Recording date:

*Speakers: Brett Mason (B), Laura Tingle (L), Marie-Louise Ayres (M)

*Audience: (A)


*Date: 30/8/18

B: Ladies and gentlemen, a very good evening to you all and a very warm welcome to the National Library of Australia and to the 29th Kenneth Myer Lecture generously supported by the Myer Foundation. I’m Brett Mason and I’m honoured to chair the Council of the National Library.

Before we begin I’d like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of this land and can I thank their elders past and present for caring for this land we’re now privileged to call our home?

You may also recognise the Director General of the Library, Dr Marie-Louise Ayres and indeed all my colleagues who serve at this great Australian cultural institution. And before I formally introduce our guest speaker for tonight, Miss Laura Tingle and let me not forget Laura’s partner, Sam Neill, let me first briefly outline the purpose of the Kenneth Myer Lecture.

Ladies and gentlemen the Kenneth Myer Lecture began in 1990 as a major annual event for the Friends of the National Library of Australia. The lecture was named for Kenneth Baillieu Myer, AC, Chairman of the National Library Council from 1974 to 1982 and a long-time friend of the Library. Kenneth Myer was a visionary, he was a visionary Australian philanthropist and businessman. He contributed to an extensive range of institutions and causes through significant personal donations, enthusiastic participation on many boards and his involvement in the Sydney Myer Fund and the Myer Foundation. 

For 29 years now the Kenneth Myer Lecture at the National Library of Australia has provided eminent Australians with a forum to speak their minds and contribute to national debate. The lecture has been presented by thought leaders from the Honourable Gough Whitlam to Professor Fiona Stanley and most recently media champion, Mr Kim Williams and journalist, Dr Anne Summers. This lecture series would not be possible without the support of Kenneth Myer himself, the Myer family and since 2015 the Myer Foundation. And on behalf of the National Library can I offer heartfelt thanks to the directors of the Myer Foundation for their continuing support of the Kenneth Myer Lecture?

Ladies and gentlemen, just a couple of weeks ago I returned from a few years overseas and I did what every dutiful son should do and of course that is to call their mother. And I called Mum after dinner one night, settling in for a long conversation and she said – I rang up and she said Brett, I’m sorry, I can’t – I just can’t speak to you right now because I’m watching The 7:30 Report and I’m listening to Laura Tingle. But despite that – you can’t get people with Laura Tingle but despite that, ladies and gentlemen, it’s my great pleasure to introduce Laura Tingle to deliver the 2018 Kenneth Myer Lecture. Laura Tingle has reported on Australian politics and policy for more than 35 years now. This year after 16 years as political editor for The Australian Financial Review she joined the ABC as Chief Political Correspondent for its flagship current affairs program, The 7:30 Report. An award-winning journalist Laura is the author of Chasing The Future, that was about the recession of the early 1990s and two quarterly essays, Great Expectations in 2012 and Political Amnesia in 2015. She released a collection of her essays, In Search of Good Government, in 2017 and her third quarterly essay about Australian politics will be published just next month.

Ladies and gentlemen, will you please join me in welcoming Laura Tingle to present the 2018 Kenneth Myer Lecture entitled Leaders and Followers, how our most crucial political relationship is changing. Laura.


L: Thank you, Brett and welcome home. I’m glad to hear you’re paying attention to your mother which means I should also acknowledge my mother, Pam, who’s here tonight and I’m so pleased that she can join us. And let me also first acknowledge and celebrate the Ngunnawal people on whose traditional lands we meet and pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging.

Thank you so much for the very real honour of being invited to give this lecture tonight. I know people always open speeches by saying something like that but I really am quite overwhelmed, all the more so since I come to give it after a particularly busy, transformative year in my life which has swirled past very quickly. A fog of new career paths opening, the bombardment of ideas and intellectual challenges which makes me very appreciative of the fact that the world of ideas remains a great place and I feel very lucky to be included in it. 

I’ve been thinking much in preparing this lecture of the legacy of Ken Myer and the august company I join in giving the lecture named in his honour. I was of course aware of Ken Myer through much of my early life as I was of the Myer family. And not just because of The Seekers at the Myer Music Bowl. The staggering breadth of his contribution to Australian life and to the country and to the richness of our cultural life is both something to inspire us and in a way to mourn simply because it shows what people are capable of bringing to us all. Yet Ken Myer remains a little too exceptional.

One thing I had not known until I was reading about Ken Myer in the last couple of weeks was that Gough Whitlam as Prime Minister had offered him the Governor General’s job but he had declined it leaving the way open for it to be filled instead by Sir John Kerr. Other lecturers may have reflected on this and the sliding doors moment in our history it represented. But to pick out an aspect of life of Ken Myer’s career that represented something he didn’t do rather than the immense range of things he did do might seem flippant but it is a hard one to resist for someone who has spent more than half their life reporting on federal politics and its happenstance to resist.

