them  after discovering that what they promised to do before the election bore no relationship to what they chose to  do when in office. People did not like what was chosen for them, and recognised that it reflected an economic ideology whose effect was to protect vested interests, not the interests of the community.  

So where to from here? It would clearly not be in the interests of all Australians for Governments to be deposed routinely after three years or to be rendered impotent half way through each term.  But neither is it desirable that unfair and unpopular policies about which people have not been consulted should be pushed through by being identified with the national interest. The present crisis gives space to imagine a better way.

In particular a better form of politics means moving away from the understanding that political virtue is centrally to be sought in virile leadership, untrammelled choice of policy, strength of will and total control over implementation.  Political virtue should be defined instead by full consultation, transparency in communicating with the public, consideration of the common good and particularly that of the most vulnerable members, reasoned argument, reflection on the assumptions on which economic orthodoxies are based, and humane implementation of policy. It is primarily a community and not an individual activity. 

This is to give the exercise of reason priority in politics over the exercise of will. Leaders would do what has been shown to be reasonable not what is chosen as expedient. In the current challenge of the need to increase revenue and reduce some expenditure, this means promoting a coherent view of Australian prosperity that economic policy serves but does not determine, and proposing the policies that will develop Australia in an equitable way.  Voters will then be encouraged to do more than choose. They will reflect on the values and arguments held up before them.  We need a politics in which voters are consulted and trusted to reflect on what is proposed, and politicians can be trusted to speak honestly of what they propose. 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street. 



Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, politics, leadership, Tony Abbott, Campbell Newman, Australian politics



submit a comment

Existing comments

Perhaps the weight of hubris, as well as dodgy policies, also led to Mr Newman's demise; going the way of Mr Kennett before him, and pointing a spectral digit at Mr Abbott to usher him on his way. Wasn't it Herr Hitler, 'Il Duce' Benito Mussolini and Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili (Joseph 'Steel' Stalin) who embodied 'strong leadership' last century? In any case, thugs with totalitarian leanings who eschew human rights and just outcomes do not become a Western democracy. I love your emphasis on community and equitable values; thanks for this article.

Barry G | 11 February 2015  

We also need media that truly inform people: if you listen to parliament you won't recognise the media's version of what happened, or get a quarter of the arguments you would have heard. Another bad thing is that oppositions think they have to oppose everything the government proposes because a 'defeat' for the government would be a win for them. Yet there are things governments propose that any sensible person would support, or at least agree to work on to come up with an improvement. It would help if we knew which issues the opposition REALLY had a well-argued alternative solution for.

Russell | 11 February 2015  

Andrew Hamilton is correct in stating that the need to increase revenue and reduce expenditure means proposing policies that will develop Australian in an equitable way. Hockey’s budget was not fair. Australian’s will tolerate austerity if it’s explained properly and done fairly. However the need for urgent reform is not simply a reflection of economic ideology designed to “protect vested interests.” Recent warnings about a looming financial crisis point out that after the GFC countries were supposed to reduce debt. Instead debt has increased by a massive $57 trillion. Australia’s Commonwealth spending grew by 53 per cent while revenue only grew by 29 per cent. Greece has thumbed its nose at creditors but now says unless it gets another bailout it won’t be able to pay pensions after this month. Government expenditure expanded enormously as the result of no-fault divorce and single-parent welfare and destroyed families. This is now bankrupting every Western nation. When governments generate huge debts which can’t be paid off for decades it amounts to one generation stealing from the next. A new GFC will be much worse than before, and our progeny will rightly blame the negligence of parents and grandparents for their sufferings.

Ross Howard | 11 February 2015  

Well put, Russell, I have to say.

HH | 11 February 2015  

A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves. —Lao Tzu

Ginger Meggs | 11 February 2015  

Many of our politicians seem to have strong narcissistic tendencies. The recent leadership spill in the Liberal Party, according to the Prime Minister, is all about him. It's not: it's about the direction in which the government (not "his" government but the government supposedly representing the Australian electorate and having their best interests at heart rather than those of powerful vested economic interests) is attempting to take after it won the last election after systematically dissimulating about what it would do in office. What we have here is a colossal breach of trust. I don't think this has quite sunk through to the Prime Minister, the Treasurer or most members of Cabinet. Fortunately this government does not have a majority in the Senate, which is, to all intents and purposes, fulfilling its envisaged constitutional role as a house of review, so many of the government's more regressive and socially iniquitous policies are bound for the rocks. I think we need an open and ongoing debate about what Australia means and the direction in which we want it to go. This should not be confined to those representing powerful business or union organisations or their associated think tanks or lobby groups.

