by Paul Strangio
Certain types of people tend to lead the Labor Party – and the outcomes are eerily familiar.
During the valedictory speeches for Kevin Rudd, his successor as Labor leader, Bill Shorten, observed that Parliament would never see Rudd’s like again. Though Rudd’s story is, of course, singular, it is equally true that he conformed to a particular type of Labor leader, which also helps explain his tumultuous incumbency as prime minister.
Historically, leadership and the Labor Party have been uncomfortable bedfellows because of the inherent tension between the ALP’s collectivist (power-sharing) organisational principles and the impulse of leaders to bend the party to their will. In turn, there have been two distinct Labor leadership types, each of which has responded differently to that tension.
On the one hand, there have been group leaders who have worked with the grain of the party’s collectivist practices; and, on the other hand, there have been personalisers who have chafed against them.
This duality was evident from the early days of Labor as embodied in two of its first generation prime ministers: Andrew Fisher and William Morris (Billy) Hughes.
Fisher, the only significant prime minister from Queensland until Rudd, was renowned for his modesty and faith in the principle of solidarity. While not quite true to say that Fisher effaced himself in favour of his party, probably no Australian prime minister has governed more in the spirit of the ideal of first among equals. By contrast, Hughes, who succeeded Fisher as the nation’s leader during World War I, was dynamic and driven, a believer in his own infallibility, and incurably controlling. He was, in short, the antithesis of a team player.
One of his admirers, the young journalist Keith Murdoch (father of Rupert), once exasperatedly pleaded with him: ”For God’s sake, learn how to decentralise, deputise … The art of being a great man is partly a selection of strong and reliable assistants. Get good deputies, and then, for heaven’s sake, trust them.”
It hardly needs saying that on the spectrum of Labor leaders, while not quite as extreme an example as Hughes, Rudd was on the outer margins of the personaliser camp. His rival, Julia Gillard, with her talent for forging coalitions and negotiating compromise outcomes, sat more naturally among the group category.
In truth, extremes of either type are unlikely to make successful leaders. Labor has had its share of compliant group leaders who were incapable of driving the party forward and instead presided over periods of drift and inertia. On the other hand, excessive personalisers, while frequently brilliant and creative are liable to be dangerously wilful and prone to sowing division. In the case of Hughes, he blew Labor apart over the issue of conscription for overseas service.
Leaders who sit somewhere between these poles are most likely to prosper. Examples are Labor’s WWII Prime Minister John Curtin and the party’s longest-serving office-holder, Bob Hawke. Both were skilful at harnessing the talents of their ministers and at fostering consensus. Yet they also led their governments and, where necessary, cajoled the party and imposed their will upon it.
An alternative formula for success is where Labor has been steered in government by tandems who together combined group and personalising attributes. For instance, Fisher with Hughes as his chief lieutenant in 1910-13, and Hawke and the Olympian-inclined Paul Keating in the 1980s. Notably, these tandems appear most viable when the group-orientated leader is prime minister, since it is alien for a personaliser to operate as a duet. This may help explain the unsustainability of the partnership of Rudd and Gillard, who otherwise seemed to possess complementary skills for an effective team.
There is an interesting question of whether trends in modern politics favour personalising leadership types. Such trends include parties’ increased reliance on leaders (rather than philosophies) as means of product differentiation and the media’s focus on leaders as message bearers for their parties and preoccupation with their personal appeal (reinforced by incessant opinion polls).
In his valedictory speech for Rudd, Malcolm Turnbull highlighted the presidential nature of the former’s victory at the 2007 election.
Certainly, it seemed that having campaigned as if he were largely autonomous from party and hence obtained a personal mandate, Rudd felt licensed to run his government like a capricious emperor.
He neglected relations with his cabinet, the caucus and, for that matter, the stakeholders required to advance his ambitious reform program. That folly produced such calamities as the collapse of plans for an emissions trading scheme by 2010, and ultimately Rudd’s alienation from his party room.
In the past, the ALP’s reflexive response to being burnt by excessive personalising leadership has been retreat into a period of introspection and recuperation under a group leader. In the extreme example of Hughes, so searing was the experience that, as Gough Whitlam once observed, it ”undermined the Labor Party’s trust in the very concept of leadership”.
There have been faint echoes of that reaction in the disavowal of ’’messiahs’’ in the recent leadership contest between Shorten and Anthony Albanese as both candidates emphasised their qualities as team players.
Whether that disposition survives long given the contemporary cultural bias towards leadership predominance is questionable, yet, ironically, for now at least, the tune of group solidarity is a legacy for Labor of the personalising Kevin Rudd.
Dr Paul Strangio teaches politics in the School of Political and Social Inquiry at Monash University and is author of ‘Neither Power Nor Glory: 100 Years of Political Labor in Victoria’.
This article originally appeared in The Sunday Age
Find out more:
Turnbull makes a good start on expenses, but needs to go further
Colleen Lewis, Monash University It is regrettable that the path leading to the establishment of … Continue reading Turnbull makes a good start on expenses, but needs to go further
Five things to consider when designing a policy to measure research impact
Andrew Gunn, University of Leeds and Michael Mintrom, Monash University This year will see the … Continue reading Five things to consider when designing a policy to measure research impact
Expenses reform is easy and essential – the only thing lacking is politicians’ resolve to do it
Colleen Lewis, Monash University What is it that too many politicians don’t get about the … Continue reading Expenses reform is easy and essential – the only thing lacking is politicians’ resolve to do it
What is rumbling Australia’s economy ahead of MYEFO
Remy Davison, Monash University The Turnbull government’s Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook (MYEFO) takes place … Continue reading What is rumbling Australia’s economy ahead of MYEFO
Dangerous Research: PhD candidate Maria Tanyag on field work and feminist research
Maria Tanyag is a PhD candidate in International Relations with the Monash Gender, Peace and … Continue reading Dangerous Research: PhD candidate Maria Tanyag on field work and feminist research
Parliament finishes for 2016, capping off a messy, turbulent year
Nick Economou, Monash University; Carol Johnson, University of Adelaide, and Natalie Mast, University of Western … Continue reading Parliament finishes for 2016, capping off a messy, turbulent year
There is no female president this time, and women are divided about it
Jacqui True, Monash University and Aida Arfan Hozić, University of Florida This is what we … Continue reading There is no female president this time, and women are divided about it
Trump can kill trade deals but he can’t kill globalisation
Remy Davison, Monash University 2016 will go down as a watershed year for all the … Continue reading Trump can kill trade deals but he can’t kill globalisation
How Jakarta’s first Chinese Indonesian governor became an easy target for radical Islamic groups
Noor Huda Ismail, Monash University Jakarta saw its biggest protest in years on Friday, prompting … Continue reading How Jakarta’s first Chinese Indonesian governor became an easy target for radical Islamic groups
Turnbull will not succeed as prime minister unless he unites his party
Nick Economou, Monash University When he displaced Tony Abbott as Liberal Party leader, Malcolm Turnbull … Continue reading Turnbull will not succeed as prime minister unless he unites his party
Paul Strangio at the Australian Senate Occasional Lecture Series
Monash Art’s Associate Professor Paul Strangio will be giving a lecture in Canberra this week as … Continue reading Paul Strangio at the Australian Senate Occasional Lecture Series
The new Senate looms as a serious problem for a damaged Malcolm Turnbull
Nick Economou, Monash University Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and his Liberal colleagues have had a … Continue reading The new Senate looms as a serious problem for a damaged Malcolm Turnbull