Ken Myer’s career in business and culture gives us an interesting entry point into considering the issue of leadership, the issue with which I have been grappling for the past year for the new quarterly essay. Journalists write about leadership, political leadership and political leaders all the time. In the past week of course we have written and spoken about little else. But the perplexing ugliness of the last few days really concerns struggles for power rather than leadership and it is the question of what constitutes leadership and what we expect of it in the modern age that lies at the heart of my essay.

This was an essay originally inspired by the many ongoing expressions of exasperation I got from people about our political leaders and in particular as a result of writing a piece for The Monthly magazine last year about Malcolm Turnbull’s Prime Ministership. Like all our Prime Ministers there are many people who loathed Malcolm Turnbull, many who liked him but in my view few these days who take the time to try to understand what made him or even any of our other political leaders really tick, that is, we think we know what our Prime Ministers should look like or should be doing but despite the millions of words pumped out about federal politics and 24 hours a day of television coverage we don’t try to get into the heads of our Prime Ministers these days and work out what makes them tick rather than what we think should make them tick.

We tend to measure them up against an invisible and ill-defined standard of a Prime Minister rather than letting the nature of their Prime Ministership define the way we look at it. This is despite the fact that we now frame our reporting and analysis of politics so much in the personal rather than the institutional realm.

I wrote in a Monthly last year that we have jumped in the past decade from the presumption that voters would give governments at least two terms to establish themselves straight over the idea that we might have one-term governments to the expectation that a Prime Minister rather than a government who is not performing will be immediately dispatched. The question is not how is the government faring and does it have a chance of winning the next election? But how is the Prime Minister and does he have a chance of surviving until the next election? This question frames our thinking about politics even when the government of the day has no alternative candidate who can fulfil the ultimate criterion for a leadership change, that they offer the prospect of winning more seats than the incumbent and doesn’t that seem all the more true today?

I think Malcolm Turnbull presents a particular quandary for any discussion about leadership and even with his recent and brutal demise I think that remains the case. Most observers would tell you he was not actually very good at politics but did that make him a bad Prime Minster or a bad leader? Equally the Prime Minister to the disgust of many was not really a convincing ideologue, she adds parenthetically, I wonder whether those concerned that Malcolm Turnbull didn’t really believe in anything still attach the same values to this as they did a week ago now that they have new comparisons to consider.

Ultimately though the greatest criticism put to me of Malcolm Turnbull when you boiled it down was that he didn’t even seem to believe in what we thought he believed in. Is he a leader at all? They said. I characterise Malcolm Turnbull in that piece in The Monthly as a problem-solver and I think that is the way he saw and sees himself. He would wake up every morning he was Prime Minister and consider wicked problems he had to or could fix on any day. He was driven by his intellectual interest in many issues. Writing a piece for The Monthly though left lots of lingering questions both about what we see in our leaders these days and what we expect of them and about the difference between being in a position of authority or power and being a leader. It led to a quarterly essay which started as a contemplation of modern Australian political leadership but increasingly became consumed and challenged by the phenomenon of Donald Trump on the global stage and considerations of other world leaders. 

Beyond all the normal things that are said about Donald Trump the thing I find most compelling is that he demonstrates that the phenomenon and/or attraction of the strong man leader which is enjoying a particular and to my mind unwelcome resurgence at the moment, defies the borders of political system and regimes. To be clear I did not simply want to write a critique of different leaders and leadership styles, there are plenty of people doing this just now, particularly all those horrified and appalled by the American President, the forces that he has unleashed and the apparent powerlessness of America’s institutional structures to constrain him in any way.

My ambition was more to consider the structures in which our leaders now operate, the prism through which we see them and whether these had changed or were changing. You could summarise this as a different take on that famous saying, we only get the leaders we deserve. I would modify that to we only get the leaders we allow to lead us in a good way and a bad way and my essay’s a study in trying to understand the environment from which our leaders emerge. And I’d like to share some thoughts on that tonight.

Leadership is a two-way thing, leaders kid themselves that they are setting the terms of play, even running the world and we write and think about them in those terms. True leaders however only get to lead if they have followers whom they can persuade to follow. So often it is what followers want that determines whether leaders get to emerge at all but the process of leaders emerging is never as clear-cut as we think. Until the last 12 months and perhaps even now it has been regarded as unacceptable at any time to make any comparisons between current events and Nazi Germany lest it somehow diminish the true horrors of that time and regime. Yet if you read the international press the comparisons have gradually started to seep in in this era of this return of right wing populism and nationalism in Europe and in the United States. 

