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Wheeler Centre Festival of Questions: Australian Political Leadership

Presentation by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC for Wheeler Centre Festival of Questions, Melbourne Town Hall, 15 October 2017

Politicians as a class have always ranked in popular affection somewhere between used car salesmen and child-molesters. But there is more outright disaffection now with the whole business of politics than I can ever previously remember, in Australia as in most other parts of the democratic world. So my question is how can we improve the quality of Australian politics and political leadership?

Just as there has been a manifest deterioration in the quality of global political leadership, with Brexit a way-station and the election of President Donald Trump the nadir, so too has there been an equally obvious decline in the quality of Australian politics and policymaking over the last decade, with prime ministers changing with pantomime frequency, the major parties losing ground to fringe dwellers, decision-making on important social and economic issues paralysed, and sloganeering too often taking the place of policy substance (though there is one three-word slogan in recent times hard not to love: ‘Abbott’s Australia: Meaner, Dumber, Hotter’!).

Restoring effectively functioning Western liberal democracy, in Australia as elsewhere, is going to require new listening, new thinking, and new acting by our political leaders. As to new listening, since governments, as much as they might like to, can’t exactly do what Bertold Brecht suggested – ‘dissolve the people and elect another’ - the sensible course would appear to be not to blame the people, but to understand why they are reacting as they are. That means leaders listening, not lecturing. Not many leaders in our recent Australian past have had that instinctive ability to connect. John Howard seemed able to manage it across a fairly broad spread of the community, but Bob Hawke was probably the last to be able to do that across pretty much the whole social spectrum.

New thinking means new policy approaches to the issues that are really resonating with the disaffected – above all being seen to seriously address the central concern that no–one be left behind. The Hawke-Keating Government was able to achieve massively necessary and long overdue economic efficiencies by its compensatory ‘social wage’ approach, but these approaches may be much harder now to implement. Maybe we have to start thinking again about more radical approaches like Universal Basic Income. Whatever the answers prove to be, it is imperative that our political leaders visibly start looking for them, and not just peddling the same old remedies, or looking for the same old (or new) scapegoats.

New acting means above all else bringing a new style to the business of politics, which is both more cooperative and consultative, but also more courageous. For parties in government, there should be less focus on point scoring and more on finding common ground, supporting summits and consensus-building conferences of the kind that Bob Hawke made an art form. Parties in opposition should generally allow governments to govern, opposing outright only those measures which are absolutely and fundamentally at odds with their own party policy or ideology. Chalking up a relentless and indefensible record of negativity comes back to haunt you when you return to power with a legislative program of your own to get through.

The successful political leaders I have known have all possessed certain qualities – or at least the capacity to persuade others they had them (bearing in mind that, as Groucho Marx once said – it could equally well have been Tony Blair – ‘The secret of success is sincerity: if you can fake that, you’ve got it made’). Apart from a degree of self-belief that defies normal human inhibition, those qualities are serious intellectual ability and demonstrably high-order judgment; communication skills, and the quality of empathy which, more than anything else, enables one to connect with, and persuade, others; unimpeachable personal integrity; a clear sense of strategic direction; and, highly desirably, a work ethic, and associated physical stamina, well above the prevailing norm. To hold down a political leadership position for any length of time requires all of these qualities. If you lack any one or more of them, your colleagues or the electorate will sooner or later find you out.

That’s a pretty formidable list of requirements, but I don’t believe they are in impossibly short supply in current Australian politics. Voters have shown over and over again, here as elsewhere, that they will respond positively to an attractive story-teller telling an attractive story. Whether we have in place now, in the two major Australian parties, story-tellers with all the right skill-sets is something on which views will differ: Malcolm Turnbull’s problem may be that the electorate now knows him too well, Bill Shorten’s that it does not know him well enough.

What ought to be readily deliverable, with some determined new listening and thinking, is an attractive storyline. On the evidence of the past, and recent developments in Europe, I suspect that the storyline most likely to be found attractive – and that will, if embraced, restore some real quality in policymaking – is some contemporary variation on the ‘third way’ approach that the Hawke-Keating governments made their own (viz. tough-minded dry, competition and productivity focused, economic policy; warm, moist and highly compensatory social policy, and liberal internationalist foreign policy). But I would say that, wouldn’t I?