Crisis of Leadership and Philosophy


Former Prime Minister, Robert Menzies (second from left) was one of Australia's strongest leaders. Credit: SLNSW


We are not experiencing a crisis in the Australian democratic system. Apart from the need for reform of Senate voting to impose a threshold of support, the institutions work more or less as well as they have in the past. This is not to say there may not be other worthwhile reforms. The problem we are having at the moment is in the policy domain. It is not a new problem, and there is a solution, but the answer lies not in constitutional or systemic change, but in our politics.

There certainly seems little prospect that the great era of reform in our fiscal and economic policy framework of the Hawke–Keating–Howard period is about to be repeated. In the Rudd–Gillard–Rudd years after 2007 we experienced some of the worst public policymaking since Whitlam, characterised by shocking process, unfunded spending and over-promising, hugely expensive ill-planned whimsical commitments such as the NBN, and attacks on free speech and the freedom of the press of an almost unprecedented kind.

The Abbott government has struggled with the politics of reining in the burgeoning debt and unfunded promises of the previous six years, to some extent indeed adding to the problem, while an obstructive Labor opposition has refused to support even policies to control spending it had previously advocated. An irresponsible crossbench has prevented supportive reforms, such as those necessary to place our universities on a sound footing. The idea that political leaders of all parties have a moral responsibility to help the public understand the issues the country faces and to propose solutions seems less accepted now than in previous generations.

Australian democratic institutions are sound, but they don’t work to produce good policy without a certain kind of leadership

All this is pretty depressing. It is hard to disagree with Paul Kelly, the leading political commentator in the Australian, that this amounts to a decline in our political culture. I find it less convincing to argue that it is all a result of the pressures of the 24/7 media cycle and the capacity of social media and the internet to confirm prejudices and ideologies or sharpen division. Online media have given a visibility to gossip, chatter and prejudice that confronts us with what has always been there, though less  visible, and perhaps has eroded the relative media presence of leaders, but in itself it is surely no bad thing that we face  up to the irrational forces that have always been part of our social life.

The big gap in our political life today lies in the realm of ideas, and ideas never guide policy except as they are articulated by political leaders. At present there is a serious disconnection between the ideas on which policy success must be based and the awareness or willingness of our political leaders to articulate these ideas. We are missing leaders with political philosophies and the skills to achieve policy success.

The default setting of democratic governments (and, indeed, all governments) in the absence of a leadership with a guiding philosophy is a policy process preoccupied by the gratification of special interests. Democracy is always subject to the danger that what Keith Hancock in his  famous essay Australia called the ‘swarms of petty appetites’ will tear the national interest apart in pursuit of selfish gains.

After a century and a half of democracy, with its basic principles of freedom of speech and association, and the establishment of supportive legal frameworks for enterprise, unionism, non-profits and charities, proliferating advocacy groups and a huge variety of public sector agencies, democratic politicians at times seem almost overwhelmed by the pressures of pluralism. The complexity and daily unpredictability of democratic politics is indisputable. Politicians need specific skills if they are to find a way through it all to the achievement of some public interest.

[T]he absence of a leadership with a guiding philosophy is a policy process preoccupied by the gratification of special interests

This is where leadership and philosophy become important. Without leaders who hold to some theoretically justified and principled conception of the public interest, with the skills to fight back against the urgent special-interest pressures in favour of the important public interest, the armies of the special interests, like Tolkien’s orcs, march and win.

If this is accepted, the question becomes: why are we in this situation? No talk of the need for leaders and philosophies can make sense in the modern democracy without reference to the role of political parties. Parties choose the leaders and, if there are public philosophies to be had, define them and pass them on through their internal debates. What is important here is the way the parties function internally, and the way they relate to, and channel or fail to channel, the values and beliefs of the wider political culture.

As recently as a decade ago, at least one of our parties seemed more or less capable of generally producing public interest policies, though it is not hard to list policy and political mistakes even of the Howard government. Think Work Choices, or middle class welfare, but that is a matter of opinion. It should have been obvious after the fall of the Keating government in 1996 that none of its Labor successors defended the legacy—a clear warning sign of what was to come after 2007.

