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The Changing State of Leadership in Australian Politics

I’ve just devoured the latest Quarterly Essay, titled Trivial Pursuit: Leadership and the End of the Reform Era, by political journalist George Megalogenis.

It’s an interesting read - it’s filled in a few holes in my political knowledge (though that’s not too hard to do), and it’s provided an intelligent take on the current leadership crisis Australian politics is facing.

There’s plenty of thoughts from it that are buzzing around my head which I’d like to share - and would appreciate any thoughts you may have.

Generational support in the Major Parties

The Greens are building a considerable supporter base within Generation Y - and people often don’t switch parties as they get older, so this could lead to them being a serious player in Australian politics within the coming decade. However, the Baby Boomers are predominantly Coalition supporters. Keeping in mind our ageing population, in our most recent federal election 46% of voters were aged 50 or older.

Then factor this in: the ALP have dominated in the eastern states in particular - and yet there’s a decent chance that all three of Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland will swich to Coalition Governments over the coming two years.

So: where does this leave the ALP on a Federal level?

Red and Blue States

Another divide is through the middle of the country: South Australia, Victoria, Tasmania and the ACT all had swings towards the ALP in the most recent election. NSW was rather ambivalent, whereas Queensland and Western Australia favoured the Coalition.

Yes, inner city electorates have always been progressive in comparison to their rural siblings. But arguably this is a little more distinct. How would you go about being a leader for all of Australia?

Lead by Example

Hawke, Keating and early Howard were seen as true leaders - they led by action (ie: reform). Later, Howard, Rudd, Gillard and Abbott have all played by the polls, instead of leading with their own ideals and conviction. The abandoning of the ETS is a prime example of how the second approach failed Labor.

Playing to the polls is not healthy - far better to lead, and bring the country with you. Give them something to vote for, instead of being the least-worst option.

Stick to your guns - people are more willing to forgive you if you’ve got clear convictions. Consider Howard’s GST policy as an example. I’d quote others from Hawke and Keating, but I really don’t have the history chops to be confident in what I’d be saying.

Faster! Faster!

The pace of the media cycle is dangerous - there is the expectation of constant news. Our political leaders must push back against this desire. They need to plan out policy carefully, and not bombard people with a whole lot of small pieces of information.

Depth instead of breadth should be the focus - but that’s a hard thing to manage given our short attention spans. (A curse of the internet, perhaps?)

Be Prepared to Negotiate

This isn’t something from the book, but I think hung parliaments are going to become far more common. The Greens are coming into their own, and the combined ALP and Coalition vote hasn’t come close to 90% since 1993, when Keating beat Hewson. When 15-20% of voters are regularly looking beyond the two major parties, that makes a majority far harder to capture.

Does this all sound reasonable? Are my biases clouding my own perceptions? Is there anything you’d like to add?

Adrian left a comment on 17 Jan, 2011:

Hi Pat,

I’m glad that someone else devoured the quarterly essay! I’m also slowly chewing on John Howard’s book…though some parts are hard to digest!

Your summary and conclusions do sound reasonable. I’m not sure what your biases are (aside from being a fellow idealist), you mention that gen-y are voting green, and that people are less likely to change political parties when they are older. Let’s think about Gen-y: my understanding is that they were extremely apathetic when it came to ‘active’ involvement in politics (joining a party, being involved in student politics at university) compared to previous generations.

So why are they voting Green? One, because the big parties hadn’t needed to actively pursue this generation due to demographics (as you stated, baby boomers made up the largest chunk of the vote). Two, they care more about action based on issues that they perceive as important. Climate change arguably holds most appeal to the generation that has never had to worry about employment, war, wealth etc.

Will they vote Green forever? Probably not…IF the major parties are able to subsume the ‘green’ issue successfully into their strategy, AND Australia actually gets a taste for economic hardship. The bears on the China market are predicting anything from slow-down to all out collapse of the Chinese economy, which would put a serious dampener on Australian incomes, but we are still in a fantastic position compared to most of the world. I suspect that many of the baby boomer generation vote differently now than they did in the 1960s. It reminds me of the quote attributed to Winston Churchill: “If you are not a liberal at twenty, you have no heart and if you are not conservative at thirty, you have no brain.” I guess that we can add about a decade to that statement because people are delaying commitment and childbirth etc.

I don’t think that we’ve seen the zenith of the Green Party, but the environmental platform is difficult to maintain as your only base I think. Liberals have individual freedom and free markets, Labour has equality and “controlled excess” of markets.

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.


pat left a comment on 20 Jan, 2011:

Hi Adrian

Thanks for the detailed comment… sorry it’s taken me a few days to find the space to reply.

My bias is that I’m most definitely progressive/left-wing. I hold no love for the Liberal Party, and very little for Labor. However, while Greens are at the top of my ticket (or close to it), I’m not a member. And idealist is also a good label, as you’ve spotted.

I’m not sure about Gen Y being apathetic towards politics. It’s somewhat grounded in fact, but it does make assumption that the current political activity is the one true way. With groups like GetUp and (more importantly) the AYCC and Oaktree Foundation, I do think there’s plenty of politically aware members of Gen Y - but I agree that few are diving into the traditional forms of political activism. A lot of the leaders of my generation I speak to are very much interested in politics, but have no faith in our political leaders or system.

The Greens aren’t as tainted by that - perhaps because they’re being a little smarter about it, or perhaps just because they’ve not held power, and so can avoid some of the machinations, bureaucracy and compromise that that brings.

As to whether Gen Y will continue to vote Greens… who knows, the idea that people usually don’t change votes as they grow older was something I read, perhaps in the Quarterly Essay. Churchill’s quote is one I’ve heard before, but I find it pretty glib. Maybe that’s my idealism coming through, though ;)

I agree that the Greens need to move beyond their environmental platform

  • and to some extent, they have. They’ve been outspoken on social justice issues and the internet filter, but it’s hard to see them as anything beyond an environmental party because of their name. I’m sure plenty of their long-time supporters won’t be happy to see that change, though.

I think they’re the more clear thoughts floating around in my head at the moment

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