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Old men behaving badly


MubarakAustralian politics is generally benign and democratic, lacking the passion of revolutionary moments and extreme democratic enthusiasm. At first glance there is no comparison with tumultuous events overseas such as the overthrow of the dictator Mubarak in Egypt and the uprising in Gaddafi's Libya. But all political situations share common themes: questions of age, tenure, transition and family ties.

Mubarak, 82 years old, was just one of a number of old men behaving badly in world politics. Silvio Berlusconi of Italy disgraces himself and his country by his antics at the age of 74. Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, 88, is even older and yet refuses to relinquish the reins of his deadly regime.

Women and younger men can also behave badly in both dictatorships and democracies, of course, but old men are hard to beat for flagrant abuse of power. Democratic elections don't prevent old men from holding power and not all governments led by old men are dysfunctional; but if we were to remove all leaders over 70 around the world the balance sheet would be positive.

By contrast it is refreshing to see Barack Obama at 49 and David Cameron at 43 take office in the USA and the UK respectively. In Australia Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott are fighting it out in their late 40s/early 50s. Their relative youth is a breath of fresh air.

Extremely long tenure often accompanies age. Mubarak was in office for a massive 30 years. To put this in context, when he took over Egypt in 1981 the Australian PM was Malcolm Fraser. The American President was Ronald Reagan. No wonder he was out of touch with the young people protesting in the city square. Mugabe has been in office for 30 years so far and Gaddafi even longer.

Democracies can produce long tenures too. Berlusconi was first elected in 1994. In Australia there is no real equivalent. But Sir Robert Menzies was Prime Minister for a record 17 years and John Howard for almost 12 years. The USA has instituted a two-term rule for presidents which restricts them to eight years. This has been copied elsewhere and there is a wider term-limits movement in the USA.

There are arguments both ways for restrictions on political terms. They can have unintended consequences on political behavior in office, such as elevating inexperience prematurely, but they should be considered. Monarchs and popes have unrestricted terms that can lead to very long periods in office too. More often than not earlier succession would be beneficial all round.

Shorter, restricted terms should be welcomed. Eight to ten years is plenty. The balance sheet would be positive if there was greater turnover in office. Long-serving political leaders rarely do their best work in their final years. Turnover is beneficial. No one is irreplaceable and new leaders bring fresh perspectives to old problems.

The fact that leaders don't go earlier reflects the difficulties in arranging a smooth succession to office; not just in dictatorships but in democracies. The top job is just too comfortable. Long-serving leaders cast a large shadow. Regular democratic elections should solve these sorts of problems but they don't always do so.

There is a tendency in dictatorships for children to inherit the position. Democracies, like Singapore (the Lee family), the USA (the Bush family) and India (the Nehru family), don't escape political dynasties and dominant families either; nor does Australia entirely. There have been dynasties like the Downers, Beazleys and Creans in federal politics.

In NSW Mike Baird, son of former state minister and federal MP Bruce Baird will soon probably be State Treasurer in a new Liberal government; while yet another member of the Ferguson family will enter politics for Labor.

We should not overstate the case for similarities between Australian politics and what we witness overseas. But, without straining too hard, there certainly are discernible common issues.


John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and a columnist with The Canberra Times.

Topic tags: John Warhurst.old men, Egypt, Mubarak, Italy, Berlusconi, Zimbabwe, Mugabe



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Existing comments

I agree that, for dictators, age does seem to weary them and reduce their vitality but I think John draws a long bow by including the Australian political families in his examples.
Besides it wouldn't be fair to ban sons and daughters of politicians from persuing a political career.

David | 02 March 2011  

"... antics, at the age of 74." Ouch. Are you telling us something, Professor? By all means, retire from politics at the age of 70, but there does not need to be an age limit on everything.

Frank | 02 March 2011  

I welcome the comparison and understand that your connection between old despots and Australian "pollies" is tenuous, John! However, your article is a fair warning about the dangers of families such as the Fergusons, for example. Their selection within Labor seems to be due to the influence of this family and their mates within Labor. I'm sure it is the same in the Liberal party. And we, the public, have no say in this selection!

