How artificial is an election campaign? Take for an example the issue of leadership, which is already a key factor in this campaign, with the incumbent trumpeting his experience, the challenger spruiking his credentials.

Political leadership in a democracy remains a paradox: quite extraordinary people by the nature of their calling seeking to convince the electorate of their ordinariness (as we saw in John Howard’s opening of his private life to the Nine network).

They are not ordinary people despite their protestations to the contrary.

They are members of an elite warrior class to whom, by and large, ordinary standards are not applicable. By the time someone gets to their position they are battle hardened in a way that few of us can ever appreciate, having fought for and won pre-selection, election to parliament, promotion through the ranks and elimination of rivals to reach the top of a very greasy and strongly contested totem pole.

John Howard has made a virtue of his apparent ordinariness, but a reading of the fascinating Errington-van Onselen biography reveals a different picture: a character who has doggedly pursued political ambition rather than lived a life; a figure who is all politician and little else.

Kevin Rudd is eerily similar. That tightly coiled persona, that ever so controlled mouth, that carefully measured phrase, bespeak ambition of a high order; a ruthless determination to reach the top whatever sacrifice of the self that that involves.

But are Howard and Rudd appreciably different in this regard from their predecessors – especially those who have won the ultimate political prize? Australians have a generally ambivalent attitude to political leaders; we like them to be like us, but not quite.

A seemingly ordinary man who achieved political prominence was Bob Askin, the longest-serving Liberal premier of NSW (1965-75).

Asked once what being an effective political leader meant, the onetime bank officer was adamant that it was about being “an average Australian.”

He continued: “Being good outside means being able to go to the football match, to the cricket match, have a glass of beer, go to the race meeting, and use a few Australian expletives … In my experience the voter looks for someone who is of the same ilk as himself, but perhaps a little, just a little, higher up the scale, he likes to think, but not too far up.”

Ordinary, but not quite. It is a most delicate balancing act.

Norman Abjorensen’s book, Leadership and the Liberal Revival: Bolte, Askin and the Post-war Ascendancy, will be launched in Sydney on 17 November by former Liberal leader, Dr John Hewson.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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