Monday, September 12, 2011


We think of leaders as possessing special attributes. Many do. Others simply occupy the job.

Then there's Julia Gillard . . .


This column is just about people, positions and power. Sometimes it's obvious that individuals are going to shine in a particular job. They seem to instinctively possess the particular skill-set that's needed: the necessary combination of authority, intelligence and personality that will allow them to succeed. Others don't. Sometimes those skills can be acquired and sometimes they won't be. That's when the structure of the institution becomes vital. The support mechanisms – that's the other people who surround and support the key authority figure – are meant to kick in so as to protect the institution and ensure that no lasting damage is done.

In the end though, it's personality that's vital. Whether it's the captain standing on the bridge of his destroyer, a Minister of the Crown, or whoever is managing that particular shift at the local IGA, they won't be able to run the show simply by exerting the “authority" that was built up by the last occupant of the job. At some point they'll reap the rewards of their own investment. That's why bad managers always try to move on quickly before they're exposed. And it also helps to explain why sometimes people can't make the jump to the next level.

Because of the amplification provided by the media, politics is one of the hardest industries in which to shine. Every personal misstep, every failure, is seized upon. That's why politicians have always been expected to be whiter than white. This was true even in rudimentary democracies, like that of ancient Rome. Back in 63 BC, Julius Caesar's wife, Pompeia, entertained a wealthy young man who'd disguised himself to enter the house. Caesar turned the notion that someone remains innocent until their guilt is proven on its head. Asserting that his wife needed to be above suspicion, he rapidly divorced Pompeia.

Today we'd never dream of attempting such distinctions. Quite properly we direct boundaries between the personal sphere and our interactions with others. Yet, perhaps inevitably, these intertwine and they're resolved with the assistance of a simple legal concept – 'burden of proof'. It may, for example, be difficult for Mr Plod to feel he has enough proof to prosecute someone for fraud. After all, Plod (who'd never been particularly good at numbers at school) had always found it difficult to obtain proof that would satisfy the barristers without the assistance of a truncheon and tightly-rolled wad of newspaper. Nevertheless, once it's been un-stoppered the stench surrounding any political scandal will soon re-emerge, and that's for an obvious reason. Anything that raises questions about the integrity of a politician reflects on their capacity to do their job properly. They face a far greater burden of proof. They must not only be clean, they must be seen to be clean.

This is why Craig Thompson needs to take the opportunity to use the coming session of Parliament to clear his name. No one will interrupt him. He can clear his name of the apparent misuse of union funds. Any failure to do this simply invites renewed questioning that would reflect poorly on a government that so desperately requires fresh air.

Politics has been described as the art of compromise. Bending is necessary and can reflect strength rather than weakness, but it's important not to compromise on principles. This must often appear impossible: the party platform says one thing, and yet a politician believes are another. It's implied that Penny Wong, for example, subsumes her personal beliefs about gay marriage in exchange for the party's support on other issues (although it's not exactly clear which these might be). Rubbing up against the ideas of others doesn't have to create friction and it won't, as long as the motivations of all are clearly on display. Trouble creeps in when unfashionable old concepts (like honesty and purity) don't provide the fertile earth for the superstructure resting above it.

The seed of corruption germinates when morality is ignored. Everyone understands that sometimes it's necessary just to make deals. When Julia Gillard struck a bargain to become Prime Minister, it certainly didn't represent the end of Western civilisation. And, despite her own stupidity in announcing publicly before the election that she would "rule out" a Carbon Tax, voters still understood that she was nevertheless supposedly all about reducing carbon emissions. Gillard's mistake, a slip that's unforgivable in a politician, was her inability to convince the electorate that she was doing it because it was (a) necessary and (b) in the interests of the country. This germinated the seed of doubt about her capacity and motivation.

Now this has escaped. Gillard has become reduced, the victim of the strangler fig of Australian politics. This plan begins its life as a tiny seed, often discarded by a bird in the branches of a tree, before its roots creep around the trunk as they spread downward, searching for fertile soil. Eventually the roots grow to envelop and kill the plant that once supported them. The parasite has become the new tree – but its core is hollow.

This is the issue now for the Prime Minister. She can't even control her own image. That rests, today, in the fertile imaginations of ABC comedy scriptwriters. The harm to her “brand" being generated by this supposedly light-hearted skit is immense, and it's got nothing to do with the execution of the programme. The issue instead is that Gillard is reduced to Julia; worse still, the Julia with that dreadful accent, the Julia with the big bottom, the Julia behind the veneer of power and authority who's really just like the rest of us. Nothing could be more calculated to fatally wound the prime minister and strip her of the few remaining shards of respectability and authority. Reality is manipulated in the search for a cheap laugh. Before long the manufactures the image. It alters our understanding of what's happening in the real world.

Perhaps fortunately, Gillard is just one person in the current government. Through the flukes of timing and opportunity she successively managed to be in the right place at the right time. Eventually, others believed that her promotion was necessary and in the interests of the country and the party. Perhaps she believed it herself. Because of the numbers no one can topple her. There's also no obvious replacement. Gillard will need to come to the realisation that she is the problem. The support network that got her to her current position just isn't strong enough to maintain her any more. The central core has become hollowed out until there's nothing left.

It's also difficult to discern any positive agenda whatsoever coming from Tony Abbott. His current pitch for leadership offers no gaurantees he’d be able to confidently exercise authority either.

Immigration Secretary Andrew Metcalfe has been pulled into a sordid political squabble. Both sides have lept on the department’s advice to claim it vindicates their own policies. Both Labor and Liberal continue to treat voters like idiots. If either leader was able to bend their rigid necks even slightly, we might be able to emerge with a workable policy. Pigs might fly, too.

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