Shireen Morris

“Why would you want to go into politics?”

I’ve been standing at train stations the past several weeks, handing out flyers in my fingerless gloves. Shivering in the morning sun. Saying hello to commuters.

This is a new experience. I’ve been an actor, a singer, a check-out chick and an admin assistant. A constitutional lawyer and an advocate. Never a unionist, a staffer or a wannabe politician. Never a campaigner on the street. The hustings, as they say, is an exciting new place.

A sample of the flustered public rushes by, half of them blocking me out with earphones, iPhones and well-planned head-down avoidance of eye contact (I don’t blame them) – but others are eager to chat. Among the occasional “Well done!” and complaints about the Liberal leadership spill, the “I’m not voting for a Dutton man!” declarations and the bread-and-butter questions about healthcare, schools, wages and penalty rates, plus the odd “Piss off, you’re all the same!” reprimand, people also occasionally pause to ask: “Why on earth would you want to go into politics?”

The disillusionment underlying the question is palpable. Politicians are liars and backstabbers, seems to be the view. “It’s a dirty game. They’re just in it for themselves,” people observe. And given the machinations of recent times, they appear to be right. “Do you think you can really make a difference?” one local asks, genuinely wanting to know. My answer is, as usual, “I hope I can. I will work hard to.” But people are fed up with self-serving politicians. They have every right to be sceptical.

As the new Labor candidate for Deakin, I found that Laura Tingle’s Quarterly Essay posed a bracing question: what are the characteristics of a true leader, and what is true leadership in politics? And why did I think I could, or should, put myself forward to represent my community – this particular part of the eastern suburbs of Melbourne where I grew up – in federal parliament?

The bullying and backstabbing that seem to characterise contemporary Australian politics raise a further question: why would a woman strive to be a politician in today’s climate? And if parts of society now crave a “strongman,” as Tingle contends, how does one strive to be a strong woman in a political system that is not only male-dominated, but also increasingly vitriolic, vengeful and polarised?

Is it possible to be better than the existing culture, or even to change that culture for the better? Within this system, can one be not only a good politician, but also a good leader?

An experienced parliamentarian, offering advice on my campaign, observed that Parliament has many consummate politicians – people who can talk well, play the game and appear polished. “But Parliament needs more thoughtful people,” he said. This set a nice challenge. Don’t just be a slick politician. Be thoughtful. Be a leader.

I tend towards optimism, so I believe Australia’s democratic culture can change for the better. It requires the Australian people, and the politicians themselves, to insist things change. To demand it.

I largely agree with Tingle’s stated criteria for a good leader. Leaders should explain, advocate and persuade people to adopt good ideas. Follow the Leader discussed the former US president Lyndon Johnson. Noel Pearson also often talks about LBJ’s strategic prowess, and the way he seized a historic moment to deliver the Civil Rights Act in the face of tough conditions. LBJ was a great persuader. I watched the movie All the Way, which dramatises his civil rights strategy, and was struck by a key line. Johnson’s advisers were trying to warn him that pursuing Kennedy’s civil rights bill could jeopardise his electoral chances. “What the hell’s the presidency for?” LBJ demanded. He stuck to his guns. The Civil Rights Act was signed into law in 1964.

Tingle is correct that leaders must know how to seize historic opportunities. Instead, we often see politicians baulking at leading necessary reform, in favour of playing it safe at the polls. Clinging to power, instead of wielding it for the national good. In doing so, they too often underestimate the people.

One of my frustrations working as an advocate for Indigenous constitutional recognition has been the way some politicians blame the public for their lack of reform action. In rejecting the Uluru Statement from the Heart, Malcolm Turnbull not only verballed the Australian people – he blamed them for his cowardly stance. A First Nations voice in the constitution is not “desirable or capable of winning acceptance at referendum,” Turnbull claimed. “The government does not believe such a radical change to our constitution’s representative institutions has any realistic prospect of being supported by a majority of Australians in a majority of states.”

When asked if the government had evidence to back this up, Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion said they had done no polling – he was just “following his gut.” The Australian people were used an excuse for government inaction, but with no evidence. These so-called leaders chose to pessimistically predict that Australians would reject a First Nations voice, instead of just asking them – through a referendum.

Polling exposed the dishonesty of the Liberal government’s excuse. An Omnipoll showed 61 per cent of Australians would vote yes to a First Nations Voice in the Constitution – and that was in the face of government opposition. Does that figure sound familiar? It’s the same proportion that voted “yes” in the same-sex marriage postal survey.

On same-sex marriage, Turnbull, despite his procedural incompetence, at least advocated for the reform. “Lucy and I will be voting yes,” he said. With such leadership, Australians voted 61 per cent in favour. He showed no such leadership on Indigenous recognition. On this issue, Turnbull was a deliberate wet blanket and even promulgated lies about the proposal, calling it a “third chamber of parliament.”

