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Forging the Wrong Leaders

“We are not the Labor party.” Amongst the leadership tensions of the past few weeks in the ruling Coalition government, Prime Minister Tony Abbott appears to have adopted this as a mantra of sorts, an incantation to ward off the attacks of his foes both inside and outside of his own party. A return to the internecine warfare of 2010 and 2013, he argues, would make the Liberal party as bad as their predecessors. He speaks as if there is something qualitatively different between the parties and the way they go about their operation, as if the Liberal and Labor parties have entirely different and incompatible DNAs.

Whilst the spill motion may have failed, the simple fact that the motion was raised shows that this is manifestly untrue.

Labor has not been slow to join in the chorus of jibes, directly quoting back invective initially directed at Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd by Abbott and his fellows. There is no shortage of material to use. Tony Abbott, Joe Hockey, Christopher Pyne and others were incessant in their criticism of Labor’s leadership woes, all at the instigation of the consummate attack dog who now finds the tables turned. The rich irony is that leadership battles are only unpalatable because Tony Abbott made them so. They are not new to Australian politics.

Admittedly, leadership changes at the Federal level are rarer than in State politics. Additionally, many Prime Ministers step down “gracefully” before the inevitable push. It is not until Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard – and the unedifying return to Rudd – that replacement of a sitting Prime Minister by force became somewhat common. However, the attempt by Liberal backbenchers to push a spill motion and depose Tony Abbott shows that leadership battles are not restricted to one side of politics. They are caused by something deeper – a malaise in politics.

“To lose one Prime Minister may be regarded as a misfortune. To lose two looks like carelessness.” (With apologies to Oscar Wilde.)

Deposing (or attempting to depose) a sitting, first-term Prime Minister is, admittedly rare – at least, until recent years. So how is it that we’ve come to this?

Kevin Rudd came to power in 2007 with a sweeping majority and the hopes and aspirations of Australians behind him. Less than three years later he was pushed from office, a broken, tearful man. What forces wrought the triumphant visionary of Kevin 07 into the chaotic, vindictive morass he became?

The issue at the heart of Kevin Rudd’s downfall was his inability to govern. Rudd was a great communicator, an idealist, a visionary and a fantastic politician for elections. In government, however, he proved lacking in the skills and attributes required of a Prime Minister. This came about, essentially, because elections and governments require very distinct skill-sets. What makes a great leader during an election campaign does not make a wonderful leader in power. Unfortunately, the reverse is also often true: great leaders may be let down by their inability to win elections.

Our modern democracy revolves around elections. They are the fixed points at which the people can have their say. It has been argued that Australia is a democracy for a month or so every three years, after which it becomes an effective oligarchy. There is some truth to this.

Increasingly, however, the three years between elections are conducted with an unremitting focus on the next election. Oppositions have this easy: they spend their years in the political wilderness with nothing but the next election to think about. Government is a harder job. Making decisions in the greater good, aware that every action will have detractors, will be attacked by the opposition and by the media, requires courage. Making decisions aimed solely at bolstering the government’s reputation at the next election is easier.

During elections, enormous sums of money are spent on revealing and promoting policy, on attacking political opponents, and on strategising the message. How much do you reveal? How long can you keep your best offerings hidden, in order to best capture public approval whilst restricting the other party’s opportunity to respond? All is done with an eye on the prize – the all-important twelve hours when the electoral booths are open.

Elections are replete with unreasonable expectations, with impossible promises, and unfortunately often, dirty tactics. Throw a partisan media into the mixture and an election becomes so much froth and noise, a lot of the detail can be obscured.

But then the election is over. The winning party is expected to segue into governing. Suddenly there is no money for advertising. The messaging takes a back seat: governing is a long game. In governing, there is limited value to continuing to attack the other side. Even a party which had the media’s partisan support during the election can find, all too soon, that it becomes hostile. Sudden attention is paid to detail. Promises were made during the campaign, but when it comes to execution, any number of headwinds interfere: from the quality of the public service to unexpected financial setbacks. Changing circumstances require flexibility, but promises and public expectations are not flexible.

