Monday, 22 June 2009

Thesis Plan: Exploring the Relationship Between Political Leadership and Party Politics

Below is the plan I submitted to my PhD supervisors as to what I intend to explore and argue in my thesis, which is to be submitted to Griffith University by February 2012.

The thesis seeks to study the relationship between political leadership and party politics. It aims to explore the ways in which these concepts are both interrelated and contradictory. Leadership is looked upon as an increasingly important skill in modern political culture as the Australian system of government moves toward an increasingly Presidential focus. Conversely, the study of party politics is focused primarily towards the collective political culture. It is these inherent tensions, between the focus towards individual superiority favoured in leadership theory, and the need to examine political parties from a structural perspective that this work aims to explore.

The concepts of leadership and party politics have been widely studied as interdependent terms, but rarely combined. Using elite theories, political party theorist Robert Michel claimed that ‘For technical and administrative reasons, no less than for tactical reasons, a strong organization needs an equally strong leadership.’(Michel, 1915, p.28) This is but one example of Michel providing an instructional guide to would be leaders. However, the relationship between stable leadership and a strong political party is not explored with greater analysis. Panebianco covers similar territory, by examining successful political parties throughout Europe and identifying successful commonalities, in both party dominance and organisational superiority. He states that ‘…The party leadership’s fundamental objective is to safeguard organisational stability.’ (Panebianco, 1988, p.42) Additionally Panebianco explains how leadership of a party affects it on an organisational level, but does not explore the political ramifications, or more particularly the electoral consequences of this relationship.

A similar trend has emerged in the field of leadership theory. The trend in the field is to develop an individual leadership framework to fit specific examples, both within Australia and internationally. Whilst these works provide useful information to examine characteristics and trends, scant attention is paid to the effects of party politics upon leaders. The structure of a political party influences the way in which leaders are cultivated, chosen, supported and sometimes dismissed. Graham Little has done extensive work in this area studying leadership from a psychoanalytical perspective in Strong Leadership (1988). He argues that ‘Party leaders…have become symbols of who we are personifications of our way of life and our deepest beliefs.’ (Little, 1988, p.2). As a way to expand this theory Little developed his own categories to fit archetypical leaders by using Ronald Regan, Margaret Thatcher and Malcolm Fraser as case studies. However, little mention is made of the roles that political parties play in developing leaders, which fit into these categories. More recently, James Walter and Paul Strangio expanded upon Little’s work to comment on the trend towards a ‘…domineering leadership model… in a climate when the currency placed on leadership has become so pronounced, and where leaders are looked upon as transformative agents of politics.’ (Walter and Strangio, 2007, p.12) This has become known as the ‘command culture’ of modern politics. (Walter, 2008). Whilst Walter links the elite theories of Michel and Panebianco when stating that institutional factors play a significant role in creating the command culture, greater detail is needed to examine what these factors are, and more specifically what kind of role they play in influencing styles of leadership.

Therefore, the thesis intends to fill the theoretical gap by combining both leadership theories and party literature. It aims to determine a comprehensive approach to how differing leadership styles fit within a party system and within different party systems. It will examine how leadership and party politics can work collaboratively, but also demonstrate how these factors can contradict one another. Does a certain leadership style suit the political party structure? Which is the more important to leader the stakeholders of a political party, the needs of a party’s stakeholders, or to maintain a hold on their leadership? What can political parties do to not only cultivate successful leaders, but to maintain them? These are all important questions that will be considered during the course of the thesis.

The Australian Labor Party (ALP) on a Federal level provides an instructive set of examples in which to examine these theoretical questions. The ALP is based upon social democratic principles with a rigid and hierarchical structure. The grass root branch structure is fundamentally important for the parties overall ethos. As Crisp describes it, the ‘…ALP membership as a whole is based on sovereignty, a sovereign band of equals and can do more than delegate its authority where direct exercise of that authority is impracticable.’ (Crisp, 1978, p.5) The branch level encompasses a variety of policy and special interest committees, which in turn reports on its activities to the annually held State Conference and the tri annually held Federal Conference.

