We get the leadership we settle for

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The eighteenth-century French philosopher Joseph de Maistre once wrote that ‘every nation gets the government it deserves.’ While the quip clearly does not do justice to the many civically minded citizens in both Australia and China, the recent run of calamities has shown some surprising and remarkable similarities between the two systems.

A mural by artist Scott Marsh depicting Prime Minister Scott Morrison on holiday in Hawaii is seen on December 26, 2019 (Getty images/Jenny Evans)

Since late 2019, both President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Scott Morrison have come under fire for their shortcomings in times of national crisis. China as a hotspot of COVID-19 and Australia with the quartet of severe climate change, a lengthy drought, an horrific fire season and the inevitability of the coronavirus crashing onto our shores.

And yet, giving Maistre some due, the Chinese public has largely accepted the governing of the Party under the attitude that ‘if the Party lets me get rich and stays out of my personal life, I’ll keep ignoring what it does in places like Xinjiang’, while the Australian voting public decisively re-elected Morrison’s party at the last election, to the amazement of even the politicians themselves.

Both leaders have worked hard at marketing a cult of personality — one as ‘Papa Xi’ and the ‘Chairman of Everything’ (in the memorable phrase of Australian Sinologist Professor Geremie Barmé) and the other as a daggy dad Scomo from the Shire, complete with miracle-working cape hidden under his baseball cap. To have their public personas challenged by the people must be galling for both.

In Xi’s case he simply disappeared from public view for an extended time and in the last week of January the government-run newspaper, The People’s Daily, did not run his image on the front page for several days. In China, this is highly unusual for a leader still in charge. Previously, when high-ranked officials vanished it meant that they were about to be purged, but in this instance it was a deliberate act of distancing and of trying to protect the leader from the virus’ fallout.

Since the early weeks of February, however, Xi and his officials have been seeking to re-cast his earlier actions as heroic struggles against the tide of contaminants, making black become white and deception become decisive moves. While it is known within China that Xi knew at least by early January and likely even in late December of the new virus — because heroic citizens like ophthalmologist Li Wenliang had alerted their colleagues to the new strain of an illness — it was not until the 23rd of January that Wuhan and other cities were put into lockdown. By early February the recasting of government intervention was well underway.

 

'These circumstances have shown that in many ways a semblance of leadership has taken precedence over substantive acts, and arguably the people of each nation have some complicity in the slow creep of this reality.'

 

Likewise in the middle of December, at a time when the nation was burning, Scott Morrison went on an overseas holiday, choosing of his own volition to scarper. The ubiquity of social media, however, meant the Australian leader’s Hawaiian sojourn was widely broadcast at the same time as communities sought shelter on beaches and kangaroos fled across blackened paddocks. While Xi Jinping could operate in stealth (in Beijing high level secret political meetings were being held to discuss the ongoing response), the fact of Morrison’s absence was ever present. His government has been in hyper-drive since, seeking to replace images of shakas with serious faces indicating that decisive management is taking place. These circumstances have shown that in many ways a semblance of leadership has taken precedence over substantive acts, and arguably the people of each nation have some complicity in the slow creep of this reality.

It is of course true that citizens have been seeking to hold each of their governments to account. In China this has been to the detriment of scholars like Tsinghua University professor Xu Zhangrun and rights lawyer Xu Zhiyong, both of whom have bravely criticized Xi’s rule. Likewise, in Australia mass public rallies and attempts by seasoned journalists such as Katharine Murphy and Leigh Sales to keep a laser focus on the issues of substance and not the spin reveals a deeply concerned populace.

Even so, it is also true that in both nations people have also been highly focused on personal and material wellbeing. In China this manifests as a thirst for luxury car ownership, overseas travel or the sending of children abroad for study, while in Australia key election issues were the rarified question of franking credits, the protection of outdated industries and the supposedly prohibitive cost of action on climate change (rather than the demonstrable cost of inaction) such that, in the end, it could be argued that that old cynic Maistre might have been onto something. The leaders we have are also the leaders we have allowed.

 

 

Jeremy ClarkeDr Jeremy Clarke, PhD, is the founding director of Sino-Immersions Pty Ltd, a China consulting company, and a Visiting Fellow in the Australian Centre on China in the World, Australian National University.

