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Guilt edged leaders

  • 01 July 2008

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