The proposal is not a “third chamber” and not “radical” – and Turnbull knew it. In 2015, in a private meeting, Turnbull (then communications minister) told Noel Pearson and me that an Indigenous advisory body in the Constitution “sounds sensible” and even offered to help promote it, perhaps through a pub event in Wentworth. A few years later, as prime minister, he fearmongered. My best explanation is that he caved in to pressure from the right of his party in order to cling to his position.

Yet what is the prime ministership for, if not for Indigenous constitutional recognition?

Paul Keating understood the importance of reconciliation for the soul and future of our nation. Perhaps Turnbull, deep down, understood it too. In 2011, he reflected on the history of colonisation in Melbourne in The Monthly:

When governments say doing the right thing is “too hard,” what they are really saying is that it is more lucrative, or expedient, to do the wrong thing. Our forebears preached protection of native people and the blessings of Christ while they largely destroyed a people and a way of life.

So if you ever walk quietly along Robert Hoddle’s wide boulevards or along the banks of the Yarra, tamed to look like an English river, listen carefully. You may hear the weeping of the Kulin – betrayed, dispossessed, but not yet quite forgotten.

Yet in 2017, faced with the political realities within his party, Turnbull rejected the Uluru Statement. Doing the right thing was evidently too hard. It was more expedient to do the wrong thing.

It takes a leader with both moral courage and strategic nous to achieve substantive reconciliatory reform – especially constitutional reform, which requires the support of both left and right. I’m not saying it’s easy. One, of course, must compromise and rally consensus. One must keep power in order to use it.

Yet after capitulating to internal right-wing detractors on many important policies and principles, Turnbull still got knifed. The lesson is clear: selling out does not necessarily stop insurrection. It only shows you don’t stand for anything.

The same-sex marriage survey demonstrated that many Liberal Party politicians are often behind the Australian electorate on matters of social justice. The Liberal Party insisted on the postal survey. But Tony Abbott, an elected representative of the Australian people, did not respect his own electorate’s wishes. Although Warringah voted 75 per cent in favour of same-sex marriage, Abbott left the parliamentary chamber before the final vote on the legislation, along with his conservative colleague, Michael Sukkar. Sukkar had promised he would respect the outcome of the survey and respect his electorate’s wishes. His electorate, Deakin, voted 65.7 per cent in favour – also above the national average. Yet Sukkar ran out of the Parliamentary Chamber behind Abbott when the final vote was imminent.

What does this say about how connected the right wing of the Liberal Party are to their democratic constituents? Refusing to listen to Australians you represent – that is not leadership. Breaking a promise to respect the electorate’s wishes – that is not leadership. Running out of the Chamber – that is not leadership.

The best leaders, when dealing with vexing policy and political problems, take on board the legitimate concerns of their opponents, learn from them and use the lessons to forge a new and better synthesis position. They hammer out a noble compromise. When I say noble compromise, I do not mean a lowest common denominator compromise. It is possible to find a noble compromise on persisting disagreements.

Finding this “radical centre” requires both parties to shift. To shift one’s position, even if slightly, shows humility. It also shows intelligence – for the smartest people know they cannot be right on everything, and even their rightness can be refined. The insights of others, bringing different life experiences to our own, can open our minds – if only we have the courage to hear what others say. It also shows empathy. Listening to and acknowledging opposing views lets others know their grievances have been heard. Feeling heard is conducive to cohesion, inclusion and unity.

Tingle is correct, I think, that a huge part of leadership is the ability to corral opposing factions into compromise agreements, both within one’s own party and within the broader parliament, but also across the public sphere. This is also the way to create good policy. The best policy is not simply that of the left or right. The best policy synthesises the brilliance that can be found across the political spectrum, and across the breadth of philosophical thought: good ideas from socialism, liberalism and conservatism. The Liberal Party’s slide to the right demonstrates a loss of balanced leadership, and this is bad for Australia. Politics needs balance, not extremism.

“Why would you want to become a politician?”

When Malcolm Turnbull rejected the Uluru Statement, I, like so many Australians, was heartbroken. A historic, unprecedented First Nations consensus was ignored. Years of lobbying from the outside came to nothing. I realised then that you have to be inside parliament, where the decisions are made, to truly change things – and not just on constitutional reform, but on climate change, health, education, inequality and so much more.

The events of the past several months, and indeed the leadership instability of the past several years, pose a challenge to politicians and would-be politicians – on all sides. Our democracy needs to do better. My hope is that political representatives can find ways to pursue leadership in the inclusive and intelligent centre, to focus more on the best policy and the best ideas, and less on plotting and “playing the game.” The challenge for all of us is to work together to herald the better angels of our nation’s nature.


Shireen Morris is the Labor candidate for the seat of Deakin. She is the author of Radical Heart and the editor of A Rightful Place and co-editor of The Forgotten People.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 70, Dead Right. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 71, Follow the Leader.


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