Main image: A mural by artist Scott Marsh depicting Prime Minister Scott Morrison on holiday in Hawaii is seen on December 26, 2019 (Getty images/Jenny Evans)

Topic tags: Jeremy Clarke, China, Australia, auspol, COVID-19

 

 

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“Since late 2019, … Prime Minister Scott Morrison [has] come under fire for… shortcomings in times of national crisis….Australia with the quartet of severe climate change, a lengthy drought, an horrific fire season and the inevitability of the coronavirus crashing onto our shores.” So, somewhere in this article blaming deplorables for electing a government they deserve is an explained assertion that the Morrison government’s response to the virus could have been much better?
roy chen yee | 16 March 2020


It is true, "we receive the leadership we deserve". eg. The US of A, little England, Australia, India, China, the list is long. Fact is we deserve the democracy we create.
Roy | 17 March 2020


I'm not sure that your statement "the Australian voting public decisively re-elected Morrison’s party " is correct. They just scraped in.
Brian Finlayson | 17 March 2020


Previous comment poses a statement/question about “assertion that the Morrison government’s response to the virus could have been much better? “ I emphatically claim it could have been much better. On Friday night, just as he was announcing new strict (and justified) measures re gatherings of more than 500 people, Morrison said not only that he would be attending the footy (which as it turned, he didn’t) but he “encouraged” others to do so too. Why encourage people to be doing something against the trend of what health authorities were saying was needed? What sort of leadership is this? If there are mixed messages, look no further for the source. And on Sunday, one day before the measures were introduced (but were already announced), he is reported to have attended a Hillsong conference with around 3,500 attendees. Some might call this leadership but I call it negligent arrogance. That is just a start. He was trying to shake hands with people who didn’t want to shake his hand in the bushfires and right up until a few days ago (long after many of us had given up handshaking) he was still on his handshaking crusade.
WV | 17 March 2020


...rest assured, our elected leaders are making every effort to investigate options to see what could be done in the event that unprecedented circumstances might need an urgent response planning meeting at some time in the undetermined future. Details of alternatives are still being finalized but Australians can be confident that the government will be fully accountable* for loss or damages arising from delays (like 8 weeks or more) in doing anything tangible. Right now they're implementing security strategies to enable parliamentarians to meet in a week or so to discuss and hopefully pass the immediate response financial stimulus package announced a while back... we're right on top of this, Australia. (*): accountable as defined in the protections outlined in ministerial guidelines. The real "herd immunity" test is the national tolerance to time-wasting inaction.
ray | 17 March 2020


Thank you for this excellent article Jeremy. I am afraid it is only too correct. The failure of the PM during the bushfire is obvious and front and centre. The fire chiefs alerted us to this. While the COVID-19 crisis is only just now playing out with a very uncertain future you only need listen to the medical experts to see that they are very critical of the PM for his late action on this crisis. Two lots of experts and two lots of critics. Our only hope is that the Australian people act quickly and selflessly because there is no inspiring leadership from the federal government who seem incapable of anything other than reacting late after looking after their buddies and themselves. Some example.
Tom Kingston | 17 March 2020


Prime Minister Scott Morrison will never, in the pages or cartoons of Eureka Street Magazine, ever live down the folly of keeping a holiday promise to his children..
Brian b | 17 March 2020


What an obscenity - trying to equate Australian government leadership with a Chinese Marxist dictatorship. HORROR - our PM tried to take a holiday with his family - it lasted 2 days! Why not come clean and admit that you want a socialist autocracy in Australia.
John Wheelahan | 17 March 2020


So I did a fact check on your comment 'the Australian leader’s Hawaiian sojourn was widely broadcast at the same time as communities sought shelter on beaches'. ScMo returned early from his planned family holiday a couple of days after the tragic death of two firefighters in NSW on 20 Dec. The people of Mallacoota and of various locations on the NSW south coast were sheltering on the beaches on 31 Dec well after ScoMo's return. Using misleading social media reporting around these events does not help your argument.
Paul Ross | 19 March 2020


I refer to comments and allegations by Mssrs Frawley and O'Brien. Surrogate shopping (Daigou) has been peculiar to Chinese (thus the term) and when it was just baby formula the practice was identified, somewhat regulated but remained lucrative. There's nothing particularly Asian about being opportunistic but current circumstances may make it appear that way; my rural area has a large Asian backpacker and migrant workforce who travel to work and shopping by minibus...understandably, they shop in groups and buy bulk pasta, cereals (rice) and vegetables. I don't doubt they're shopping for "others" within their community but the practice isn't illegal or un-Australian...it's just an aspect of multiculturalism that we're not normally aware of but now it might be confronting. Don't play the "racist" card too early...
ray | 19 March 2020


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