The Executive of the ALP is the main decision making body of the Party. They are responsible for overseeing the management of election campaigns; finances, and membership. They act as an intermediary between the parliamentary wing and the branch members themselves. The main criticism of the overall structure is that the parliamentary wing (Caucus) must serve too many masters. In a streamlined political environment critics believe it is impossible to consult all of the stakeholders involved in the Party Structure. (McMullan, 1991, p.42) With so many conflicting interests there are many occasions where Caucus must make decisions, which are politically beneficial, whilst going against the wishes of the Branch Members as well as the Executive. Over the course of its history the ALP’s structure has been highly beneficial in its successful periods, whilst being a hindrance during others. It arguably led to the three party splits, which remain the darkest spots in the ALP’s history. Therefore, it can be concluded that the Party lives and dies based upon the success of its structure.

One commonalty between those splits was the lack of effective leadership. The thesis will examine the leadership of the Federal ALP over a fifteen year period between 1996 and 2010? During this period, the ALP had four different leaders Kim Beazley (in two separate terms), Simon Crean, Mark Latham and Kevin Rudd. The majority of this period was spent in opposition, and suffering against an electoral tide. This period also provides examples of the ALP operating under great extremes within the party political leadership paradigms. Under the successive leadership tenures of Beazley, Crean and Latham, the needs of the party were often in direct conflict with the objectives being pursued by its leaders. Similarly these leaders did not meet the many structural needs of the party. Yet under Rudd’s leadership he and the many stakeholders within the party structure have so far enjoyed a mostly harmonious working relationship.

The thesis will explore why this was the case. Was it simply the case of Rudd’s leadership characteristics suiting the ALP regimented structure? Did the ALP develop a better model of adapting to Rudd’s leadership style? Were their other obvious external factors at work? Did the electoral failures persuade members to moderate their concerns? These questions will help determine what kinds of leadership qualities suit the ALP. More broadly they will help determine what role effective leadership plays within the party system.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Revisiting Mark Latham

I have a long academic relationship with Mark Latham. Not that he would know it. He is partially responsible for my greatest professional triumph, namely obtaining first class Honours in political science. He provided so much fodder to explore both the good and bad aspects of the ALP; I was really lucky to stumble across the topic to explore issues of Labor Party leadership in such great depth. Latham is the political equivalent of Michael Jackson, talented with a gift unlike any other, but supremely and monumentally deluded as a result of his own genius.

I met Latham once when he was Shadow Treasurer under Crean in June 2003. I was at a local ALP function, which was simultaneously designed to raise funds for the Sunshine Coast ALP and to promote his book From The Suburbs. He wowed the partisan crowd in his usual town hall meeting style and we all believed that we were witnessing the next Prime Minister of Australia. I am not ashamed to admit that I was an ardent supporter of Latham’s both before and after he became leader of my great party, though you will be hard pressed to find anybody else who is willing to admit it. Kind of like trying to find someone who will willingly admit that they voted for John Howard in four consecutive elections.

The trouble with most Labor members is that we expect every one of our leaders to measure up to Whitlamesque standards. They must have a reformist zeal, they must have a commanding presence, and they must have a supreme intellect. Latham was the closest thing the Party had to Whitlam since the Dismissal. Not coincidentally, they were both burned at the figurative political stake.

The trouble with Latham is by no means his doing alone. As I argued in my thesis:

While circumstances do not always allow for an ideal selection process this thesis concludes that the ALP failed to plan effectively for leadership succession and did not adequately scrutinise its two previous leaders. Crean was chosen because he seemed the only suitable candidate despite not having the full confidence of caucus. When he failed to gain the support of the Australian electorate the party turned in desperation to Latham who presented as an exciting new leader, provided generational change and had the capacity to engage voters with his vision. But Latham was also chosen without sufficient scrutiny of his abilities. His lack of experience in federal politics, his volatile temperament and allegations of unsavoury incidents from his past were all overlooked by a caucus desperate for a saviour who could turn the electoral fortunes of the party around.

Thus the tortured monolith of Latham was created by the party itself.

