Australians reward leaders who stand by core beliefs and, on occasion, flex their muscle.
WHEN a giant kauri crashes in the forests of south-western Australia, every creature trembles and, if only for a moment, all life is stilled.
This month saw the passing of a colossus among leaders. Like Churchill, De Gaulle and Mao, Gough Whitlam could boast a record great in triumphs and disasters alike. His relentless determination to take control of events actually drove history forward. This makes it an apposite time to reflect on the qualities required in a great national leader.
Recently, four thoughtful people sat down to do just this. Today we publish an account of what three former federal MPs – one of whom played a decisive role at a turning-point in the nation’s political history – and a prominent political scientist define as the qualities a great leader must have.
Maxine McKew, who became only the second MP to unseat a serving prime minister at a general election, was one of the four. She said great leaders needed to have a few issues and principles on which they would not budge.
Former Liberal Party Senator for Victoria Judith Troeth agreed, citing Howard’s strong stance on gun control after the Port Arthur massacre and the decision to make war on Saddam Hussein, regardless of whether that was now seen as right or wrong.
Her point was that people looked up to leaders who would not “fold” in a crisis. Panellist McKew gave John Howard, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating credit for their “steadiness, and a sureness and a set of convictions that they wouldn’t roll over on … there have to be a couple of things you know you’ll never ever cross the line on”.
Rob Oakeshott, the Independent Member for Lyne in NSW, pointed to Kevin Rudd whose fatal error was his failure to stand firm on climate change. The Labor Party line is that Rudd had to be toppled because of his dysfunctional management but “I don’t think any of that would have mattered a zack if he’d actually delivered on some of those big-ticket items which were the right ideas at the start”.
McKew, one of PM Rudd’s most loyal supporters, challenged what she dubbed the myth that he ran a dysfunctional office denying access to most Labor MPs.
The idea that there was “a sort of six-foot bolted door or something that you couldn’t get through, and you couldn’t get through the army of 12-year-olds and all the rest of it, is rubbish”.
A great leader enjoyed strong support from key ministers, she said, arguing that, at least in part, Rudd was let down by “a significant lack of Cabinet leadership”, especially from those in the party’s upper leadership echelon who made no attempt to confront him with his shortcomings.
In lauding Howard, Hawke and Keating as modern PMs whose leadership style conveyed sure-footed, stable government, McKew noted that all three had strong Cabinets.
On this issue of strength, McKew praised the leadership qualities Tony Abbott displayed over the shooting down of Flight MH17. She said his leading of international efforts to retrieve the bodies of passengers on Flight MH17, downed over Ukraine, had been “what Australians would want from a leader”.
“He’s kept the message simple…I think this is the angriest I have ever seen him, and…people think on this issue he has been a very good leader.”
All four panellists agreed good leaders didn’t need to be liked so long as they were respected.
Citing former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett as very unpopular with voters in 1992 and again in 1996, after four years at the helm, Troeth pointed to the conundrum “of aggressive, very direct behaviour making you not likeable, but nevertheless you are seen as doing a good job”.
Australians rewarded leaders who stood by core beliefs and on occasion flexed their muscle.
To be a successful leader, Troeth said, “You have to have that extra ounce of aggression and just take the fight up to the enemy and, if not bash them senseless, at least overwhelm them by complete force”.
Popularity is nice but not vital in a leader. Monash University professor of politics Paul Strangio said Abbott was elected in September 2013 “with a negative rating” on the question of whether he would make a good prime minister.
The speakers split on whether leaders should speak softly or carry a big stick. McKew approved of the “crash through or crash” approach pioneered by Gough Whitlam. Even Oakeshott, describing himself as “a lover, not a fighter”, said on climate change Australia faced a national emergency and called for “a wartime style of leadership”,
One reason Australia lacked such leaders, according to Ms McKew, was that “the current crop” were “terrified” of admitting that matters, in several policy areas, were beyond them: “Some actually understand the profound changes that are under way. Some are complete unnerved by them, and some of them are just terrified about being honest about it with people.”
The last word went to Oakeshott, who said poor leadership was not entirely the fault of poor leaders, and that transparency strengthened trust.
Voters should be demanding upfront honesty from political candidates, the former Independent said, and should be demanding of those who would represent them, “What is the bad news in the short term you’re going to give me, that is in Australia’s long-term best interests?”
Voters themselves were partly to blame: “As an electorate, we’ve got to grow up and be part of the solution, not just grumpy about what is not delivered when we want it.”
Maxine McKew, Judith Troeth, Rob Oakeshott and Paul Strangio made these remarks on a panel facilitated by Andrew Dodd at a Swinburne Leadership Dialogue. An abridged version is available at the Big Ideas on Radio National.
Walkley Award-winning journalist, Ken Haley, teaches journalism at Swinburne University of Technology.