As for age, Frank, 70 is a relatively young age to do so many other things! See the example set by Peter Cundle, formerly from the ABC Gardening programme!! A great age, indeed! Good luck with your next professional life, Frank!

Nathalie | 02 March 2011  

Australia is only a "benign" democracy because any dissidents are chemically lobotomised by the police through local courts and a corrupt justice system ...

Greig WIlliams | 02 March 2011  

Maybe the best example is Switzerland where on the 1.of January of every year a new president takes over. The president is merely the chairperson of the cabinet for a year. In Australia we should have similar changes. We had a Rudd Government, a Hawke Government and Howard Government but we should have is an AUSTRALIAN Government!
I believe that nobody can remain effective as a leader for more than a few year or personal health, work performance or both will suffer.

Beat Odermatt | 02 March 2011  

Daniel Mannix R.I.P.

SHORT TERM MEMORY | 02 March 2011  

It is not only age but health. At the end of world war 2 Franklin Roosevelt was a sick man and if a more robust leader had been the President of the U.S.A. post war history may have been different. Anthony Eden was a sick man at the time of the Suez crisis in 1956 and made may blunders.

John Ozanne | 02 March 2011  

This article is shamelessly ageist, I.e. advocating discrimination solely on the basis of age. There should be no place for this sort of nonsense in Eureka Street.
John Warhurst comes closer to his usual standard of analysis when he admits, seemingly reluctantly, that "not all governments led by old men are dysfunctional". That's the point, nicely illustrating the wrongs of simplistically discriminatory practices such as he advocates.

I might point out the obvious that there are governments led by young men, women, and various CALD people that are quite dysfunctional and it's got nothing to do with those descriptors. To suggest banning anyone due to age or other personal feature from leadership positions flies in the face of basic human rights and also deprives the world of skills that are not related to those features.

John's approach would have disbarred Nelson Mandela from some of his most valuable leadership contributions to the world.
I detect a possible tongue lodged in John's cheek but the article does nothing to promote a mature approach to respecting the role of seniors in society.

Peter Johnstone | 02 March 2011  

The day may come that men and women who are leaders of a nation welcome cessation of their duties after they turn 65, in favour of the kind of work that could benefit themselves as well as others. Riches. To bring about two terms of three (or four) years for a Premier, a Prime Minister or a President would be yet another issue worth working on.

Joyce | 02 March 2011  

Perhaps it would be useful for us all to dust off a copy of the 1968 film,'Wild in the Streets.' Given the year and the title, youthful protest in the West is the theme and the mantra of the un-washed rock throwers was, 'Don't' trust anyone over 15!' I believe the scriptwriters had difficulties with a sequel.

David Timbs ALBION. VIC. | 02 March 2011  

Tony Abbott most certainly is NOT a breath of fresh air!

David | 02 March 2011  

I agree with David re Tony Abbott being a dose of fresh air..... NOT!!
Where do Fred and Elaine Nile sit in this line of thinking I wonder?
Interesting too that they claimed living away from Sydney allowance (their holiday house in Gerroa where they occasionally spent R&R, was listed as their regular home for claiming extra concessions. But that's another angle of the comfort of being in power.

Where is transparency? It is misssing here in NSW politics- my home- the grass roots of politics at branch levels? Nepotism is thriving and growing at a rate of knots it seems and all performed behind political back room doors. March is our chance to try and change things.

Genevieve | 02 March 2011  

Popes go on until death despite infirmity yet ony under 80 years old cardinals may vote in conclaves.

Logically and in regard to good practice, popes should retire at age 80 so that younger replacements can be voted in.

Gerard Tonks | 02 March 2011  

We could have a group of Australians selected by education and willingness to serve in government. From this group politicians could be selected by lot. Those who show competence in office could be re-elected for two terms. Incompetents could by replaced by referendum or judicial action.

David Fisher | 04 March 2011  

Not old so much as entrenched. (Of course that is easier when you are old). Perhaps the only thing the US got right in its shambolic process of electing Presidents is limiting Presidents to 2 terms. Democracy is not so much about electing the best candidate (or party) as being able to remove the worst.

Steve of Oz | 06 March 2011  

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