The vexed issue called ‘leadership’

Of all the qualities our political leaders strive to embody, the nebulous characteristic called “leadership” is ironically the hardest to achieve.

Both Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his opposition counterpart Bill Shorten have discovered there’s considerably more to the leadership task than striding forward shouting “follow me!”

Leadership requires striking what is usually a precarious balance between reflecting what voters want, and convincing them to accept what the nation needs. The consequences of getting the balance wrong usually amounts to electoral defeat.

Voters are hard taskmasters when it comes to leadership. The quality can inspire respect, sometimes admiration and even less frequently, awe.

But it is a title and a role that only we can bestow; we generally only see figureheads as leaders if, in our estimation, they reflect our own values, thoughts and motivations.

We want our leaders to be an extension of us; to lead, but in reality, to follow. We favour those who ascribe to the apocryphal motto attributed to both the fictional British PM Jim Hacker and the 19th century French politician Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin: “I am their leader. I must follow them.”

It’s no coincidence, then, that Abbott’s reflection of our shock, grief and grim determination following the attack on MH17 initially resulted in his leadership credentials being considered in a more positive light.

Abbott has since managed to dim that glow by overreaching on the tragedy. His attempt to appropriate the retrieval of the dead as another “national security” issue, by dubbing it Operation Bring Them Home and announcing the deployment of armed police and defence personnel to the site, quickly leached much of the goodwill that previously unsupportive voters may have had for the PM.

Such is the risk of straying from the song sheet that is the collective consciousness.

There are of course other inherent dangers for leaders who follow the pack. It’s one thing to channel the nation’s collective ebullience, as Bob Hawke did on the morning Australia II won the America’s Cup, or our deep regret, as Kevin Rudd did when he apologised on our behalf to the Stolen Generations.

It’s yet another to move like a weathervane as the winds of public opinion shift from one direction to another. Voters prefer their leaders to be reliable and dependable, and usually lose respect for those who prove to be otherwise.

The greatest risk, however, is in succumbing to voters’ baser instincts such as the xenophobia, if not outright racism, embodied in the current majority view that condones the harsh treatment of asylum seekers in the name of “national security”.

Likewise the voters’ hip-pocket rejection of climate action, which has shaped both the Coalition and Labor’s abandonment of the carbon “tax”.

In these cases, a different type of leadership has traditionally been used; one that involves stepping forward from the pack and setting an example to be followed.

There is a good reason this type of leadership is less favoured; our contemporary political history is littered with the remains of those who failed to lead Australians to accept unpopular political positions.

Former Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard’s inability to successfully prosecute the case for a carbon price is perhaps the most recently notable example. Treasurer Joe Hockey’s attempt to unite voters against “the age of entitlement” is another.

And Bill Shorten’s push to democratise the Labor Party, which is meeting considerable resistance from the union and factional influences within the party membership that he’s seeking to reduce, may yet prove to be another example.

A different approach to political leadership is needed if Australia is to tackle diabolical issues such as asylum seekers and climate change, as well as less pressing but nevertheless important matters like the federal budget.

It’s not enough for a leader merely to espouse what the Australian people want, or conversely to expect that voters will trust and follow them just because of the office they hold.

A necessary precursor must first be established – political leaders must earn the respect of the Australian electorate. Only those leaders who have secured that respect, and who can effectively make the case for change, will successfully bring the community along with them.

Without political leadership built on respect, we’ll continue to be distracted by populist politicians and resentful of those who try to force worthy but unpalatable solutions upon us. And the tough issues will either be buffeted by the winds of populism or simply consigned to the too hard basket.

Purists and pragmatists clash on climate action

The harrowing events that began to unfold in Ukraine at the end of last week firmly put into perspective the preceding fortnight’s wrangling in the Senate.

The seemingly endless days of political point-scoring, filibusters and guillotines seemed even more shallow than usual, and the supposed victories felt all the more hollow.

Any enjoyment of the proceedings, either in witnessing the repeal of the carbon price or Clive Palmer giving the Prime Minister a lesson in wilful obstructionism, was dispelled by the singularly horrific act of barbarity.