During my Honours thesis I refused to use The Latham Diaries as an academic source. I thought they were too biased, due to author being too close to the events that surrounded him. Without objectivity, I feel you cannot look at things from an academic standpoint. A good piece of academic writing is meant to examine the evidence, craft it into an argument, and then turn it into a persuasive piece of work. Using The Latham Diaries I felt removed this objectivity.

Yet here I am again revisiting Latham again as part of my PhD to explore his leadership in a wider context. This time I am not only exploring his leadership tenure as a single entity, but within the larger scope of the ALP throughout the past two decades. In this regard the following quote from the Diaries bring questions about the Latham leadership and what it means to the ALP party structure as a whole.

Machine politics has not only produced a crisis of methodology within the ALP; it has also led to a crisis of belief. The factional system of command and control has guttered the effectiveness of grass roots representation in the Party. Most local branches are rorted and empty. Labor conferences and policy committees are tightly stage managed, devoid of creativity and genuine debate. Party membership is in inexorable decline. The Party’s defining purpose now revolves around power and patronage, the fuel that sustains its factions but that ultimately drains the True Believers of conviction and belief.

Yet how much weight should this analysis be given? Some would argue that insights such as this should be taken at face value and be subject to greater investigation given the fact that he has worked at the coalface of the party structure. Yet on closer inspection I am not so sure.

Since Latham has left politics there have been literally tons of literature written about his political career and personality. The best two of these come from diametrically opposed angles. The first was an article written by Latham’s former Chief of Staff, Mike Richards for the International Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies in which he makes the following characterization of his former boss:

Latham’s behavior might best be characterized as that of a narcissistic loner, whose best and worst political outcomes were shaped by a psychological state -- an inflated but fragile sense of self enclosed by a shell like exterior that proved brittle and ultimately inadequate -- that disposed him to believe he could not trust anybody else and that he alone knew the way to political success.

Latham’s narcissistic and paranoid personality shaped a consistent pattern of political behavior. The core features of that style are a distinctive political brilliance and drive that is accompanied by paranoia and destructive tendencies -- anger, rage, envy and resentment -- which suggest an inner dynamic involving overweening ambition defending against (that is, compensating for) low self-esteem.

The second of these works is Bernard Lagan’s biographical work Loner: Inside A Labor Tragedy which concludes with the following quote from Latham:

The old party has become a very conservative institution run by conservative machine men (all from factions) so it is well suited to a conservative stand for nothing leader… it is not an organisation I can be optimistic about. It is beyond repair and beyond reform. That’s sad for all Australians who see Labor as our best hope for social justice in this country…. It’s a false hope.

The question now is what can Australian politics learn from the Latham experience? Can his arguments be taken seriously? Clearly the Liberal Party are falling into the pattern with Malcolm Turnbull as I highlighted yesterday. Leaders with egocentric personalities, volatile tempers and autocratic tendencies do not conform political party structures. I wonder if the Liberal Party will learn this the hard way like their ALP counterparts?

Saturday, 20 June 2009

Book Review: Stop at Nothing: The Life and Adventures of Malcolm Turnbull


To the Liberal Party of John Howard, Malcolm Turnbull is like a handsome stranger who turns up on a cruise boat. He’s charming, He’s witty, he’s erudite, and he’s happy to buy the drinks. So why, oh why do they hang back?

The above quote demonstrates the current dilemma of Malcolm Turnbull perfectly captured by political journalist Annabel Crabb in the latest volume of the Quarterly Essay. Appropriately titled Stop at Nothing this biographical account essentially argues, (like others before it) that the current Opposition Leader is an egomaniacal control freak whose sole purpose for entering Federal Parliament was to rise to the top job of becoming Prime Minister.

Whilst that may be true of the majority of Federal politicians, no one has gone quite of his way to explicitly demonstrate that more than Turnbull. The essay constantly demonstrates via a number of examples that Malcolm’s primarily concern is Malcolm, even when he his trying to be selfless. Yet, this is not a biased, investigative piece of ‘gotcha journalism’ such as was displayed by Four Corners last year when it did its own profile piece on Turnbull. What’s striking to me is in fact how objective Crabb was when chronicling the life of a thoroughly reprehensible man, who prospered at the University of Sydney, by attending no classes, and instead paying his friend $30 to take notes on his behalf in all of his classes.