In the public’s view, the choice has been made. The election is over: it is time to make good on the promises. And woe betide a party that cannot deliver on its promises, the next time elections come around.

Promises are the currency of elections

Campaigning requires a particular skillset of a political party and its leaders. Leaders must bring inspiration and vision. An election from opposition can be carried on criticism of the government, but only insofar as plans can be proposed to address the identified shortcomings. Attacking your opponents will get you only so far; a party needs to explain what it would do differently. The universal truth of electoral campaigns is promises.

Kevin Rudd was a great campaigner. He brought vision and grand plans. His rhetoric inspired the young and the old alike in an idea of what Australia could be. He promised changes that would be difficult, but he made them sound easy, and he had obvious commitment to his cause. Kevin 07 was a whirlwind of hope, and with a strong team behind him, he made his promises sound convincing.

Unfortunately, Kevin Rudd proved to be terrible at governing. The essential qualities of a government leader are the ability to negotiate, persistence to follow-through on projects, focus on detail, delegation and empowerment of your team, and detailed planning. These were not Kevin Rudd’s strengths. In eternal search for polling approval, Rudd lacked the ability to push projects through to completion against critical media campaigns and public resistance. His inability to delegate power and responsibility was also a detriment. In an election, the leader’s visibility and personality are critical to success. But Australia is too large and complex for a single leader, however frenetic, to manage. Kevin Rudd and his centralisation became a bottleneck, and Labor was unable to effectively execute on its promises.

Kevin Rudd was a great “wartime leader” but a mediocre peacetime one. When he was deposed in favour of Julia Gillard, the priority was to regain some momentum on the projects that had stalled. Fulfilling at least some of the promises that won the 2007 election would go some way to address the electors’ buyer’s remorse. Such was Gillard’s success in a short period of time that she won Labor another term of office.

Gillard was amazing at the things that Rudd was not. Negotiation and persistence were the hallmarks of the Gillard administration. With Gillard’s direct intervention and follow-through, outstanding issues got resolved. Promises made at the previous election, sabotaged by poor planning and policy backdowns, were resolved in short order – perhaps with suboptimal outcomes, but enough to get them off the table.

Gillard was a very successful peacetime leader and history will likely judge her kindly. However, she was let down in the face of Tony Abbott’s incessant campaigning by a poor communication style. Gillard was not seen as a great campaigner. A last-minute return to the Great Campaigner, Kevin Rudd, in late 2013 was insufficient to address the extended election campaign Tony Abbott had run from the moment he ascended to the Liberal leadership.

Uncomfortable parallels

Tony Abbott was also a great campaigner. His approach was different to Rudd’s; he brought no grand plans or vision to the table. Instead his approach was to sow discontent wherever possible, and his pitch was for a return to the Good Old Days of prosperity under Howard. His messaging was consistent and strident and believable. With no grand plans to propose, details of execution were not required. Tony Abbott ran a three-year election campaign leading up to his election in 2013. The primary promise of Tony Abbott’s Coalition was to “Not be Labor” – a message he is still pushing today, over a year after taking government.

Abbott’s success on the campaign trail has not carried through to success as Prime Minister. Tony Abbott and his cabinet repeatedly point to their grand successes – the mining tax, the “carbon tax”, and three free trade agreements. Regardless of whether you consider these outcomes to be successes, unstated are the Attacks on Everyone of the 2014 budget, the ideological attack on industrial relations, the Captain’s Picks, or the reliance of the Coalition on a model of Australia’s prosperity (mining and export) that is rapidly coming to an end. Not described is the government’s lack of a plan for developing the country into a nation of the 21st century – nor the failure of the government to progress its plans to forge the country into the preeminent example of a 20th century country. Not mentioned is the changing circumstance which is the belated acceptance of the rest of the world that Climate Change is an existential issue demanding action.