One of the questions that has so often been asked in the last 80 years is how a sensible and sophisticated society like Germany’s could let the Nazis gain power in the first place. I’m not making a direct comparison here but there are lots of people in the United States who are similarly perplexed about how they ended up with Donald Trump and equally how he can continue to behave as he does relatively unimpeded. The Australian historian, Paul Hamm, wrote in his recent biography of the young Adolf Hitler that Germany’s newly minted leader did not step out of a gaseous haze to rule the world. The Fuhrer emerged incrementally from a series of bumbling failures, stunning successes and the application of political skills he had not yet realised he possessed. Along the way he was prepared to cosy up with the most unlikely of allies. That Hitler briefly cosied up to revolutionary Communists in 1919 should not baffle us, Hamm notes. We demand linear correctness in the lives of politicians and leaders even as we ourselves act in inconsistent and contrarian ways.

Hamm’s eloquent point is that history is rarely a straight line and goes to the gradual shifts in tolerance and power balances to which we have become accustomed. Those gradual shifts in power have much to do with what institutional influences exist in a society and what other figures of power, authority and leadership are present. Our world used to be populated by a menagerie of actors who offered leadership. They represented institutions that once played powerful roles in both our political and community discussions but which are now in decline or collapse. Going back centuries there has perhaps been no more powerful group of leaders or institutions than the ones in the religious realm. In western cultures the Christian churches and their leaders survived the collapse of monarchies and revolutions. Christianity provided the backdrop against which systems of government were tested. The Church’s influence and assertion of power put armies into the field and helped provide the constraint against which those trying to define new post-revolutionary power structures had to push. They could muster earthly power as well as claim a heavenly mandate to assert a moral as well as political authority.

The churches had given countless generations a framework in which to live and against which to judge themselves yet the influence of Christian churches in Australia is now marginal at best. The shocking details of child abuse scandals may be currently stripping the churches of the last vestiges of their authority as the arbiters of moral behaviour but the capacity of the churches to sway an argument in the Australian political realm has been in decline for decades.

Of course there has been no greater battle for organised religion over the centuries than the one with science but our scientific leaders have not attained any greater prominence with the decline of religious leaders. Most spectacularly the collapse of the case for climate change 10 years ago was a dazzling and terrifying drama of [demolution] 18:04 of an idea in the international debate. It was a nail in the coffin of any deference to science and orderly thinking. 

Nor does any one side seem to have emerged victorious in the battle of ideas or ideologies, particularly the battle between labour and capital which dominated the 20th century. Socialism as the utopia for the workers failed but as with the battle between religion and science any expectation that the collapse of socialism might reinforce the victory of capitalism has gone unfulfilled. Capitalism seems to be in almost as much trouble as socialism. The institutions that fought out these battles in Australia seem to be suffering sharper downgrade in the community’s mind as the ideas they championed. The trade unions are in decline, individual business leaders have little sway, even if they may have in recent decades appeared to win the battle over the freeing up of markets. Educators, whether they be school teachers or university lecturers, do not have the same standing they once had. Like doctors or judges their underlying authority is not necessarily at question but the legitimacy of their contributions to the political debate is now under constant challenge. 

Even in the cultural realm we too often deride the leaders to whom we would once have listened. So often it is artists who lead the way in changes in thinking or capture a moment yet artists are too often herded up, labelled as leftists or part of an elite and dismissed. Perhaps this is a reason why divisions in a parliamentary party room seem so much more important than they once did. There aren’t a lot of other centres of leadership in the community that are perceived to have the same level of influence as politicians. Debates which might once have taken place publicly between politicians, church leaders and scientists, for example, are now fought out by proxies within the party room among politicians who are apparently the only ones with sufficient status to argue, all the rest are mere stakeholders.

By lumping together all those who appeal to politicians as stakeholders it implies both that they come to the table compromised and that it is only politicians who can somehow rise above this to the greater good and all this only puts more weight or expectation on political leadership. Our political leaders are not just asked to advocate an idea about where the country is headed, they are asked to move into the moral realm in the absence of churches, asked to define what is acceptable behaviour in business, asked to define the nature of our culture and national values. 

Now they may have done this in the past but the point is that they were once only one set of voices in national conversations. Now their interventions are the overwhelming ones in an era where other participants’ roles have been diminished. The demise of frameworks of ideas-based leadership too easily leave a void to be filled by leadership based on emotion and prejudice. History tells us that it can lead to nationalism and scapegoating and if the status of other institutions have been diminished not necessarily by authoritarian silencing but by their own folly or by a failure to regard their positions as just as important as that of political opinions the risks of political leaders emerging to exploit emotion and prejudice are dramatically increased.

Donald Trump’s relentless attack on the credibility of any of the institutions that oppose or question him in what is supposed to be the greatest democracy in the world continued as I wrote my essay. The New York Times has now taken to running a regular count of how many lies the US President has told and documents them. But as disturbing as the lies may be is the fact even before Donald Trump institutions which would once have provided counterweights of authority and leadership including the media have become diminished in the public mind.

