Monday, 27 February 2012

Back to the Future Part III: The End of the Transformative Leader

There’s a temptation to get caught up in the reportage of today’s Caucus vote, which declared Prime Minister Julia Gillard the winner over her predecessor Kevin Rudd for the ALP leadership 71 votes to 31. The victory is massive; the 40 vote margin is the largest in any leadership ballot in Australian political history. Rudd's 31 is the fewest votes by an ALP federal leadership contender since Whitlam defeated Hayden 32-30 in 1977 (in a much smaller caucus). Rudd’s hopes for leadership are gone and done. Perhaps Rudd is the Richard Nixon of Australian politics. Maybe, we won’t have Kevin to ‘kick around anymore'?. I didn’t see Rudd’s nor Gillard’s press conferences today. The lines in both conferences were bound to have been oft repeated before.  The race has already been won and lost. Instead, I have been trying to get my head around the bigger consequences all day.

The talking heads said all morning that this was the vote that justified the 2010 coup 18 months too late. Not that it matters anyway, but I would have put myself firmly in the Rudd camp on both occasions. Perhaps this explains why I am no longer in the party? Perhaps the ALP leaders that I am connected to and are interested in are no longer acceptable to the party? It is not a question of the ALP moving too far to the ‘Left’ or ‘Right’, but perhaps today is the day that the notion of ‘Reformist Leadership’ died in the ALP for good? During the last week, ministers constantly kept up the refrain that voting for Gillard is a triumph of policy over popularity. In fact the opposite is true. Sure, Rudd was more popular with the public, but certainly not in Caucus and that is why she won.

Gillard’s confirmation is a victory for the bureaucratic uninspired policies that she preaches but does not deliver, the methods of which I abhor. Over the course of my eight year tenure as an ALP member, five leaders assumed the highest office of the party. Despite what everyone else says, (and the subsequent results of the two leaders) I was drawn to were Latham and Rudd the most by far. The first is now consigned to the dustbin of history seen by friends and foes alike as an aberration. If it were not for his election victory in 2007, Rudd would have also be seen in this light. Perhaps the ALP revisionists will now paraphrase Hayden and say ‘a drovers dog could have won the 2007 election’? That is unfair. What attracted me to both men was that ideas were in their blood, they both wanted to change the country in broad brush strokes and demanded that the constituency follow them. They had values and opinions: Gillard has none.

It is perhaps no coincidence that both Latham and Rudd were and are egomaniacal control freaks. So are John Howard and Malcolm Fraser, I think you need to be if you truly want to be Prime Minister. I fault neither of these men, nor Gillard for behaving in this fashion. One of the greatest books ever to be published on political leadership in Australia is No Prime Minister written in 2007 by James Walter and Paul Strangio. They argue that:
…[the] domineering leadership model is being privileged in a climate when the currency placed on leadership has become so pronounced, and where leaders are looked upon as transformative agents of politics. 
The key element here is that this is a perception. Leaders are looked upon as transformative leaders, but rarely are. The last truly transformative policy to be enacted was WorkChoices in 2005, the policy widely acknowledged as the beginning of the end of the Howard Government. The current policy challenge that needs transformative thinking is climate change. Trying to promote a reform agenda in this area has already claimed 4 party leaders (Howard, Nelson, Turnbull, Rudd) with Gillard surely destined to be the fifth because both parties are too scared to make such drastic policy changes. The Australian polity likes to think it is built for a transformative leader who has the power to take on the big ideas, but the truth remains both major political parties hate the thought as much as the populace.

The problem for leaders who try to be transformative are that they are too smart for the general public. Therefore, they have to put on a thin veneer of fake behavior, lest they appear smart like Keating, who the public thought was an arrogant bastard. It does not pay in Australia to be the smartest guy in the room, the guy with the big idea, and the guy who can take charge. That characteristic spelt the end for Latham and Rudd too. Obama would never be elected in Australia. Australians would rather like a bloke or gal, rather than have them share an impressive idea.

After 5 months of wondering why I have actively grown to hate participatory politics so quickly, I have finally figured out why. I am unlike the public at large. I rejoice in the big ideas. I like when political leaders are bastards and think they know what is best. I adore politics with passion. I revel in the politics of the big picture and the long winding narrative. Today as Kevin Rudd’s career died so did the power of big ideas in politics, and the commitment to follow these ideas through.

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