Like Rudd, Abbott is also a centraliser. The inability to entrust his Ministers with management of their own offices, let alone their own portfolios, has led to internal dissatisfaction – just like Kevin Rudd. The inability of the Abbott government – with its hard right-wing policies and its head-kicker parliamentary supremos – leads to an inability to negotiate in good faith with their political opponents, which leads to legislation languishing in the Senate. In turn, this leads to further deterioration of the budget. This government seems to know only one way to respond to a budget problem, but this approach does not have the approval of the people the government is elected to serve, nor the Senate which protects them.

The skills and attributes that brought Tony Abbott to government are not the skills and attributes needed to effectively govern this country. This is the malaise of our democracy. The focus on winning government means that leaders are forged who can win elections but not lead the country.

The enormous political cost of changing from Rudd to Gillard, and back to Rudd, led to Rudd introducing new rules to the Labor party around leadership contention. This was good politics. It is not, necessarily, good government, if it serves to protect the interests of an incompetent or unsatisfactory Prime Minister. Such rules, ironically, would serve to protect Tony Abbott, and a similar set of requirements have been proposed for the Coalition that would further endanger Australia’s ability to unseat a leader who can campaign but not govern.

Where to from here?

History shows us that Tony Abbott is unlikely to survive as Prime Minister to the next election – unless the Coalition follows Labor’s lead and institutes new rules to prevent the unseating of a Prime Minister. If Tony Abbott is unseated, perhaps as a result of another poor Captain’s Call or a further string of poor polls and State election results, who would be expected to replace him? And would Abbott be replaced by a good governor – or a great campaigner?

Amongst the ideologues and right-wing extremists, the climate deniers and the silver spoon born-to-rule set, who on the Coalition’s side can be the great governor Australia needs? Malcolm Turnbull looks like the most likely candidate for the top job (despite the particular loathing which some of his Coalition colleagues reserve for him). Can Malcolm Turnbull the Despised become the negotiator, the facilitator, and the project lead that the Coalition so desperately needs?


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  1. Florence nee Fedup

    Surely, keeping a PM who is incompetent, not up to the job is worse.

  2. thevenerable1

    Malcolm can do it only if everyone is willing to accept the indisputable fact that he’s just as much of a liar as is the rabbit. I keep saying this – but it’s only because no-one else does.

  3. ozfenric

    I hate to say it but we’ve devolved to the point that politics is a performance art. What we really need is a “power behind the throne”. A figurehead Prime Minister who can do the campaigning, explain policy choices, front the media etc. – someone photogenic and agreeable, i.e. not like Tony Abbott. And someone else behind the scenes, with the actual power and responsibility to make the decisions and negotiate outcomes. Bill Shorten could be that man, but he doesn’t seem to me to be the figurehead type.

  4. ozfenric

    p.s. I love the recent article at US think tank CFR (Council on Foreign Relations) – “Is Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott the most incompetent leader of any industrialized democracy?” http://blogs.cfr.org/asia/2015/02/05/tony-abbott-has-to-go/ Nice to see our PM is getting the international recognition he deserves.

  5. Rosemary (@RosemaryJ36)

    Abbott’s reaction to the Children in Detention report is appalling. Anything that criticises him has to be a political attack and his party’s human rights record is equally appalling.
    Not that Labor has earned any kudos there in relation to immigration policies.
    Will no one rid us of this troublesome priest?!
    ABBOTT MUST GO and so must the Coalition. And all parties need to take a good hard look at themselves because most of us do not like most of what we see.

  6. Florence nee Fedup

    I thought that Abbott is no more than a figure head. Someone else pulls the strings. Now that they have neutered Peta, they have lost control.

  7. diannaart

    Malcolm Turnbull may well be the most intelligent and enlightened of the Liberal Party – he is also of the born-to-rule, self-entitled, power-hungry conservatism that is the foundation of the Libs.

  8. Loz

    ‘Malcolm can do it only if everyone is willing to accept the indisputable fact that he’s just as much of a liar as is the rabbit. I keep saying this – but it’s only because no-one else does’

    thevenerable1 – I agree and have said it umpteen times in the AIM and in other media. Turnbull’s ambition is to be PM, and unlike many other government ministers he is not interested in financial gain but in power. Why else would he backflip on climate change and the NBN

  9. Ralphd

    Malcolm Turnbull is another Costello, want’s the big job but hasn’t got the wherewithall to do anything about it. He’s a man that will sell all of his principles to get where he wants to.