Having therefore been stripped of its triumphalism and schadenfreude, the scrapping of the carbon price revealed the stark quandary that remains: is some climate action better than none at all?

The “idealist or realist” dilemma goes to the heart of the deal that former Greens’ adviser Ben Oquist reportedly shepherded between former US vice-president Al Gore and parliamentarian Palmer, who happens to own one of Australia’s top 400 greenhouse gas emitters.

The realists would emphasise that without the Gore intervention, Palmer would have sided with the Coalition to completely scrap the Clean Energy Future package negotiated by Julia Gillard with the Greens and country independents in 2011.

Palmer vowed instead to protect key elements of the package including ARENA and the CEFC, which support development and commercialisation of the next generation of renewable energy technologies, and the advisory Climate Change Authority.

Palmer also said he would protect the Howard-era RET (until the next federal election), which drives the adoption of mature renewable energy technologies.

The idealists would in turn point out that Gore took a hit to his credibility by appearing with Palmer, and that by being seen to sanction his vow to repeal the carbon price Gore and his handlers were essentially turning a blind eye to the miner while he continued to benefit from enterprises that produce high levels of carbon emissions.

They’d also note that saving a few climate action entities, at no political expense or financial cost to his coal and nickel operations, would have seemed to Palmer a negligible price to pay for the world-class green-washing bestowed by the former US vice-president.

There is of course no easy solution to this impasse.

The idealist-realist conflict has long been a point of contention within the environment movement. Purists like Greenpeace refuse any government or corporate funding and rely on high-visibility media campaigns to make an impact on public policy.

Pragmatists like WWF see benefit in stepping inside the tent to work with businesses and governments to improve environmental standards throughout the economy. This cooperative approach can extend to WWF endorsement through vehicles such as the forest certification scheme, which many purists see as just another form of green-washing.

Much of the friction between the idealists and realists on climate action was minimised with the launch of the CEF package. Granted, the purists wanted a much higher price on carbon to drive changes in consumer behaviour, but were placated with serious money being directed to the development of renewables instead. And the pragmatists saw compensation to middle-income households as a necessary concession even though it neutralised the price signal.

Things remained relatively quiet until the election of the Abbott Government and the prospect of Gillard’s climate action architecture being totally dismantled became reality.

The differing interests have since begun to clash again over what is the best approach to maintaining climate action under the Abbott regime.

Prior to the great unveiling of the Palmer-Gore “understanding”, the most notable recent example of the purity/pragmatic contention on climate action was the struggle within the Greens to finalise a position on petrol excise. Greens Leader Christine Milne took the idealistic view, supporting the indexation of excise in accordance with party policy. However, political pragmatists within the party prevailed with cost of living concerns instead.

No increase in the cost of a fossil fuel was preferred to the sub-optimal alternative, just as had been the case when the Greens rejected Kevin Rudd’s seriously flawed ETS in 2009.

A similar choice will befall the Greens, and Labor, when Palmer’s “dormant” ETS and the Government’s Direct Action package of greenhouse gas mitigation initiatives are considered by the Parliament after it returns in late August.

The idealists will want to dismiss the initially zero-rated trading scheme as a hollow gesture, while the realists will want to support it in the desperate hope that a benevolent future government will one day transform the fake into the real thing.

Similarly, the purists will press to have Direct Action denounced as the fig leaf policy that it is.

And what position will the pragmatists take? If they adopt a similar approach to the one taken with Palmer, they’ll turn a blind eye to Abbott’s carbon emission free-for-all and accept the limited emission reductions that are on offer as better than nothing.

While the realists usually dominate when it comes to the vexed question of climate action in Australia, in the case of Direct Action it’s a fair bet the idealists will be the ones to prevail.

Palmer United against the nation – Redux

Lost among the bustle of yesterday’s continuing Palmer sideshow, otherwise known as federal parliament, was proof that the miner’s alternative emissions trading scheme is a sham.