The big gap in our political life today lies in the realm of ideas

The abandonment by the Labor Party of the Hawke–Keating legacy is surely one of the tragedies of modern Australian politics. It shows that the policy philosophy of those years—influenced as it was by an international upsurge in support for economic liberalisation—was the product of individuals, not of the broader party. In retrospect, that era was probably only made possible by the exceptional political capacity and career of Hawke, with his former leadership role in the union movement, and the passionate conversion of Keating to public- interest liberal economics (though he would not put it this way). Certainly ministers in that government, when they became leaders, did not sustain or develop the policy legacy.

Freed from the policy leadership of the Hawke–Keating years, Labor has reverted to type. Labor is, first and foremost, a special-interest party designed to give  undue policy influence to the trade union movement, with a parliamentary cohort desperately seeking to gratify an electorate with multiple interests. There is little sense of policy philosophy in Labor, unless it be the centralisation of power in its own hands, spoils to its members, the redistribution of money to its supporters—and hoped-for voters—and the tight regulation of its political foes, salted with an incipiently isolationist nationalism. The collapse of its socialist fantasies has left its policy barrenness exposed. The philosophical wreckage is on full display, and the party’s intense partisanship means that with such a party in opposition policy reform in the public interest that affects its controlling interest or its prejudices will always be difficult.

The Liberal Party is a different kettle of fish. Robert Menzies, its founding father, established the party in 1944 with an acute sense of the dangers to Australia of excessive special-interest influence on government, and of utopian socialism. His solution to the problem was a party with a public-interest philosophy that he called liberalism, and a party structure based entirely on the membership of individual Australians. As leader he sought to use that philosophy to oppose special-interest attempts to divert the power of the state to advance their own causes, and the party structure to take control of the party’s funding out of business councils, and to recruit bright parliamentarians from the educated middle class.

If we can hold on to free speech and lively debate against the ever-present forces of intolerance and prejudice, the future looks bright

I suggest that Australia’s political history demonstrates that our most successful periods of public policy have been those in which policy has concentrated on empowering individuals to pursue their own life missions, relying on their accumulated wisdom and creativity, and not imposing on them the opinionated uniformities of government. The nineteenth century was an era in which such ideas dominated public policy, and Australia become the wealthiest country (per capita) in the world. Post-Federation, the nation’s leaders turned to the political manipulation of product, industry, distribution and labour markets and a racial immigration policy only to see the whole framework come crashing down in the Depression, with one of the highest unemployment rates in the world.

For Menzies it was the certainty provided by the rule of law, social equality and the creativity of individuals that would make Australia a prosperous and socially harmonious society. He largely got rid of the class hatreds and sectarianism that had plagued the earlier years of his political life. He paid down debt, revived private enterprise, fostered private alongside public provision of health and education, and left Australia a much better humoured country than he found it.

How to produce a leadership with an effective policy philosophy? There are many talented younger MPs in both major parties, and their number can be expected to increase as new preselection procedures in both parties open opportunities for talent and as the downwards pressure on quality from party factions declines. Labor needs to break free of its narrow organisational base. Transmission of policy philosophy in the Liberal Party is uncertain. There is always the danger that the clarity of the vision of earlier years will be lost in the weakness of failing institutional memory and the promotion of a policy-lite conservatism as an alternative. Nevertheless, the internal debate is lively.

So what are the prospects? Australian democratic institutions are sound, but they don’t work to produce good policy without a certain kind of leadership.

The parties have work to do, but there is plenty of talent. If we can hold on to free speech and lively debate against the ever-present forces of intolerance and prejudice, the future looks bright.


This is an essay from the democracy issue of Meanjin, Vol 74, No 3, Spring 2015.

Thumbnail image: Former Prime Minister Bob Hawke and John Howard. Credit: RBA

David Kemp

Former Federal Minister and Council Member of the University of Melbourne.

Published Date
September 15, 2015