  10. ozfenric

    DanDark – I am frankly horrified that the Age, a paper I have given at least a bit of trust, would remove this article….. aaaand, now it’s back. http://www.theage.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/us-think-tank-asks-is-tony-abbott-the-most-incompetent-leader-of-any-industrialised-democracy-20150211-13cda6.html Could simply be getting overwhelmed by the amount of traffic it’s generating. I linked to the original article on CFR in my comment above.

  11. diannaart

    Good call, DD

    Added to my FB

  12. DanDark

    This is the link I kept getting and still getting, so of course I had to investigate a bit further because it seemed strange that I couldn’t get into the article and hence found the video They forgot to hide, how dumb are they,,,,, oh we know that they are all intellectual midgets…
    Ps can someone save it before it goes missing too, I am not that technologic literate 🙂


  13. Metta Bhavana

    I disagree with your thesis, particularly regarding Rudd. Abbott is a unique case. It’s impossible to make a generalisable conclusion from a sample of one. Abbott is failing for very different reasons to Rudd. Rudd succesfully governed for – what was it?- 20 months, in which time he and Wayne Swann performed admirably. Rudd got things done that the country went along with and the world admired- signing Kyoto, apologising, to our first people, underpinning the economy with stimulus designed to protect the most vulnerable. Abbot has done nothing of merit and much that we have rejected. Hockey’s budget was/is a monster and it contains a social viewpoint that despises rather than builds. The policy setting it draws from is framed and concocted by lazy and inept idealoges. Rudd went off the rails becuse his health was poor and he over worked and became frustrated and isolated by events like Copenhagen, when the world squibbed it on climate change. Abbott has done nothing of any substance. Despite what we like to see as a facile trope of tweedle-dum and tweedledee political parties, Labor and Liberal are very different beasts.

  14. ozfenric

    Thank you for the considered comment. I have a lot of respect for Kevin Rudd, he was if nothing else a visionary and strongly committed to causes we lefties hold dear. However, the chaos that was Rudd’s management style was in evidence for most of those 20 months he was in the big chair. Politics is not about individuals, however driven, and stuff still got done despite Rudd, rather than because of him. Rudd’s main achievements were either done off-the-bat – the Apology and the Kyoto signing required no significant planning or policy development, and the stimulus package that got us through the GFC was signed off practically overnight by a core group of three. But due to increasing centralisation meaning that nothing could happen without going by Rudd and his Kitchen Cabinet, and the continually increasing workload of reams of paperwork, things were going badly off the rails by the end of that time. I’ve read a fair bit about Rudd’s management style and while you can take some of it as partisan, there’s enough consistency across people of different stripes that there has to be a core of truth to it.

    Abbott is indeed his own beast, and I completely agree that Rudd’s achievements, however scant, were worthy, whereas Abbott’s “achievements” are nothing of the sort. I am not suggesting in the slightest that Labor and Coalition are same s*&t, different pants; the policy differences between them could not be more stark. (Actually, they certainly could, but that’s grist for a different article.)

    My point is that a lot of the skills required to win elections are not of great use in actually governing, as Kevin Rudd found out and Tony Abbott (or at least those who watch him) are learning. And I see a lot of parallels: their inability to trust their team and delegate, their lack of focus on achieving outcomes, their predilection for popularity over good policy.

    This article focuses not so much on what each of these governments is trying to do, but their effectiveness in actually doing them.

  15. Kaye Lee

    I remember a late night conversation with friends I greatly respect about what it took to be the visible leader of a country nowadays. The level of alcohol imbibed no doubt added to the direction the conversation headed but there was too much truth for it to be laughed off and this was before Abbott became leader of the Liberal Party.