The ETS was brandished by Palmer last month as proof of his Damascene conversion to the need for climate action and the merits of carbon pricing.

In reality its purpose was little more than to greenwash Palmer’s coal-blackened hands and mitigate observers’ queasiness that Al Gore had been compromised into apparently sanctioning the miner’s vow to scrap the existing carbon-pricing scheme.

At the time Palmer placed caveats on what has been described as his “dormant” ETS to ensure it did not activate before Australia’s key trading partners had their own schemes in place. This was ostensibly to protect our exports from being disadvantaged by having to incorporate a carbon price when our competitors’ products did not carry a similar impost.

Continue reading “Palmer United against the nation – Redux”

Palmer gives Shorten a free ride

How lucky is Bill Shorten? After mixed reviews of his performance over the past 10 months, the Labor Leader could soon benefit from the crossbench chaos enveloping the Abbott Government in the Senate by doing little more than standing around looking statesmanlike.

Shorten has struggled since becoming Opposition Leader to get the balance right between being the alternative prime minister and the ruthless oppositionist that four years of Abbott has brought the Australian voting public to expect.

The relative merits of strategic opposition compared with all-out obstructionism also sat at the heart of the competition between Shorten and Anthony Albanese when they campaigned last year to become Labor leader. This issue continues to be a source of contention between the two men, if well-connected political commentators are to be believed.

Yet the arrival of Palmer and his wreckers in the Senate have made Shorten’s inner tussle with negativity a moot point.

While Shorten must at least couch any opposition to Coalition Government initiatives within the parameters set by ALP policies and the expectations of Labor supporters, Palmer has no such boundaries. In fact the Member for Fairfax has shown an early willingness to eschew even consistency or logic to make life difficult for the Prime Minister.

Irrespective of the cause, the Abbott Government will ultimately be held accountable for the untidy way parliamentary business is being conducted and, by extension, how the government is run. This is the key political lesson learned from the Gillard years, and the reason why Government ministers are sounding particularly shrill as they try to apportion blame for the current shambles while recognising that such protestations are a pointless endeavour.

Palmer has essentially usurped Shorten’s role since he started messing with the Senate and Abbott’s mind, but he has also reduced pressure on the Labor Leader to emulate Abbott’s destructive style.

Shorten’s relief at this turn of events has been almost palpable. In a television interview yesterday he appeared relaxed and confident, and the singsong cadence that he’s adopted since becoming Opposition Leader was mostly missing. In the space of that one short interview, Shorten become a voice of reason that cut through last week’s parliamentary cacophony.

Incidentally, an appearance by Albanese on a rival network at about the same, in a suit and tie on a Sunday no less, was also good.

Even though it’s true that governments lose elections rather than oppositions win them, an opposition will not prevail unless it’s considered to be a viable alternative. Labor may be doing well in the opinion polls currently, but their primary vote is still low, which suggests voters will take some time to forget what they disliked about the Rudd and Gillard years.

Voters will also continue to be attracted to Palmer as long as his populism and conflicts of interest evade scrutiny. But on polling day they’ll choose the party they believe will best provide a responsible and competent government. That’s unlikely to be PUP if Palmer continues to claim he doesn’t care if the Government has to incur more debt to pay for the wholesale changes he’s making to the budget.

Palmer’s obstructionism not only provides Shorten with the opportunity to show his leadership credentials, but also gives Labor the chance to focus on developing and promoting its credentials as the alternative government.

While Shorten made a good start with the response to the budget, such an “alternative government” campaign would require Labor bringing forward plans to reverse the party’s reputation for poor economic management, whether it is deserved or not.

This would also be an ideal time for the ALP to sever any ties of complicity that it has with the Coalition Government on policies such as those that have led to the current inhumane treatment of asylum seekers.

Shorten can no doubt improve his approval rating by just standing back from the Senate fray and saying sensible things.

But by building on the perception that Labor is the only competent party left in the Australian Parliament, the Labor leader can do more – he can reconnect with lost voters, recapture the middle ground, and take his party closer to success at the next federal election.