Throughout the course of reading the book I asked myself repeatedly, do I want this man to become Prime Minister? The answer each time was a resounding no. There is no doubt that Turnbull is indeed a highly intelligent, well skilled and supremely motivated man. However, during the course of the one hundred pages the reader is left to ask one fundamental question. What does Malcolm Turnbull stand for? The only answer being of course, Malcolm Turnbull.

Even the most objective author can see this is a lasting problem not only for the Liberal Party but for Malcolm Turnbull himself. If the party has a leader that doesn’t believe in anything besides his own progress, then where do the party turn to when crafting policies to win over a jaded electorate? Its no wonder that the Liberal Party remain skeptical of his motives, when he is prepared to jettison their deeply held beliefs for the sake of his own personal progress.

Crabb’s work reminds the reader why the public at large give politicians a bad reputation. Turnbull embodies all that is good and bad about the hastened characterisation. Whether Turnbull is destined to become Prime Minister remains to be seen, but whether he is destined to become a great politician is already known. Vote for Turnbull at your own peril. He is a man that will indeed Stop at Nothing to become Prime Minister, even if it means destroying the Liberal Party in the process.

Friday, 19 June 2009

Country Music? Time to Get Fearless.


I used to hate country music, hate it with a fiery passion. In fact I remember driving though Tamworth ‘Australia’s country music capital’ a few times on return trips between my current and former homes. Each time I would close my eyes the entire time and focus on the commentary of Peter Roebuck as he would make his sage comments during the Boxing Day Test, until I passed the town right though. Country music was putrid, I correctly surmised. This was until Taylor Swift.

This leads me to another story. I was watching the Grammys in February this year in the vague attempt to understand what the Recording Industry Association of America think is ‘outstanding’. Of course, none of it was. Anonymous rappers posed like idiots, Chris Martin alternated facial expressions between earnest and constipated (sometimes both), and then of course there was Radiohead, who as expected were just fucking weird. Then the announcer said ‘Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift’ ‘Oh no not fucking Miley Cyrus!’ I thought. I hovered my finger over the fast forward button of the DVR remote just bracing for the inevitable pain. I heard the name Taylor Swift before, knew she was a ‘country star’ but not much more. Then she started to sing a song called Fifteen about her first day at High School.

You take a deep breath and walk through the doors. It's the morning of your very first day. You say hi to your friends you ain't seen in a while. Try and stay out of everybody's way.

It's your freshmen year and you're gonna be here for the next four years in this town. Hoping one of those senior boys will wink at you and say you know I haven't seen you around, before

Just those first few lines hit me with a loud bang. It evoked so many memories of myself starting out at a new high school at the same age (substituting the gender pronouns). The lyrics were so simple, yet so descriptive. It was like I was back in the Student Centre listening to Mr Peach greeting all the students via a megaphone on that hot January morning in 1999. It was enough for me to forget that Miley was there, let alone accompanying a songstress who spoke directly to my inner dork.

Thus I quickly raced over to the computer, forgetting about the rest of the Grammys to download Taylor’s latest album Fearless to try and assess whether Fifteen was a one off or merely an indicator of greater things. Fortunately it was the latter. I have been hooked ever since.

Taylor is apparently 19, born two weeks before the advent of the 1990s. In some ways the content of the album seems to suggest that, concentrating on romantic wish fulfillment, as well as love lost and found, but in others much of the material seems to belie her age. It’s almost as if she is two or three decades older, writing on these events with a sense of perspective that only comes with maturity. The best thing about that is it suggests that Taylor uses the strengths of country music: namely the innate details of storytelling song writing, and forgoes the obvious weaknesses of the genres tawdry musicianship.

This is particularly the case with songs such as Love Story and You Belong With Me which both handle the above balance perfectly. As the respected All Music Guide points out the whole album is full of such songs.

Fearless never feels garish, a crass attempt at a crossover success. It's small-scale and sweetly tuneful, always seeming humble even when the power ballads build to a big close. Swift's gentle touch is as enduring as her songcraft, and this musical maturity may not quite jibe with her age but it does help make Fearless one of the best mainstream pop albums of 2008.