    Suggestions were…

    Able to wear a hat without looking silly

    Able to dance adequately at diplomatic functions

    Be a raconteur

    Employ a great chef who does their homework on people’s gustational preferences

    I could go on but you get the drift. Everyone seemed to agree that today’s leaders are the frontmen for the musicians who compose the music. They sing the tune and charm their followers but they can’t read a note let alone write a symphony.

  16. Douglas Evans

    And while we’re discussing the matter of internal leadership elections we have this little gem from the party which invented the phrase whatever it takes. Those who still hope for the return of the light on the hill read and weep. These idiots have learned nothing. The staggering lack of a sense of ethical responsibility it displays is only matched by the blinding stupidity of the act. Shorten’s shaky moral authority undercut with a single act of massive stupidity. Or am I missing something? http://www.smh.com.au/nsw/bill-shortens-leadership-ballot-under-scrutiny-after-sam-dastyaris-office-redirected-papers-20150211-13bvlo.html

  17. John Fraser


    Kaye Lee

    That would be The Monkees.

  18. Blanik

    Were to from here? Take the government back from the professional arseholes and give it back to the people. Two terms maximum and back into the work force to live under their decisions.

  19. Peter Anson

    Forseeing the impending economic doom, I think that Labor ran Rudd in order to lose the election and not have to face dealing with a second reccession.The incompetents are now in charge and our future is looking very wobbly. I’ve asked Shorten plenty of times for an apology for this negligent conduct. No reply. Surprise surprise.

  20. Florence nee Fedup

    Mette, I am inclined to agree with you, when one looks at the difference between Rudd and Abbott. I do not believe that Abbott has any imagination or ability to succeed at any task.

    There does not appear to be any substance to Abbott, none at all, except a great ability at sledging all around him.

    Rudd has proven, he does have imagination and ability. One only has to look at his early success. He also had around him, a team with great ability. Not sure the same is true for Abbott. He seems to be the best of a bad lot.

    Looks at Abbott’s performance today. His release of the briefing, re the two men arrested yesterday, can only make one wonder. That and his outburst of the report from the human rights commissioner, does any this man have any insight into the needs of others.

    Yes, both men seem to share personality disorders that make them dysfunctional in all they do.

    Both seem to share traits, that means they must always get even. Could be a little paranoid within their make up.

    Australia is unlucky to be cursed with two such men, in such a short period of time.

    One cannot trust either man. Rudd has gone on to other fields of employment. I suspect as long as he keeps away from management roles, he will do well. Cannot see much future for Abbott.

    Yes, and I believe that Rudd’s heart condition did deteriorated during his period as PM.

  21. Anon E Mouse

    The party is getting rough – Rudd featuring in political articles again.

    However there are a few flat spots in your reasoning in portraying Rudd as shambolic in management, ozfenric.

    Taking a step back from the frantic blathering of the msm and tell-all biographies with biased and vested interests, it is worth considering what we now know about the players behind the scene of Rudd’s dismissal. It appears to me that Rudd was fighting unknown (to him) whiteanters from within. Just look at those who stood in line to bag him out and where they are now. Remember Shorten told the Yanks that Rudd was going to get the axe 6 months before there was any problem (according to wikileaks).

    After the Apology to the stolen generations, many of the public service and the Labor govt turned against Rudd. They did not agree with it.
    Imagine Rudd dealing with Macklin who keenly continued Mal Brough’s running of the Indigenous ministery.

    Of course we cannot forget Arbib, or was it Bitar, and Garret who appear to me to be so busy playing dirty politics against Rudd that they did not do a decent job on the insulation scheme. Etc Etc. There is actually quite a long list if you go looking.

    Added to the false loyalty Gillard demonstrated towards Rudd (don’t foget the wikileaks info), the poor fella must have been trying to put out spot fires throughout the govt – relying on his not so trustworthy inner circle.

    I do find it refreshing though to see Rudd being more thoughtfully discussed as you have done ozfenric.

    Rudd’s name is now evoked whenever things get a little rocky in the political circus – how fascinating.

  22. Pingback: Random Pariah | Forging the wrong leaders

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