Donald Trump has only wildly accelerated and exploited this mistrust. It is a warning of the implications of such breakdowns in trust in Australia too but also a reason to consider who we give status to in our national debates and whether this is one of the reasons why we find so many of these debates so lacking in substance.

The institutional base of our political system is also wobbling however. The ideological structure of our political parties as in many western democracies affects the capital labour divide that dominated the political debate for much of the 20th century yet what was once a clear divide has become very blurry in recent decades. That has had implications for the influence and organisation of our major political organisations, their grassroots membership is in decline but more importantly their capacity to organise around and campaign on an idea is in decline. Without a central idea to frame their cause the parties have not only lost their clarity of message but also their commitment to a higher goal. Individual MPs no longer have a sense that they are working towards a greater common good. Our parliamentary party room can be much more easily pulled apart because of a lack of central purpose. The stark result of this is that leaders of political parties begin their time in the job with a much shakier and more transient hold on authority than leaders of even 20 years ago. That is, they have less authority and less freedom to move than they may once have held.

Yet we do still increasingly focus our frustration with our society and our politics on the human form of our leaders. We rarely talk about the government these days or the opposition but we talk a lot about the battle between a Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition. So much of our political narrative is still written in gaudy attempts to mimic Shakespeare’s dramas rather than as chronicles of events or just of decisions which affect the rest of us. That is, it is all about the players on the stage, not the impact of their actions outside the theatre.

The intensely personal focus on leaders once made a lot more sense. Historian, John Lewis Gaddis, reflected on the leadership styles of two of history’s great rivals, Elizabeth I and Philip of Spain in his book, On Grand Strategy, noting that the health, mental stability and reproductive prowess of princes could cause faiths to rise and nations to fall. These were leaders from the long centuries when hereditary leadership, divine right or at least the occasional heavenly intervention were not questioned. The very future of a nation was bound up in the person of its leader.

But being powerful is not necessarily the same as leading. Ron Heifetz from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, argues that leadership, power and authority too often get confused and need to be carefully distinguished and separated. He defines leadership as helping a community embrace change, that is, a leader is a facilitator of a group that has to confront an issue, though just how that facilitation works is a complex matter. The change a group has to confront may not be a happy one and Heifetz argues that leaders can often lead a group to a catastrophic response to confronting an issue such as Adolf Hitler. Political leadership, he argues, is not necessarily about having a vision and pursuing it but a range of other skills with which both to read and to push a community.

Lyndon Johnson for me is perhaps the most compelling example of leadership Heifetz gives to illustrate that point. He analyses how Johnson’s political skills, which included his great understanding of the politics of the American south, allowed him to oversee major breakthroughs on civil rights including the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. He both helped and enlisted black leaders like Martin Luther King to achieve change. In stark contrast Johnson’s policy on Vietnam was a disaster because he quote took the stance that leaders lead and followers follow, acting the part of the lone warrior and by creeping up in stealth not only on his enemy but also on his own constituents. 

Johnson was working within the framework of America’s political institutions and institutions of leadership. When he was successful it was because of the way he used and manipulated them to achieve change. In the present day Donald Trump seems to embody our very conflicting expectations and frustrations when it comes to leaders. We are as alarmed by the apparent powerlessness of American institutions to contain or direct him as we are by the erratic ignorance and nastiness of his actions. Yet a grudging respect sometimes sneaks into discussion of his actions because he rarely backs down. 

But leadership is and should be seen as more than simply a preparedness to crash or crash through or not blink. It should be defined as a capacity to lead a community to accept a change even if that change is not a change for the better. Paul Keating is often cited as an example of a true leader because of his crash or crash thorough style yet the former Prime Minister would always say you have to bring the mob with you. He saw his job as setting the direction and then persuading enough people that he was right for him to be able to follow that path. 

Political leadership should be about building a consensus for change, giving people a map to follow and bringing together different parties to achieve an outcome. In other words having a bright idea is only the beginning of the journey, only part of the task of leadership but instead discussion about leadership has become one solely about the machismo of individuals taking on the mob. 

There is something inherently undemocratic about this trend, it leads to a yearning for autocracy and whether Americans realise or acknowledge it that is exactly what they have given themselves. Voters seek leaders who seem strong, who advance black and white propositions and have the will to pursue them even though that means not listening to what voters are saying.

There was much of the appeal of the would-be strong man in the election of Tony Abbott in 2013. Having created an air of chaos, weakness and dysfunction around the man he’d opposed as Liberal leader and then around the Rudd and Gillard Governments Tony Abbott promised voters that he would lead a government that would be back in charge. But Australia voted primarily for an end to the sense of chaos around the Labor Government and never quite embraced Abbott’s strongman tactics in government, particularly when they were turned against voters themselves in the punitive 2014 budget. 

