As the annual political round-ups start to roll out it is fascinating to watch how they are all obsessed with leadership and activity, and how the respective political parties’ PR people work to shape how that leadership and activity are seen.

There’s nothing wrong with either leadership or activity if we know what we mean by the first and if the activity is purposeful and has a beneficial outcome.  The problem is that the underlying view of leadership in the commentary and spin often seems to be based on a version of the Latin American Caudillo system, which sees the leader as a strong chap on a big white horse rushing around giving orders. Activity is seen as something which has to be underpinned by a reform agenda, which is rarely closely defined and usually reflects an ideological view of the world more than anything else.

The politicians are partly to blame for this. They mouth the platitudes about leadership and reform agendas written by the spin doctors; but at the same time the interest groups clamour for leadership and reform to meet their ideological preferences or sectional needs; and the media are grateful for the opportunity to reduce complex ideas to sound bites about who is winning or losing the reform agenda wars.

The end result is a vicious circle in which nation building takes second place to nonsense about law and order and boat people.

This is not to say that Australia doesn’t need reforms — to education, infrastructure, etc — but the reality is that few of them can be devised and executed in an electoral cycle let alone a 24-hour news cycle.

One of the other ironies of all the speculation is that it is often the conservative media that are most strident about the need for politicians to show leadership and pursue a reform agenda. Once conservatives prided themselves on limited government and were quite happy about a degree of government inactivity, considering it generally beneficial. John Roskam of the IPA was one of the few brave enough to say that government paralysis as a result of waiting for the outcome of the negotiations with the independents mightn’t be a bad thing. But now Labor governments, once derided for moving too fast, are now derided for not moving fast enough.

It is difficult to imagine the Murdoch media, for instance, finding anything positive to say about the Gillard government other than if it agreed to meekly hand over to Tony Abbott and go away for a long time. Indeed, if Julia Gillard had expressed Margaret Thatcher view’s that “when all is said and done, a politician’s role is a humble one”, she would have been excoriated by the Murdoch Thatcher acolytes for failing to have a far-reaching reform agenda.

So what would be a more realistic view of leadership? Last week I attended the annual Leadership Victoria dinner at which graduates of their year long Williamson Community Leadership program were celebrated. The guest speaker was Terry Moran of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and the interesting things he said about leadership that night can be found here.

Leadership Victoria has been operating since 1990 and runs leadership development programs that focus on collaboration, respect, reflection, understanding the broadest possible social, economic and political context and exposing participants to a wide range of views and experiences across the private, public and voluntary sectors.

Broadly speaking, all this is the antithesis of the leadership models espoused by politicians, many interest groups and much of the media where reflection, negotiation and compromise are seen as failures rather than examples of civility and democracy.

Launching Rodney Cavalier’s book Power Crisis, John Faulkner also took a view antithetical to the conventional wisdom. He said: “Political leadership is easy to demand but it is difficult to define.

“We are always being told the government, the party, our leaders, should show leadership.

“Usually those who find themselves in a minority on a particular issue demand that politicians show leadership by taking that minority position; while those in the minority insist politicians should respect the democratic will by taking the majority position. In my experience, often an individual can argue both sides of that debate in almost a single breath depending on whether they are in the minority or the majority on then topic of the moment.

“Neither slavish obedience to popular opinion, nor egocentric disdain for it, are political leadership. Political leadership is a balancing act, a constant tension between having the courage of conviction and having the capacity for consultation,” he said. The full version of his speech is here.

During his speech Faulkner quoted Yeat’s poem about conviction and passion (“The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity”). As Faulkner put it: “In modern politics too many of those with conviction lack the courage to defend those convictions unless they coincide with the certainty of electoral victory — while too many have courage in abundance with no conviction to guide it — save their own personal advantage.” As useful a summary of the problems of modern Labor as anyone has made.

But this Faulkner analysis doesn’t really address the broader media and commentariat view of  leadership, of which a useful summary, might be Goethe’s observation that “a confusion of the real with the ideal never goes unpunished”.

The punishment is, sadly, in the first instance, the public’s as the political debate gets reduced to sound bites and irrelevancies. In the second it is the politicians’ when they realise that de Gaulle was right about all political careers ending in failure and the novelist, David Ireland, prescient in remarking that “nothing recedes like success”.

*Ritual declaration of interest: the author was formerly a Leadership Victoria Council member and is an LV Honorary Fellow

Peter Fray

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