Edward Fido | 12 February 2015  

Bullying is seen as strong, when in reality it reveals a paucity of intelligence, community values, courage and wisdom, all of which define true leadership.

Rose Marie | 12 February 2015  

Good reasoning, Andrew. Should we apply that same philosophy to the world's shortage of priests and the ordination of women where the hierarchy will "reflect on the values and arguments held up before them" and "will develop Australia in an equitable way"!

shirley McHugh | 12 February 2015  

I never thought I would say this, but you have to admit that Alan Jones made much sense on Q & A on Monday night. Omitting the hypocrisy of someone who wanted to put a previous PM in a chaff bag and then airily said that we should respect our PM - only mildly chastised by the "That's rich" comment from from Chris Bowen - his comments on middle class welfare and on the mining industry were excellent. That comment about a billion dollar contribution to Indonesia after the tsunami was below the diplomatic belt, but needed to be said.

Frank | 12 February 2015  

Thanks Fr Hamilton. I thought your last 2 paragraphs especially excellent, and right. We must also bear in mind that much of our current economic woes go back to John Howard who promised tax cuts to spend the surplus of the mining bonanza, and daftly then were delivered by Labour. Those "gifts from China" were temporary, should have been saved, and now need to be scraped back when times are back to relative normal; but not from those least able to pay! Our deficit is almost exactly equal to those tax cuts and give-ways. But a lot of saving can and should be made by less wasteful and inefficient government spending; and the hubristic deals struck by the unions when money was no object and Gillard PM, also need to be "normalised". I`m glad Abbott and Newman are on the nose; they deserves it. The electorate is remarkably sophisticated, and deserve better.

Eugene | 12 February 2015  

Andrew, thank you for the thoughtful & thought provoking article. Mr Abbott, in addition to reading your article, would do well to urgently read Archie Brown's book "The Myth of the Strong Leader". The benefit of spending tens of millions of Australian dollars seeking to locate the first Malaysian Airline crash site was dubious at best but did play to the media frenzy at the time. Similarly, the judicious media leak about "shirtfronting" Putin at a later date was projected to present an image of a strong leader. The NSW Premier, Mr Baird is the antithesis of this approach.
To those who seek to adopt a partisan political approach in response to your article I suggest they look at the collaboration of the major parties to the proposal of the then Tresurer, Mr Costello, that retirees could access as much of their superannuation as they wished, tax free. Following depletion, or part thereof, they would be eligible for government pension benefits. This was always bad policy (based on demographics alone) and unsustainable and "inter generational theft". I live in hope that the body politic can become a community activity and honesty from political leaders is certainly a prerequisite. However, the concentration and role of the media that delivers the message has to be unadulterated. I'm especially tired of journalists interviewing journalists about politics.

Paul Crittenden | 12 February 2015  

It has been said that democracy carries the seeds of its own destruction in the "self" of the people (shades of the French revolution , perhaps?). It seems to me that our democracy is being destroyed by the "self" of the elected pollies of all parties who have abandoned the people. They are addicted to the battles. Unbelievably, Abbott on the afternoon after the spill having promised a new beginning stated on the 7.30 report on the ABC that very night that he was very good at defeating the Labor Party! What an idiot! It is about governing the country not playing adolescent school prefect's games. I never though I would be party to believing that a sitting Liberal PM had to go but this one certainly should before he wrecks democracy even further. That said, however, the Labor Party should also get rid of their quasi leader and return to genuine socialism which would almost certainly mean getting rid of hate-filled tunnel-vision unionists in government. For their part the Liberal Party should not only get rid of the Abbott debacle but also the big end of town with its corporate thieves taking from the people. Then some vestige of the democracy we once enjoyed might be salvaged.

john frawley | 12 February 2015  

One has to chose one's words carefully when discussing election results in a democratic pluralist society such as Australia. 'In the case of Mr Abbott and Mr Newman the people chose to turn against them ....' In the case of Mr Abbott, so far the voice of the people has been heard through opinion polls and the mass media hardly the equivalent of a general election. In the case of Mr Newman, while it is true the strong man himself was beaten fairly comprehensively in his own electorate, his party lost by a slender majority of seats. In the years after WW2 the Australian electorate used to be divided more or less 40% conservative, 40% progressive and 20% swingers and odd-balls. The battle for the major parties was to tease votes or preferences from the 20%. In more recent times the division is verging towards 35:35:30. The battle for the votes or preferences of the 30% has led to all sorts of political tricks. Space precludes me from elaborating them. Rarely does an election reflect the will of the people but rather how the major parties have managed to woo the votes/preferences of electors in the odd-bod 30%.