Abbott’s brief time in the top job may mean we have dodged a more fundamental shift to the strongman politics with which many other western democracies now struggle. Malcolm Turnbull’s return could be seen as a rejection of the strong man even if there was a yearning for him to also decisively shift politics back to some more central place from where it had been dislodged by Abbott. As we have seen in the past week Abbott continues to exert his destructive vandalism on Australian politics and he does that with no electoral mandate nor even once from his party room.

Perhaps the most depressing conversation that took place during the entire drama of the past week took part in the Prime Minister’s office, only some of which has been reported until now. Matthias Cormann, Michaelia Cash and Mitch Fyfield went to see Malcolm Turnbull after question time on Wednesday last week. Cormann kept on saying of the leadership push against Turnbull it’s madness, it’s madness. My sources tell me Mitch Fyfield couldn’t speak and that Cash barely could. The Prime Minister said to his three Cabinet Ministers this is terrorism and they agreed. Why give in to terrorism, he asked? We have to give in, Cormann replied. 

So as an electorate we may have rejected the strong man in Tony Abbott. The public response to the spectre of Peter Dutton’s elevation suggests we continue to do so but Malcolm Turnbull’s inability to wrangle internal political forces or perhaps his refusal to ostentatiously stare them down equally left voters just as frustrated and ate away at his authority as leader even as we have become increasingly dismissive of the sort of leadership alternative that Tony Abbott represented.

My essay canvasses not just Donald Trump and Malcolm Turnbull but Bill Shorten, Barack Obama, past Australian leaders, Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel. I find the contrast between Obama and Trump and between Macron and Merkel particularly fascinating. In Obama and Trump we see the contrast between the small D Democrat who exasperated his staff and supporters by backing away from throwing around the weight of the Presidency and the current incumbent who throws it around seemingly oblivious to its impact. In Macron and Merkel we see two different faces of the very different style of politics and leadership that dominates Europe rather than Anglo Saxon cultures. The young leader with huge agenda and one of the most solidly entrenched parliamentary positions in the world just now up against a leader who has dominated for over a decade by her wily management of an unruly coalition of political partners.

But for those who have watched the rise and the fall of the Turnbull Prime Ministership and felt the frustration of perceived opportunities missed, of those moments when you yell at the television and say oh tell them to bugger off, Malcolm or oh for God’s sake just do it, Barack Obama and his view of the Presidency is particularly interesting. Writing in The New Yorker in October 2014 a former speech writer for Bill Clinton, Jeff Shesol, reflected on the huge expectations that surrounded Obama when he became President and on that moment in most Presidencies quote when a good number of Americans are able to convince themselves that we might be in the presence of a great man and that his greatness will be manifest, that this is the man who has the answers. When it becomes clear that he doesn’t we never quite forgive him for it.

Earlier in 2014 Obama had talked about quote that business about the great man theory of history. He said the President of the United States cannot remake our society and that’s probably a good thing. On reflection he added not probably, it’s definitely a good thing. Shesol noted that despite the grand hopes and hype of the 2008 campaign this tempering of ambitions, this recognition and acceptance of the constraints on Presidential power has been a leaf motif of the Presidency. Over the years Obama and his advisers had issued a long string of statements to this effect. On foreign policy, leading from behind. On the limits of executive authority, there’s no shortcut to democracy. On civil rights we must sometimes take a quarter of a loaf or half a loaf. It was time, Shesol noted, for America to get over the greatness thing and to come to terms with the limits of a President’s capacity to fix things.

This sense of caution, pragmatism, ambivalence of power not fully used by Barack Obama is a recurring theme in assessments of his Presidency. Obama himself reflected on what leaders could achieve when he delivered the Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture in Johannesburg a couple of months ago. He argued that the progressive democratic vision that Nelson Mandela represented in many ways set the terms of international political debate. However that did not mean that that vision was always victorious but it set the terms, the parameters, it guided how we thought about the meaning of progress and it continued to propel the world forward. Implicit in the speech, though, once again is a rejection of the idea that one man can change the world even as he outlined his argument that Mandela had shown that one man could set the terms of the discussion. Instead the former President argued that dealing with an increasingly dangerous world requires a recognition that there are many forces at work creating these dangers and a sense of collective spirit.

The global financial crisis dealt a near mortal blow to the credibility of the international system, he said, and to the faith in experts in places like Washington and Brussels. The result was the politics of fear and resentment and retrenchment began to appear. Obama said strongman politics are ascendant suddenly whereby elections and some pretence of democracy are maintained, the form of it, but those in power seek to undermine every institution or norm that gives democracy meaning. Some people thought he was talking about his successor.

He went on. So on Madiba’s 100th birthday we now stand at a crossroads, a moment in time in which two very different visions of humanity’s future compete for the hearts and minds of the citizens around the world. What we need right now, Obama said, was we don’t need just one leader, we don’t need just one inspiration, what we badly need right now is that collective spirit. 

