Guilt edged leaders


Belinda Neal Guilt comes in many different cans. Off the top of my head I can think of labels like Catholic, nonconformist, evangelical, puritan, Jewish, refugee, survivor, privilege, and leadership guilt.

Protean guilt is one characteristic that distinguishes us from the animals. In a marvellous poem called 'In Praise of Feeling Bad About Yourself', Wislawa Szymborska points out that:

The buzzard never says it is to blame
The panther wouldn't know what scruples mean.

My expatriate telescope is ever trained on the Wide Brown Land, and so has focused lately on what is being called Iguanagate. It would seem fair to say that Belinda Neal MHR, and her husband John Della Bosca, fall into the privilege category, even if not into the top leadership bracket.

I'm so old that I can recall concepts such as noblesse oblige. N.O. is hardly relevant in these troubled times, but surely the notion that privilege, leadership and responsibility go together still has some meaning. Not to mention ideas involving dignity, decorum and good manners.

I gather that Ms Neal threw a tantrum when asked to move to another table at the Iguana Waterfront Club. I also gather that tantrums seem to be pretty much her style, but that she crossed certain boundaries when her language became abusive, when she allegedly threatened the club with the loss of its liquor licence, employees with the loss of their jobs, and then asked, not at all sotto voce: 'Don't you know who I am?'

When hearing such questions people of my generation are inexorably reminded of historian Lord Acton, who famously opined that power tends to corrupt. The noble lord had a point — still has, for it is also alleged that Della Bosca bullied the club staff into writing a letter of apology, which he himself may have dictated.

Lord Acton, a product of his time, considered that great men are nearly always bad men. Today he would have to dumb down: forget great, remember equality. Today some prominent people are not necessarily bad, but more often stupid and selfish. They also have a misplaced sense of entitlement.

Kevin Rudd acted quickly and efficiently in directing Ms Neal to anger management classes. Good move, for angry she certainly is. But I wonder whether she and her husband feel any guilt. Do they feel they have acted wrongly? Or do they feel they are being picked on? References to a media beat-up seem to indicate the latter.

The can labelled leadership guilt is more like a can of worms. Neal and Della Bosca can hardly be compared with Bush, Blair and Howard, but are arguably on the same continuum. I, for one, cannot understand how Bush, Blair and Howard can sleep at night: guilt and regret of the most painful kind must surely get in the way of repose.

Iguanagate pales into insignificance in comparison. And yet. Will Neal and Della Bosca take responsibility for bullying behaviour? Do they regret having threatened people's livelihoods, self-esteem and confidence?

Egomania and narcissism are, alas, features of a successful politician's personality, so in such personalities it is hardly surprising to note a sense of infallibility as well, and a yawning black hole, a psychic space, where empathy ought to be.

'Only connect,' wrote E. M. Forster, and ordinary people experience guilt most often when we feel or become aware that we have unjustifiably severed that human connection in some way.

The way in which leaders of nations sever that connection is ever obvious. In the case of dictators it is expected: reducing the masses to the lowest point is what dictatorship, as distinct from almost-forgotten benevolent despotism, is all about. Guilt is not a consideration in the psyches of Mugabe and the Burmese generals.

Messrs Bush, Blair and Howard are different in the sense that they are elected leaders who may have done a good job of rationalising with regard to the invasion of Iraq. Five years down the track it is hard for any member of the public to know how these men feel about the deception and manipulation that have undoubtedly gone on.

Leadership and guilt may be mutually exclusive terms. Or guilt may have a sell-by date.

Some leaders and some of the privileged are like the buzzard: they never say they are to blame.

What do Neal and Della Bosca say?

'In Praise of Feeling Bad About Yourself', Wislawa Szymborska

Gillian BourasGillian Bouras is an Australian writer based in Greece for 27 years. She has had eight books published, including six for adults published by Penguin Australia. Her most recent is No Time For Dances. She has also worked as a journalist since 1980 and has been published in five countries.

Topic tags: gillian bouras, iguanagate, belinda neal, john della bosca, leadership guilt, iraq invasion, Wislawa Szymb



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Existing comments

There is all of those attributes you mentioned above contained in the episodes at Iguana. Unfortunately the modern day mercenaries, soldiers of fortune or whatever are in the same position of the mercenaries etc., described so carefully in Barbara Tuchmann's The March of Folly. The leaders are executed, the followers are dispersed; the latter then continue on their path of petty disruption, threats and general disruption on other unfortunates.

John McQualter | 02 July 2008  

Worse was to come with the above saga, in that apparently pressure was brought to bear on staff members present at the dinner, to toe the line when submitting statutory declarations about what happened. So that two conflicting accounts were submitted - by the restaurant employees on the one hand and Ms Neal's colleagues and employees on the other. So it is very obvious that no sort of guilt was felt or is likely to be felt. A very clear case indeed of power corrupting...

Coral Petkovich | 02 July 2008  

I carry no torch for Neal or Della Bosca, but I don't approve of the kangaroo courts to which they are being subjected by the media and other parliamentarians. There will be time enough for the punishment when guilt has been established through the due processes of the law.

Warwick | 04 July 2008  

Now that the DPP has decided to take no further action against Neal and Della Bosca, what do those who were quick to judge have to say? Any apologies coming?

Warwick | 21 September 2008  

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