My only regret is that I didn’t discover this album last year when it was released. Not only would it have been at the top my list, but it is surely one of the albums of the decade.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

A Journey Through the Musical Landscape

Music is such an important part of my existence. Sometimes I think of it is a reason for my being. However, listening to music is by its very nature a passive experience. Except I can never do anything passively. Many of you know this to be the case, especially when it comes to music. I have become known around my workplace as ‘that guy in the wheelchair who has his IPOD attached whilst singing along in the library'. Music for me is largely an interactive experience.

Music was a huge part of my childhood. One of my first memories is of a Saturday morning in the mid 1980s when my father would put on Gold by Spandau Ballet as he was performing his weekly routine. Ask my brother about this and he will recall the exact same moment, its etched in our collective brains. My family is by no means musical, between my brother, my parents and I we do not have a musical bone in our bodies and yet there is, and was always a soundtrack that made up our lives. Dad would play Steely Dan, Neil Young, Crowded House and many pathetic Australian bands too tragic to name. Mum would clean the house whilst listening to Enya and Kenny G. I even remember way back in 1988 when my brother bought his very first LP, Faith No More’s Epic. His taste hasn’t improved much since.

For me though, due to my late development, I was attracted to music well before anything else, and so it has remained. Like my peers I have made the occasional questionable choice, but these will always remain in my memory, not because of the regrettable choices they created, but the memories they forged. The first time I realised I had a genuine crush on a girl, it was my first day of high school and Savage Garden’s To the Moon and Back was playing on the way home. It was the shape of things to come both musically and personally, not least because I found out more than a decade later she liked girls.

Then I moved to Queensland, and thus was freed from the shackles of Top 40 radio into the realm of the not quite popular, not quite respected. During these years I loved Oasis. Only thing was that I was about three years too late. By the time I was enjoying the riffs of Supersonic both Liam and Noel Gallagher wasted what good talent they had via several lines of cocaine. Similarly, Third Eye Blind were massively popular in the US, but no one had heard of them in Australia, save for their one hit wonder Semi Charmed Life, which happens to be the worst song in their catalogue. I was neither trendy, nor popular.

I remained in this kind of flux for several years, until the life changing event that all good musicians write about. I fell in love and she broke my heart. Then of course music spoke to me on a new level, and thus the world of musical subcultures emerged. Was I an indie rocker for loving Death Cab for Cutie? Or was I ‘emo’ for liking Evanescence? What about my not so secret penchant for the world of pop music? I spent my time in recovery frequenting a music message board that had five or ten decent people frequently posting, but largely consisted of poser idiots. How did I recover from my heartache? I tried to be just like them. I failed miserably.

That’s when the wonderful world of music criticism came into my life. Not only did intelligent people talk about music in an honest and refreshing way, but also more importantly no genre was taboo, no taste dismissed. It was all good music, and it all had a reason for being. The ill fated music webzine Stylus Magazine acted as a training ground for my all around appreciation. Not only were they celebrating the brilliance of an obscure artist such as Laura Viers, but also lavished praise on teen pop starlets like Marit Larsen and Mandy Moore. That in itself was just as good as thrusting a figurative middle finger at commercial pop, like so many hipster wankers are inclined to do these days. It was better because I knew something they didn’t. I had an open mind and I knew what good music sounded like, whereas they continued to exist in a claustrophobic musical space for fear of breaking the boundaries of ‘cool’.

Halfway through this year, the four newish records I listen to most often are from Grizzly Bear, Taylor Swift, Meg & Dia and Kelly Clarkson. I would assume that’s not a combination too many people listen to on a regular basis. Two are popular, two many people haven’t heard of. One is country, another is pop, a third is pop punkish, and a fourth is unclassifiable. That is the beauty of my eclectic taste, one that I fought against for the proceeding fifteen years.

Possibly the best post of my now deleted Myspace blog argued the case for mainstream pop to be critically admired. It has some merit, but now I wish to amend the statement. All good music should be critically admired. It transforms the listener from passive observer to active participant. It is a feat, which arguably no other art form can achieve. It is time we all sang in the library.