Leadership is the art of the impossible

ON LINE opinion – Australia’s e-journal of social and political debate
Posted Thursday, 3 November 2011

In 1967 Barbara Wootton in her autobiography In a World I Never Made wrote:

“The limits of the possible constantly shift, and those who ignore them are apt to win in the end. Again and again I have had the satisfaction of seeing the laughable idealism of one generation evolve into the accepted commonplace of the next. But it is from the champions of the impossible rather than the slaves of the possible that evolution draws its creative force”

Leadership comes in many shapes, sizes and hues. About the only thing that all leaders have in common is that they influence the behaviour of their followers.

In the 1960s, conservative commentators were wont to suggest that Aboriginal Australians had no leaders, because in traditional societies important decisions were made by a gerontocracy. Indigenous spokespersons that attempted to speak on behalf of the Aboriginal community were not seen as leaders but as troublemakers or communists. Unemployed people or social security recipients were also generally described as lacking leaders.

In 1955, W.F. Whyte in the University of Chicago publication Street Corner Society correctly observed that the apparent lack of leadership in less affluent groups is not due to the absence of leadership but rather to the manner in which affluent observers conceptualise leadership.

During the 1960s, it was fashionable to describe leadership in terms of dichotomies, such as: intended or unintended, formal or informal. Since the 1970s writers have been much more inclined to describe a far wider range of leadership styles.

Writing in February 1948, in volume 13 of the American Sociological Review, Phillip Selznick noted that even in formal authoritarian structures, control and consent couldn’t be divorced. Such ideas were a central component in many of the judgements at the Nuremburg War Trials, where it was held that it was not a defence to argue that one was just following orders.

Australian political leadership

With this brief introduction in mind, I would like to tease out some of the differences between pragmatic managers of the political system and political leaders who create change, even where the general consensus suggests that the status quo is firmly in place.

I recognise that such an analysis looks remarkably like a 1960s dichotomy, similar to those described above, and if it was conceived of in terms of two polar opposites then it would indeed be a dichotomy. But I view the Australian political reality to be a spectrum and any particular elected representative will have elements of each of these polar positions in their kitbag.

When it comes to pragmatic managers of the political agenda, it really boils down to such leaders trying to serve broader community interests as they set out to advance their narrower personal aims. It is unwise to assume that pragmatic managers know what the general public desires or would attempt to achieve it even if they knew.

Political leaders who create significant change in a country’s direction are often not seen as outstanding leaders until after dramatic events take place. When Menzies’ United Australia Party lost office in 1941, few would have foreseen his 1949-66 period in office as even a remote possibility.

The wartime Curtin and Chifley Labor Governments were operating in such turbulent times that substantial change was more a necessity than an option. Chifley was concerned that ex-service personnel returning from the war would not tolerate unemployment and attempted to ensure that a system of full employment and decent benefits for unemployed people was put in place. In 1947, Labor consolidated all social security legislation in one act. Chifley was wrong-footed by the coal miners’ strikes, his decision to maintain petrol rationing and his desire to nationalise the banks.

Menzies, by then leading the Liberal Party, swept back into office. Labor did not go within cooee of toppling him till 1961. In that year, Menzies won by one seat held by Jim Killen where the Communist candidate had preferenced the Liberals ahead of Labor.

Though Menzies towered over his party, he did not change things very much. He tried to outlaw membership of the Communist Party of Australia via a referendum but under the dogged leadership of the Labor Leader Doc Evatt the referendum was defeated.

Evatt, who had been a High Court Judge and President of United Nations General Assembly, was the antithesis of a pragmatic manager. The Labor Party split over the communist issue allowing conservatives opportunistically to use Democratic Labor Party preferences to remain in office until 1972. Menzies was replaced by a series of political gnomes: Holt – remembered for failing skin diving; Gorton – forgotten; and McMahon – remembered for the split in his wife’s dress.

Eventually Gough Whitlam replaced, “two Wong’s don’t make a white” Caldwell as leader and Labor was on the comeback trail. In 1972, at his second attempt, Gough Whitlam strode into office like a colossus. After 23 years of unbroken conservative rule when radical change did not seem a possibility – it was now inevitable.

Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War had ended. Social security provisions were made increasingly more generous. Aboriginal land rights and self-determination were firmly on the agenda. Gender equality became a serious issue. The White Australia Policy was watered down during the time of the Liberal gnomes and it was formally abandoned in 1973 when the Labor Government:

  • Legislated that all migrants, regardless of origin, be eligible to obtain citizenship after three years of permanent residence;
  • Ratified all international agreements relating to immigration and race; and · Issued policy to totally disregard race as a factor in selecting migrants.

Following the Dismissal of the Whitlam Government, Malcolm Fraser was appointed to lead a caretaker government. Whitlam showed he could still inspire a devoted following.

I remember being in the Greek Hall in Darwin in the run up to the 1975 election. When there was no longer any standing room in the hall, young Greek men climbed up the beams which supported the roof and hung from the girders for an hour shouting: “We want Gough.” When he finally appeared the applause was deafening.

Fraser won the 1975 election and set out to crack down on workers entitlements and the unemployed. The Fraser Government was not a racist government. It passed the Northern Territory Land Rights Act of 1976 in a form not that far removed from the Whitlam Government’s draft legislation. It handled the influx of Indo-Chinese asylum seekers without the hullabaloo of the current Gillard-Abbott descent into the offshore processing of asylum seekers quagmire.

In 1983, Bob Hawke won the Drover’s Dog election and three more on the trot. He set out to get an accord between the government, the unions and industry – the ultimate actions of a pragmatic manager. Wages did not keep pace with inflation but workers superannuation and social security benefits were seen to compensate for that. After a prolonged internecine dispute, he was eventually replaced by his deputy. Paul Keating did so much as Treasurer to modernise the economy but will probably be best remembered for the vitriol of his debating style and the humanity of Redfern speech.

Keating held on to office in the 1993 election, during which John Hewson had tried to convince Australia that we needed a GST, only to lose in 1996 to John “Lazarus with a triple by-pass” Howard. Howard never made any secret of his economic fundamentalist leaning, nor his social conservatism and set out with alacrity to fight the culture wars against those he declared to be “elites.” He convinced many blue-collar workers that those who were reliant upon social security were welfare cheats or dole bludgers or job snobs. Thereby unleashing, in the ranks of the “Howard battlers,” a torrent of downward envy directed at people who were unemployed, lone parents or disability support pensioners.

Once he succeeded in dividing the working class, Howard was able to enforce individual work contracts and slash award conditions. He eventually introduced a GST. He attacked Indigenous organisations and the reconciliation process. His last act was to suspend the Racial Discrimination Act and implement the Northern Territory Intervention.

But on the way, he used the Port Arthur massacre to bring in gun control and managed to get Indonesia to hold a referendum in East Timor that ultimately led to East Timorese independence. Howard introduced temporary protection visas, turned some boats around on the high seas, excised offshore islands from Australia’s migration zone and introduced offshore processing of asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru. Not since Whitlam had there been a leader as intent to use his time in office to change the status quo.

By 2007, it was time for Kevin 07 Rudd, to present himself as a safe pair of hands who was not going to frighten the horses – a social conservative like Howard and a devout Christian to boot. He even promised to persevere with the NT Intervention for a year. Towards the end of his first term, having managed to avoid a recession by counter cyclical spending, Rudd succeeded in convincing his colleagues that he was a control freak with few useful ideas who was not even a good pragmatist. In fine Labour tradition his deputy, Julia Gillard, rolled him.

The next election resulted in a hung parliament – Julia Gillard was able to convince three of the independents and the Greens that she would lead a better government than Tony Abbott. She has managed to introduce a price on carbon pollution and will probably oversee the legalisation of gay marriage. She has managed the crossbenches in the Parliament well and the 27 per cent who say they will vote Labor are probably satisfied with her pragmatism.

But like the leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott (the leader of the no’s in the House) she is cowered by the racists in this country who would ignore the International Conventions on Refugees that we have signed and ratified and use to process those who arrive by boat onshore. Gillard has continued most of the Howard NT Intervention policies and extended some of them to ensnare poor people in other parts of the country where Aborigines, Pacific Islanders and Muslims are concentrated. This is not leadership – it is racism.

Looking back at the last 70 years it is easy to separate those heading political parties who championed change even when the changes they were seeking seemed unlikely to occur from those pragmatic managers who were content to massage the egos of those around them in order to hold on to power.

In the 2011 Australian parliament, the overwhelming majority of the parliamentarians believe Howard won the culture wars and that the fight is over. Only the Greens and a couple of the Independents have the courage to champion the impossible.