So here is the modern leadership dilemma wrapped in an Obama Trump nutshell. On the one hand there is Barack Obama who is seen in most brutal terms as a choker by some of those closest to him or those familiar with the capacity of the President’s office to produce change. He chokes, we are told, because he recognises the need to build a consensus on change and has the oratorical power to persuade but never seems persuaded that he should or indeed can force an issue. He gets a lot of stuff done at home, there is a big reform agenda he can point to but you wonder whether the wily senator from the south, Lyndon Johnson, would have sensed a moment on say gun control and been able to translate the moment of one of those horrendous mass school shootings into some form of change in part because of his political skills but significantly because the institutions of power worked differently 50 years ago.

On the other hand there is Donald Trump. Americans certainly didn’t get over the greatness thing. Not only did they elect a President who promised to make America great again they elected a President who promised to ride roughshod over the political system and proceeded to do so. Whatever else has happened in the Presidency of Donald Trump he has restored a sense of authority to the Presidency, though not necessarily in a good way. 

In the great Heifetz’s troika of leadership Trump has authority and he has power but does that make him a leader? Despite his erratic and half-arsed interventions in North Korea his overarching direction in international politics has been an active withdrawal by the United States from global leadership. At home Trump is too impatient to lead the American public anywhere. He might be able to rouse sentiment but that is not necessarily enough. He has posed an adaptive challenge, of persuading America that it can become great by pursuing a set of policies that are the direct opposites of what made it great. But he has no interest in managing the distress levels, even less attention to discipline or to focusing attention in those discussions, he only wants to distribute responsibility to a collection of scapegoats, illegal immigrants and from time to time China and fake media. Not only does he use dissent as a source of insight and options he belittles and delegitimises it.

There are many lessons I draw from the brief portraits I paint in my essay, the different way politicians can use the powers they have at their disposal, that leadership can vary with the nature of the political system in a democracy, that factors other than charisma help determine what leaders are capable of, factors that shore up voters’ support as in the case of Emmanuel Macron who’s seen as a bulwark against the far right. More than anything in the context of the Australian political discussion these portraits challenge the idea that personal will, qualities and charisma of a leader necessarily define leadership. In Australia it often seems we can’t even get to the starting gates on the question of judging our leaders because we are bridling at the question of their authenticity. The trivia of life has become such an impediment to political leaders. Will Malcolm Turnbull ever get over wearing a leather jacket on Q&A? And what that came to represent to voters who subsequently believed he was not what they thought.

All the effort that goes into dealing with authenticity comes at a time of great disillusion and disengagement among voters. This came across in the five 2005 super Saturday byelections last month. These were universally framed in national terms and as a leadership popularity contest. The Prime Minister, clearly expecting to win that contest, said the byelections would be a competition between him and Bill Shorten, one of those great Turnbull gaffs like and the court will so find that will always haunt him.

Turnbull’s opponents inside his party used the result to stir up a bizarre sense of mass panic among his colleagues. We are still seeing the fallout of the conservatives’ decision to topple their own leader and it is likely to continue for some time. But believe it or not there were more important lessons out of Super Saturday. Voters – votes were spraying in all directions away from the major parties in Longman, Braddon and Mayo. All the focus on leaders meant these swings to minor parties and independents weren’t really considered in their own right as they might once have been. What is important about this trends and these results is that while the US has channelled its disillusion into the unlikely figure of Donald Trump, a strongman leader, Australians have channelled their disillusion into a splintering of the vote. 

I have mostly spoken tonight about politicians but a glaring issue from the discussion goes to the people who help frame the way we see politicians, people like me who work in the media. The internet and social media I think have changed the perceptions that the media is all-powerful in making or breaking the government of the day even if this has been a renewed topic of conversation in the latest coup. But in some ways I think the way we tell our stories, the focus on leaders is sometimes a much more powerful influence than any direct issue of bias. The fact that we so often tell political stories in terms of personalities and individuals rather than the bigger issues. This is hardly a new concern for any of us and one to which I constantly struggle to find an answer but we should be doing better to ask questions about whether our leaders are showing leadership rather than what jobs they occupy.

That means making assessments like how good are our leaders at mobilising our society to tackle hard problems? Have our political leaders even identified the challenges facing the nation let alone been prepared to take them on? Have they been able to manage or manipulate in a good way the debate? Have they protected voices of leadership and dissent in the community or even listened to them? It is hard to think of a political leader since the time of John Howard and Kevin Rudd who has been able to mobilise or galvanise the electorate on a really difficult question facing the country let alone identify and offer to lead the discussion about them.

To be a leader you don’t necessarily have to have a vision but either you have to know what it is that you want to persuade other people to do or alternatively have the political knack to be able to identify and synthesise an issue on which people are seeking leadership. And you have to know what are the most important things to get done at any given point of time. Then you have to make the rest of us understand why these things are important and what you’re going to do about them. This task might simply be an echo of a crystallised or uncrystallised public mood or something that involves reimagining all the barriers and structures around a difficult issue.

