Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
A good objective of leadership is to help those who are doing poorly to do well and those who are doing well to do even better.
If former Prime Minister Paul Keating is right, and, in the bigger scheme of things, human cabinet material amounts to little more than being the dust in the cracks of the floorboards of history, then it begs the inevitable question as to what constitutes modern leadership. Keating certainly did not make these comments to diminish the role of politicians, or to deny that they have a huge impact on the policymaking process. On the contrary, he has been consistently arguing that leadership matters greatly, but it is the policy legacy alone that counts. As he told his biographers Troy Bramston and David Day, leading requires two principles, imagination and courage. If imagination is allowed to flourish, and a democratically elected leader is prepared to use up all his or her political capital to bring about change, then we are talking about true leadership.
Being a vaguely defined and illusive concept, the social sciences have relatively little to say on the art to lead, with the notable exception of the late Howard Elcock, emeritus professor of government at Northumbria University. Almost 20 years ago, he lamented the inability of the social sciences to approach political leadership in a more normatively prescriptive way, suggesting that the debate, primarily focused on ‘new public management’, has led to a neglect of social values. Therefore, so Elcock opined, a new normative approach is needed to not just understand the various determinants constructing the political concept of leadership, but perhaps also to develop a methodology that could be instructive for current leaders and provide valuable advice.
Much closer to home, it was veteran journalist Laura Tingle who tried to place the Australian experience of having become the Italy of the Pacific into a wider global context, arguing in her much acclaimed essay Follow the Leader that significant cultural shifts have occurred which tempt individuals to project personal expectations onto their political leaders, causing the sort of stress liberal representative democracies are ill-equipped to handle. The reassertion of populism and nationalism is essentially the symptom of the inability of current politics to channel these individual expectations in a productive manner serving the common good. Tingle writes:
For whatever our expectations of government, whatever the state of our institutions and institutional memory, it is leadership that helps both to settle those things, and change them. We don’t much discuss our expectations of government, or consider the changing nature of the institutions that hold our society together, and so often we have faulty memories of what has gone before. But we do increasingly focus our frustration with our society and our politics on the human form of our leaders. We bemoan a lack of leadership. Some yearn for the good old days when we had it. Yet when we get it, we sometimes don’t recognize it, and even if we do, we seldom reward it. People always grumble about political leaders. But there is a deeper malaise afoot now. Zoom out from the daily inanity of the domestic news cycle. Zoom out even further from the point where you shake your head in disbelief at Trumpian political developments around the world or local Liberal Party madness.
Follow the Leader by Laura Tingle
These newly emerging cultural undercurrents, observed by Laura Tingle in her essay, are likely to put additional strain on liberal democracies all over the world, forcing political elites to invest more time and effort into managing individual expectations of citizens. Rather than lacking potential leaders in our political class, it is the constant interplay between new cultural trends and daily politics which makes it difficult for big picture leaders to succeed. Politicians prepared to raise their heads above the parapet will incur huge political costs, making it much harder to engage in longterm planning and strategic thinking in a number of policy areas. Whether or not Bob Hawke with his common touch or Paul Keating with his intellectual depth would have succeeded in our present political environment is difficult to say.
As a consummate practitioner of the art of politics, and as one of the most successful Australian Foreign Ministers, holding high public office from 1989 until 1996, Gareth Evans has quite a few things to say about leadership. Having been a member of both the Hawke and Keating governments, Labor’s golden years owed plenty to effective political communication, and Hawke as well as Keating brought it to the team in abundance. If imagination and courage are the foundational principles on which leadership rests and relies, cut-through political communication skills make up the fuel needed for takeoff. The 1993 federal election was a case in point. Having languished in opposition for the better part of a decade by then, the Liberals decided to challenge Labor hegemony by presenting to the public a very detailed, ambitious economic policy agenda which, if it had been implemented in full, would have redefined the social contract between citizens and the state. The leadership of John Hewson didn’t lack imagination or courage, but his party never had a compelling story to tell that related to ordinary Australians on the street. When March 11 came, Hewson ended up losing ‘the unlosable election’, and he did so to the consternation of pollsters and pundits alike. More than 26 years later, roles seem to have been reversed, with an overconfident Labor Party heading into the election with an overly ambitious policy platform which, if the party had been successful in May this year, could have taken Australia into a very different direction. Like Hewson back in 1993, Shorten’s party had no accompanying narrative for selling new, detailed and daring policies on the doorstep to voters. Therefore, Labor was brutally punished on May the 18th, and its prospects for a quick recovery remain uncertain at present.
The unbeatable duo in Australian politics
Any Labor government, forced by economic realities to break with longstanding party orthodoxy, must not lose sight of equity.
