We should be looking for strong leaders to follow, not a strongman, Laura Tingle writes at the end of her essay about leadership. Given the quality of the analyst, this conclusion is, of course, very persuasive. But if we examine our addled politics, both domestically and internationally, this worthy objective seems ambitious, almost ludicrous. Imagine happening upon such a leader, a politician capable of exhibiting strength and purpose in the maelstrom of contemporary public life, a political leader to inspire hope. Even if one had the good fortune to happen upon such a person, would their colleagues permit them to lead, given the past decade of Australian politics has produced leaders with brutally short shelf lives – prime ministers programmed with planned obsolescence, as if they were iPhones?
The story behind this unmooring is multifactorial, but Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott are catalytic figures in different ways. Rudd increased the pace of politics when he gave himself the objective of trying to set the agenda from Opposition, rather than respond to the government’s agenda. The new Labor man felt he had to puncture the somnolent tempo of the Howard era as part of grabbing the nation’s attention and positioning himself as putative prime minister in a matter of months.
Rudd’s arrival in the Lodge coincided with the profound technological disruption that created the rolling news cycle. Australian politics became a spectator sport, with the action from Canberra delivered blow by blow. Public life began to assume the death-match atmospherics of a football final. The rise of death-match atmospherics created the perfect conditions for the rise of Tony Abbott and his cacophonous politics of destruction. Just as Rudd had changed the pace of politics from Opposition, Abbott changed the tenor of politics from Opposition, elevating wrecking to the core of the enterprise. Abbott eschewed the business of deliberation and compromise, enterprises once considered to be the heart of the democratic model, and inculcated a sense of crisis in order to question the legitimacy of his political opponents.
Australian politics is still battling these two influences – an unrelenting pace narrated too often with hyperbolic, valueless commentary; and a culture where destruction is considered a legitimate tool of war – and they are poisoning political leadership in this country.
Mostly, Australian politics has been sleepwalking into the current nadir, reluctant to face up to or articulate the truth, lest some tribal taboo be broken, but interestingly, during the last leadership challenge, when Malcolm Turnbull was driven from office by the animus-fuelled faction that couldn’t abide him, something cracked inside the Liberal Party, and despair tumbled out.
The despair was heard primarily in a small chorus of women’s voices, women speaking critically about party culture, a culture where unhinged things seemed to happen over and over, and dissenters to the unhinging were bullied by self-appointed powerbrokers into submission and quiescence. The Victorian Liberal Julia Banks, who announced she would leave political life after enduring the leadership fracas, felt and said implicitly that the national interest could not be served by staying, which is about as damning as self-assessments get. Despair was new, a break from previous practice. Whether despair leads to anything productive remains moot.
The whole political ecosystem is impatient. The honeymoons once enjoyed by new prime ministers are short, and highly conditional, if they materialise at all. Voters are drifting away from partisan loyalties, and this seemingly inexorable drift to political disruptors is enabled by the major parties themselves, because the major parties have forgotten the premium they once offered voters was stability. Because voters are drifting, there is a preoccupation with “the base” that has become a strange form of religion, a fundamentalism which can pit the interests of political movements against the wishes of the mainstream, thereby intensifying the estrangement.
In an age where politics and public activism structures itself around the permanent campaign – given the campaign is a mechanism always on the hunt for a crisis, given the crisis has become a focal point to recruit foot soldiers and raise money – compromise is also deeply out of fashion, which is highly problematic given progress depends on it.
In one of the most interesting political speeches of 2018, the Senate president, Scott Ryan, pointed out what should be obvious: the greatest successes of Australian politics had come from “compromise and negotiation” and the use of parliamentary process to resolve competing points of view.
In a message both to colleagues and the ecosystem as a whole, Ryan noted that “the idea that compromise is wrong, that negotiation to achieve one objective and move onto another, represents a lost political opportunity for a contest or selling out is not one that has been rewarded in Australia.” Ryan observed that John Howard and the then National Party leader, Tim Fischer, “bore an enormous political cost among many of their traditional supporters when instituting national gun laws, but they weren’t relentlessly attacked as abandoning the base simply by virtue of challenging supporters, even on such a difficult issue.” The point being that the interest of the nation should always rank ahead of sectional interest, even if the sectional interest happens to be familial; and the art of politics is explaining the necessity of action to the losers and cushioning the impact of change – something that Australian politics once excelled at.
Tingle puts her finger squarely on the challenge by pointing out that leaders need to rebuild the national debate and protect other voices within it, a form of housekeeping that requires something more profound than dishing up perpetual motion and perpetual conflict. It requires political leaders to see themselves as part of an organism rather than as a saviour or a subduer, and to give priority to the health of the organism over their own short-term imperatives or corrosive acts of one-upmanship. It requires politicians to understand they are temporary custodians of a valuable tradition, rather than succumbing to the gravitational pull of dabbling in reactionary populism because it’s easier than attempting a course correction.
This sense of politicians valuing themselves as institutional forces, a politics where ego plays second fiddle to the articulation of collective purpose and responsibility, is a very big ask, particularly at this juncture. As Tingle points out, we are now at the tail-end of the global financial crisis – the greatest economic shock since the Depression – and we are witnessing a global upheaval in politics: the rise of autocracies and strongman politics and the decline of democracy and multilateralism. The world, she notes, is becoming more irrational, and we cannot assume that what follows from that is orderly.
In short, it is hard, and getting harder, to be hopeful. Not impossible. But hard.
Katharine Murphy is Guardian Australia’s political editor. She won the Paul Lyneham Award for press gallery journalism in 2008, and was a Walkley award finalist for digital journalism in 2012. She is the author of On Disruption.
This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 72, Net Loss.
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY