QE71 ‘Follow the Leader: Democracy and the Rise of the Strongman’ by Laura Tingle

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2018, 90 p.

How frustrating it must have been to write this book!  The conclusion of the text is dated 27 August 2018, just three days after Australia’s 29th Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, was overthrown for No 30, Scott Morrison. The volume was no doubt planned probably a year in advance (certainly they’re pre-advertised six months in advance) and, being one of Australia’s foremost journalists, Laura Tingle would have wanted the book to be current. As it turned out, the Liberal (i.e. conservative) party decided not to choose Peter Dutton, the closest thing Australia has to a ‘strong man’ as leader – thank heavens. I wonder how much she had to change the book at the last minute to accommodate this change?As it is, the book concentrates more on leadership and democracy, than the ‘strongman’ mentioned in the  title. Perhaps there were whole chapters that ended up in the bin.

This is the third book in a series of Quarterly Essays that Laura Tingle has written over recent years. In 2012 she released Great Expectations: Government, Entitlement and an Angry Nation and in 2015 she followed it with Political Amnesia: How We Forgot to Govern, both of which have been released in a single volume called In Search of Good Government, where she added a new essay on Turnbull in Power (huh!)  Perhaps I’ve seen and heard too much of her elsewhere, now that she’s on the 7.30 Report and Philip Adams still ‘mingles with Tingle’ on ABCRN. I felt as if there wasn’t anything particularly new in this book. After all, others have commented on the obsession with popularity, the search for a strong man,  the ubiquity of ‘stakeholders’ instead of experts, and the deluge of information from a splintering of sources.

There were a few things that were new, though, and I’ve found myself thinking on them over the last couple of days. First, she uses as her analytic frame the work of Ronald Heifetz from the Kennedy School of Government, who published a book called Leadership Without Easy Answers in 1994. In it, he distinguished between leadership, power and formal authority. Leadership he defined as “helping a community embrace change”. This is not necessarily a party thing:  leadership can come from outside the formal power and authority structures, and indeed, this is what she ends up arguing for.

Heifetz defined leadership as helping a community embrace change, offering a map, a clear option to deal with a problem, and corralling factions to a compromise. For him, leadership is about possessing the skills with which to read and push a community (p.83)

Second, she compares a number of different leaders. She cites Miranda Carter’s article in the New Yorker in 2018 comparing Trump with Kaiser Wilhelm II.  Carter noted the Kaiser’s conviction that his one-on-one “personal diplomacy  would fix foreign policy”, just as Trump seems to view whole countries in terms of whether he ‘likes’ a leader, and more importantly that they ‘like’ him too. Like Trump, Kaiser Wilhelm viewed people instrumentally; he lied; he patronized the aggressive nationalistic right, and he was touchy and unpredictable.

Tingle then turns to two European alternatives. The first of these is Angela Merkel, where the cobbling together of coalitions means that she needs to listen and lead from behind. Tingle comments that in Australian politics, political barbs are always personalized against the leader, rather than the government or opposition they lead- note, for example, the almost instinctive response to immediately attack a policy in terms of the leader “But Shorten…” “But Morrison….”. She doesn’t say this, but a coalition of smaller parties would broaden the focus from just the leader.  The second alternative is Emmanuel Macron who leads from the “front, sides and middle” (p.47). He seems to break all the Heifetz rules, and like Trump, in his own way wants to break the system and make France “great again”. However, she says, unlike Trump so far he has been doing this without finding scapegoats, with a clear purpose and a sense of direction. Tingle is not quite sure about him though: there is a danger that he will resort to strongman tactics.

Third, she gives a real life example of Australia acting as a middle power- Turnbull’s “awful” phone call with Donald Trump after his inauguration, congratulating him on the presidency and ensuring that Trump honoured the refugee-swap arranged with Obama. It is a verbatim transcript, and she quotes it in full. I’m not really sure that it advances her argument much, but it’s just too delicious. It’s important, too, because it shows how slippery and self-centred Trump is in those relationships he so prizes with other leaders. I hadn’t seen the transcript previously in full, and she does us a service in reproducing it.  Quite apart from Trump’s childishness, skittishness and self-obsession, it also appalled me to see how little Turnbull was actually asking of him (even though Trump certainly didn’t see it that way). Turnbull was in effect telling Trump that he didn’t have to take a single refugee under the deal worked out with Obama; that all he had to do was go through the motions. In fact, it amazes me that Trump took any refugees at all (he has taken about 400). Even though I knew it at the time, it reinforced how instrumental and risk-averse the arrangement was for Australia to take 12000 Christian-only refugees when the Syrian situation was at its worst.

Finally, she returns to Australian politics and the failures of the leaders we have had over the last ten years.  Her prescription for leadership is bland and obvious, but harder to achieve than it sounds:

To be a leader, you don’t necessarily have to have a vision, but you either have to know what it is that you want to persuade other people to do, or else have the knack of identifying and synthesizing an issue on which people are seeking leadership. You also need to know how you are going to do something about such issues. And you have to know which are the most important things to get done at any given point in time. Then you have to make the rest of us understand why these things are important and what you are 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. But it does ultimately require you to bring people with you.(p. 81)

She concludes that a large part of the job of political leadership now is “to rebuild the national political discussion after years of it being under assault”, and to recognize that “their own room to move is going to be vastly expanded if there are other leaders in the community with whom they can speak”(p.86). In Heifetz’s terms, this involves protecting the voices of leadership outside the political realm (Human Rights Commissioners and climate scientists spring immediately to mind).

In this, I agree with her.  I inwardly groan when I hear the panellists on Q&A on a Monday night as you see the same old faces and can predict the tenor of the ‘debate’ as soon as the camera sweeps along the table. Sometimes, just sometimes, there’s a new voice from outside, and you wonder “Why don’t we hear more of this person”?

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I’m adding this to the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge. During the month of October Brona, the convenor of the Non-Fiction round-ups challenged people to read a short non-fiction. This was just the push I needed to actually unwrap some of the Quarterly Essays which sit on my shelf (much to my son’s frustration: I figure that she who buys the Quarterly Essay gets to open the Quarterly Essay, no matter how much he wants to read it).

 

3 responses to “QE71 ‘Follow the Leader: Democracy and the Rise of the Strongman’ by Laura Tingle

  1. Ha! My copy of this is lying around the house somewhere… I admit to thinking that there wasn’t much she could say that was new.
    I have my doubts about a coalition of smaller parties offering a solution. My understanding of Australia’s post-Federation history is that it was chaotic before the rise of the major parties and they couldn’t get anything done. There’s a whole horde of postcolonial governments in Asia and Africa that elected governments before an effective party system had had a chance to form, and they descended into such chaos that they were inevitably taken over by military strongmen. I can’t see Australia falling to a military coup – but I suppose that those newly independent nations didn’t think so either…

    • I had to laugh at a politician recently who praised the ‘Founding Fathers’ for creating a constitution for stability, because the first years of the Australian constitution was very unstable with three ‘constellations’ of politicians (they weren’t quite parties as such) so evenly balanced that they had to compromise and horse-trade. Prime Ministers fell like nine-pins. (I’ve just finished reading Judith Brett on Deakin). I think I’m leaning more towards smaller parties.

  2. Wot? Pauline Hanson? the Bob Katter one? Or that loony one for the Motor Enthusiasts? Say it isn’t so!
    Maybe we could form a Party for Women Who Go ‘Hmmmm’?

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