Neither Malcolm Turnbull or Bill Shorten was really promising transformation. I’m sure that Scott Morrison will let us know when he works out what he is promising but for the two men who have led us for the last three years, both picked up a particular issue and saw what they could do with it, sometimes more effectively than others. Neither Malcolm Turnbull nor Bill Shorten are great persuaders, neither of them have had any great national project to pursue even if Bill Shorten has managed to create more differentiation in policy based in more traditional Labor values and has taken more risks. Both Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten arrived in federal parliament as the most impatient of men, both felt entitled to be accelerated into positions of seniority. Both had some of the skills necessary to be a national leader. Turnbull, the advocacy skills of a barrister, Shorten, the negotiating and advocacy skills of a union leader but neither seemed to have a particular view about where they wanted to lead the country founded in any broad manifesto of positions.

They arrived in their determined fashion in leadership positions still raw and seemingly dismissive of the business of how the parliament and all that goes with it works. They have therefore been learning – they have therefore been having to learn the art of leadership as opposed to occupying leadership positions on the job and now we have yet another leader having to learn what that means on the job. It says much for the derelict state of our politics that the focus is on how he learns to lead his own party rather than the country.

I would argue that a large part of the job of national leadership which goes completely unrecognised is in rebuilding the national political process after years of it being under assault. Maybe it will only happen if and when our political leaders recognise that their capacity to act, their own self-interest is going to be vastly improved if there are other leaders in the community we’re standing with whom they can speak. Thank you.


M: Well thank you very much, Laura, for that enriching and very challenging lecture. I’m Marie-Louise Ayres, Director General of the National Library. It’s a great privilege to hold this position during our 50th anniversary of the Library’s building and I was reflecting, Laura, that we talk a lot about the fact that institutions like ours actually still occupy a position of trust and some authenticity and you can’t take that for granted either, yeah.

We’re really delighted to welcome Laura to the Library to deliver this lecture. I had the privilege of hearing her give the lecture for our patrons in Melbourne a couple of weeks ago and of course I couldn’t wait to hear it again tonight ‘cause I knew some things were going to change given the discussions and events of the past week or two and in fact it’s crystallised even more for me.

Now we do have time for a few questions from the audience. I’m going to ask you to raise your hand and wait for a microphone to be brought to you and this is particularly for the benefit of those who are using our hearing loop so don’t by shy, we’ve got I think microphones on both sides and we’ll keep an eye out for you so - okay.

A: Thanks very much for a wonderful talk. Could I take you to another area of leadership and following which is your domain which is the domain of media? And there are leaders in the media domain, perhaps even some leaders that come from Australia and have moved over to the United States, there are leaders of our media who we may or may not like but seem to galvanise the community with strong voices, particularly out of Sydney and the like and they seem to have a leadership role which then leads to changing public opinion which then seems to change polls which then seems to change political directions. How do you see that form of leadership in this particular question?

L: I think I know who you’re talking about. I think - as I mentioned briefly in the lecture things – this last leadership debacle which I think most people in the Liberal party would see it as because they’re still not quite sure what happened – I think it was very different because without a doubt you did have people in the media really exercising an extraordinary level of thuggery that was quite depressing but I don’t think it was really influencing public opinion and I don’t think that was what they were really seeking to achieve. There is a real little bubble up on the hill which people have characterised as being Sky after 6:00 at night and the sort of Ray Hadley, Alan Jones talkback cycle and to some extent the Murdoch papers and it tends to be a self-fulfilling little circle where conservatives listen to what those people are saying and psyched out by it.

There wasn’t a great sign that that was affecting the public mood. In fact the polls were actually going much better for the government in the lead-up to this than they had for ages, I mean you know the government was always behind but I kept arguing to people that in fact governments usually are behind in polls and most of the polling that was done on the National Energy Guarantee was actually sort of looking okay so the interesting thing about this latest shall we say insurgency was that without a doubt there were people throwing their weight around but they were throwing their weight around in a closed loop into that political process rather than necessarily through influencing voters. And one of the really interesting things about what’s happened for politicians now is it’s very hard for them to actually influence voters because voters aren’t listening anymore and I went up to the Longman electorate during the by-election and a lot of people didn’t even know it was on you know they didn’t – oh you know don’t care, not interested.

And so as a result you’ve actually seen politicians having to find new and different ways of trying to get through to people who might, just might be prepared to change their views. People who listen to Ray Hadley aren’t going to change their mind and suddenly vote Labor just as a wild contention. And people who you know read The Australian probably aren’t going to vote for The Greens you know the – so you should be looking to – if you’re a politician look to change voters in the centre so Malcolm Turnbull spent his entire time not doing interviews with 7:30 – well he did a couple but he would be out on FM radio talking to people called you know Fitzy and Wappa and people like that because it was one of the few places – look they’re all called Fitzy and Wappa or something like that anyway – and the whole idea was to get past the closed minds and to people who might just be prepared to listen. Sorry, that’s a bit of a long answer but there we go.