In order to leave the age of hopelessness and incrementalism behind and prevent the country from turning into an industrial museum or, as Keating once put it, into a graveyard of industrial archeology, the government introduced a raft of measures designed to strengthen Australia’s international competitiveness and increase the country’s productivity. Some of these measures had been long in coming, and included floating the Australian Dollar; the deregulation of the banking sector; the introduction of a low-tariff regime and a huge wave of privatization by selling off a number of public assets. By introducing Medicare and Superannuation, the Labor government tried to ensure increasing levels of equity in society. These welfare provisions have become so highly regarded by Australians that no government has dared to abolish them, since this would amount to a political suicide mission. Whilst Labor’s economic legacy is contested in some quarters, many of the policies have endured and become the accepted norm in today’s Australia.If channeled properly, history has shown that personal rivalries in politics can turn out to be incredibly productive and beneficial for governments, leading to creative thinking and innovative policymaking. The competitive and often fraught relationship between Hawke and Keating was fruitful for many years, until it finally broke down in 1991. The ensuing political battle almost tore the Labor Party apart, and it took until late December for Keating to garner enough support to dislodge Labor’s electorally most successful Prime Minister to date.
A political warrior pushing the envelope
Having cut his teeth in the toxic environment of NSW Labor politics, Keating never shied away from hunkering down in the trenches, relishing the art of political combat; His sharp wit and his use of powerful metaphors transformed Keating into one of the greatest and most revered parliamentary performers in the world.
Having been blessed with an inquisitive and curious mind, Keating, throughout his career in public life, assumed more and more the role of an intellectual, towering high above most of his political contemporaries, and certainly standing head and shoulders above the crop of journalists making up the bulk of the Canberra Press Gallery. Considering that Keating quit school at the age of 15, this in itself is a remarkable achievement. Nations need strategic space If this is so, then Keating was determined to create that extra bit of space for his country by pivoting to Asia.
In Keating’s view, security can only be found ‘in and not from Asia’, and this in turn means that Australia has to become more than a mere derivative power. He does not question the importance of close strategic ties with the US, but believes that Australia’s future is rooted in the region, and healthy relations with Asia at large and China remain the most reliable security formula and must inform foreign policymaking in Canberra. Indeed, the recalibration of Australian foreign policy had already begun under Hawke, but Keating knew that, in order to last, foreign policy changes had to be institutionalized. Governments of all political persuasions have built on the Hawke Keating legacy, even though they have only done so with varying degrees of commitment and success. Keating’s unwavering support for Australia becoming a republic has plenty to do with how he conceptualizes the country in the region.
The Native Title Act 1993 Jurisprudence in Australia made a big leap forward in 1992, with the High Court overturning the longstanding legal principle of Terra nullius which had been used to justify settler colonialism and the dispossession of Australia’s first people until then. Despite the Mabo decision only applying to one specific case, the court’s verdict was rightly seen as having the potential to crucially redefine relations between the Commonwealth and native Australians. Prime Minister Keating could have left it to the courts and case law to advance Aboriginal land rights, but, having made clear that he intended to bring Australia’s indigenous population out of the shadows, chose instead to spend additional political capital by initiating legislation. The Native Title Act was passed in 1993 and came into effect on January 1st 1994.
The Keating legacy thus rests on three major achievements. First, the realignment of Australian foreign policy by pivoting to Asia; the passing of the Native Title Act and the introduction of collective enterprise bargaining. Despite having been introduced in an economically uncertain climate, collective enterprise bargaining has become part of the economic reality in the country, and when John Howard tried to roll back the Keating legacy by introducing his workchoice legislation, he was brutally punished by voters in 2007. The introduction of Howard’s industrial relations reforms are widely seen as having been primarily responsible for his political demise. As Keating once said, Howard has now plenty of time to repent in opposition.
Being highly protective of his legacy, Keating continuously intervenes in public debates whenever he feels the need to do so. When he does, he is by no means above domestic politics either. Though, these days, the former PM is a highly regarded, insightful and much sought-after commentator and public speaker on issues of global significance.
Neither in substance nor style can leadership simply be replicated or copied. Rather, leaders in political life have always emerged because they uniquely interacted with and responded to the circumstances and conditions of their times and so got to define the era in which they lived. If Keating is truly onto something, and, despite us living in highly fragmented societies and cultures celebrating the individual first and foremost, the public still yearns for true leadership, one can only hope that they emerge quickly enough. In light of surging populism, nationalism and jingoism, they are more needed than ever; if our political class doesn’t rise to the occasion soon, we might not just debate policies anymore, but the future of representative liberal democracy itself. No matter what ideological viewpoint one subscribes to, this can surely not be in anybody’s interest.