Uncle Pat | 12 February 2015  

This interview with Malcolm Fraser is also of interest.

True leadership is difficult. Political leadership requires principles, a sense of the spirit of the people and a belief that society can be improved for the good of all. Discerning such things and persuading ones electors is hard work.

Peter Horan | 12 February 2015  

The PM's fantasy of Australia as a team requiring a strong and self-willed captain is not susceptible to reason and argument. It is a gratuitous assertion that he makes. Nor are his promises to change open to anyone ensuring his effective compliance. There may be an addiction to power at work here that currently affects others in the Coalition also through their codependency that enables self-serving behaviour in the senior leadership. Through all of this we are learning what democracy and good politics is not. Recent elections have shown that major political parties cannot depend on calls to "support your team" in all circumstances. The public feels the wound of arrogant leadership and will continue to take its revenge. Finding alternative policies that heal and strengthen our nation is not the privilege or responsibility of only those elected into Opposition. Look what happened by leaving it to the previous Opposition, now in power. All of us need to let go our own slogans and spin, see through personal fantasies and action for self-interest among politicians and other influential figures, and join in conversation day after day to construct a just future for Australia and our global neighbours.

Alex | 12 February 2015  

.A. H. " priority to communication and action that is based on reason.",, Reason is only as reliable as the data it is working with. In complex matters, wishful thinking is often substituted for the lack of data, and can end in disaster. Politicians and Media Moguls are adept at this, and use spin to sway voters who do not have access to the true facts. There needs to be penalties for concealing facts or distorting them with spin, so as to procure advantage.

Robert Liddy | 12 February 2015  

Good article, Andrew. The Qld election proves people do want consultation & want leaders whom they can trust. Sadly Tony Abbott has set off on same path as Campbell Newman. So far Labor under A Palaszczuk promises to do better. In Qld, we can only live in hope. The oft quoted value of a "strong" leader often means, as you wrote, someone who does not listen to the whole community eg PM Abbott & ex Premier Newman.

John Cronin, Toowoomba Q | 12 February 2015  

In 1935, filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl made the film "Triumph of the Will" about a leader whose major conceit was the strength of his leadership. For obvious reasons, today's Germans are mostly suspicious of any politician espousing "strong" leadership. They're also staunch defenders of their modern democratic system. Australians have never experienced decline of democracy into dictatorship, and many are consequently quite blasé about issues such as civil rights. But our greatest current problem in government is our adversarial system. In the past it did no great damage, but since Tea Party campaigning strategies and modern media trends have put sensible politics on steroids, political debate and decision-making today are often solely about points-scoring and narcissism. The German parliamentary system is better designed to produce good government. Their lower house system (proportional representation) means a majority for one party is almost impossible, and all governments but one have had to form coalitions. This has often extended to 'Grand Coalitions' (the equivalent here would be Labor and Liberal forming a coalition government). This allows planning for years ahead, because governments plan by consensus and know their measures are not going to be dismantled after the next election, simply for ideology's sake.

Paul | 12 February 2015  

'The PM's fantasy of Australia as a team requiring a strong and self-willed captain is not susceptible to reason and argument'. Precisely Alex! Abbott uses sporting analogies to avoid substance. We are not a team, we are a community, or rather a number of, sometimes overlapping communities, coexisting in space and time. We are not here to be organised and led to achieve an arrogant leader's goal. Abbott is the servant, not the master.

Ginger Meggs | 12 February 2015  

Similar Articles

Asylum seeker Ali's successful day in court

  • Kerry Murphy
  • 13 February 2015

Former Immigration Minister's Scott Morrison's ruthless determination to prevent refugees arriving by boat from getting permanent residence has been successfully challenged. On Wednesday, the High Court ordered the current Immigration Minister to grant a permanent protection visa to a Pakistani Hazara 'S297'. Such an instruction is almost unheard of, as usually the Minister is asked to re-make the decision lawfully.


The financial crisis the Government wants us to have

  • Colin Long
  • 09 February 2015

The Coalition Government falsely claims that Medicare co-payments and cuts to welfare and publicly funded institutions such as the CSIRO and the ABC are necessary to 'fix Labor's mess'. There are indeed structural problems with the economy, but essentially the plan is to strip the public sector by cutting universal access to a range of services that also includes tertiary education, to create a dominant free market that marginalises Australians on low incomes.