A:Laura, this is a little bit off the subject and I apologise for that but one of the events of last week was the government managing to achieve an adjournment of the parliament while it mucked around with its executive problems. That seemed to me to get very little coverage or commentary in the press but yet you know it’s the beginning of the slippery road to dictatorship when executives decide that the parliament’s a nuisance and so they’ll adjourn it and I’m just interested in what your comments were about that –

L: About the fact it didn’t get much coverage?

A: Yes, the event itself and the fact that it didn’t get much coverage.

L: Well it’s very interesting you say that because that would be the complete opposite of my impression of it which I'm not saying you’re wrong and I’m right but this might give you a bit of an insight into the way you know you see the world if you’re sitting up in Parliament House. I’ve got a monitor on my desk and three television channels going so I’m watching the House all the time and we’ve got ABC 24 and Sky going so we’re watching it all live all day every day and so we kept seeing repeats of Christopher Pyne going to call for the adjournment and everybody yelling and screaming and you know you’re talking to people at Parliament House who are in tears and so to us it was a real world you know just unbelievable. And I’ve got to say I’ve even forgotten what day – was that Wednesday? You know but things were mo – there were so many things moving that day I don’t think there – there was certainly no deliberate attempt to downplay that but you know when you’ve got so many factors at work and obviously also the media’s always trying to report the very last thing that happened and increasingly so now - so by the time the newspapers went to bed, for example, that was six or seven hours ago and all this other stuff was happening so it can just get railroaded.

But I don’t think - I mean I thought it was a shocking event. I suppose it was more an indulgent event, that was the way I sort of thought, I just thought it was outrageously indulgent as was frankly the whole coup as you may have gathered, I’m not all that impressed by the events of the last week, not you know which is no reflection even on the outcome but just the bizarreness of it but I don’t think it was because people took that lightly, it was just you know the sheer overwhelm – I mean it was just – there was so much happening up there and of course you know we all know what the outcome is now but you know nobody knew, nobody knew in Parliament House what was going to happen next which is a very strange circumstance for politicians let alone journalists to find themselves in.

A: Thank you, Laura, that was fantastic. I have a question about the half a dozen issues or so that the Australian public does seem to be really galvanised on and I recognise what you’re saying about leaders needing to pull people together and convince them of an argument but on those issues what hope do we have for the leadership that we have if they’re not even happy to act on those that the public are widely in agreement on?

L: Look, I – every so often you get a moment where you get a breakthrough which you’re not expecting and it seems to come from left field and you sort of think well why didn’t somebody think of that before? And I suppose same sex marriage shows the sort of happenstance of politics you know here was this cunning plan to get it off the agenda and guess what? It didn’t, it actually sort of achieved a result. I think you know a few things will have to change. I’d really recommend to you a fantastic lecture that the President of the Senate gave last night, the Deakin Lecture where he was actually talking about compromise and - which is one of the themes in the essay which I haven’t really sort of enunciated tonight but I think is a really important thing, this idea of – that politics and what we reward in politics is only crash or crash through.

If you look at what happened with the National Energy Guarantee a position was stuck which everybody except – well Tony Abbott, really – agreed with – oh and The Greens – and you know we’ve got to this point where Malcolm Turnbull didn’t think that he could risk putting it through the House of Representatives which he probably could have done with Labor support because it would have been regarded as so bad that there was a bipartisanship on it. So to me it’s not just about what the leaders do, it’s about us you know which always sounds a bit naff but it’s about us saying actually we don’t just value you know crash or crash through, we don’t just value the strong man, we value and you are there to resolve these things for us, you are there to get a compromise and we will value you when you give us a compromise so I – I mean I think that it is actually as I said – leadership is a two-way thing and I think it is in part the messages we give our leaders you know and I don’t mean just you know individuals but the media and everything else where we actually say oh they’re trying to get a compromise here and that’s a good thing. 

So you know our institutions are very weakened, we need to get our politicians to respect other people in the conversation again and we need to actually be prepared to give them a tick sometimes when they get a compromise which isn’t first best, which we don’t necessarily like but is the best you can get in the circumstances of the day.


M:Well I hope you’ll all join us upstairs for some refreshments in the foyer but before we go – do go up for more chat and a drink I’d like you to again join me in thanking our benefactors, the Myer family and the Myer Foundation for making this lecture possible – I’m up to Lecture number 16. Has - anybody do better than that? Okay, great, I win. And most particularly to thank Laura for a really, really thought-provoking lecture tonight and particularly for I guess being able to just help us to make a tiny weeny bit of sense of what happened last week so thanks Laura.


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