The Albanese government in office

Leadership – it’s a harder job than being a “leader”

In a Conversation article Paul Strangio of Mnash University writes Albanese will bring a different style of leadership to the PM’s office –– can Australia make the adjustment? He goes through the administrative styles of recent prime ministers, explaining how their short terms in office can be attributed to their leadership failures.

“Especially in times of significant challenge, there is a reflexive hankering for ‘strong’ leaders who paper over complexities and run roughshod over differences. For a bulldozer”.

That attempt to be a “strong leader” is the very problem, he writes. The way politics in Australia has placed so much emphasis on “the leader” is a source of our political instability.

He believes that Albanese is bringing a different style – “a type of leadership that can demand patience from followers”.

He also has an article in the Sydney Morning Herald: Morally reckless, politically foolhardy. Who was counselling Morrison?. It’s an account of how Morrison certainly wielded authority, but did not exercise leadership. In fact so strong was his grip on authority that by the end he had become convinced of his own infallibility: that’s the only plausible explanation for some of his crazy decisions during the campaign.

Morrison fell into the trap of thinking that appointment to a position of authority confers the gifts of being able to exercise leadership. It doesn’t, because authority and leadership are not the same thing.

Although Strangio does not explicitly refer to the work of Ronald Heifetz, of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, his description of the burden of expectations placed on “the leader” aligns with Heifetz’s theory of leadership – a theory that stresses the hard work of leadership rather than the role of the authority figure who carries the title “leader”. Leadership involves bringing people together to deal with difficult problems – problems that involve the often painful process of adaptive change. (A review and summary of Heifetz’s work is in the Journal of Behavioural Economic and Social Systems Leadership, not leaders: reflections on Ronald Heifetz’s theory of adaptive leadership.)

Heifetz’s approach steers a way between avoiding hard problems, thereby getting nothing done, and confronting those problems head on in a way likely to cause such a backlash that no progress is made, and most importantly it involves the hard work of leadership. That involves pacing – helping people learn that there are problems to be confronted, a process that usually takes time. It involves compassion – acknowledging that some changes will cause distress, an issue particularly relevant for those in our export coal communities. It involves honesty – never raising false expectations. And it involves humility – accepting that all are involved in adaptive change, and not taking personal credit when things work out well. Good leadership is often a quiet, behind-the-scenes process.

It is notable that successive Coalition governments, contrary to Morrison’s claim about being a “bulldozer”, have assiduously avoided dealing with hard problems of structural adjustment, particularly those associated with climate change. But there is also the general belief that to confront the electorate with hard problems is political suicide. That belief has been reinforced by Labor’s defeat in 2019 when its platform had policies to address serious problems of climate change, housing price inflation, and taxation inequities.

Albanese and his colleagues may or not be familiar with Heifetz’s work, but a reading of Albanese’s statements about his political style shows that he is well aware of the way the Hawke government dealt with structural adjustment in the 1980s, particularly John Button’s approach to manufacturing adjustment, which was pretty well in line with Heifetz’s theory. So far Albanese has demonstrated, in a way that most journalists don’t seem to understand, that leadership is a much more difficult task than slipping into the role called “leader” and making a few announcements.

Executive government and Parliament

The newly-anointed leader of the opposition is on record as having said “I’ve always seen Parliament as a disadvantage, frankly, to sitting government”.

With 77 seats in the House of Representatives, theoretically the Albanese government could take a similar contemptuous approach to Parliament. But so far, in his public statements, Albanese has given every indication that he will show more respect to parliament than the Coalition did. After all, he has the experience of working with so-called “crossbenchers” during the period of the Gillard minority government, and in any case all legislation has to go through the Senate, where, as is almost always the case, the party forming executive government does not have a majority.

Writing in The Conversation Adam Simpson of the University of South Australia urges Albanese to adopt the collaborative approach to parliament adopted by many mainland European democracies, rather than the hard winner-take-all approach used in the parliament of one of Europe’s offshore islands from which we have adopted some rather undemocratic and dysfunctional conventions.

His suggestion is not radical. Although cross-party collaboration is unusual at the federal level, it has been commonplace in South Australia, for example, where in recent times the Labor government appointed a Nationals MP to the ministry.

Simpson makes a strong case for executive government to show more respect for parliament. Perhaps that respect should go further than he suggests. For example all parliamentarians could have more access to public servants who know the ins and outs of policy and can warn on unforeseen consequences of good ideas, rather than having to rely on the over-stretched resources of the Parliamentary Library. And public servants, for their part, should be reminded that when they appear before parliamentary committees it is Parliament, not their minister, that authorises their salaries and program resources.

A constitutionally enshrined First Nations voice to Parliament

One of Albanese’s consistent campaign messages was a commitment to “implement the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full”.

On Friday last week Rachel Perkins gave the keynote speech “From the Heart and Soul” at a gathering of representatives of major religious organizations at the Cutaway at Barangaroo, calling for bipartisan support for a referendum on a First Nations voice.

Perkins explains what will be involved in mobilizing support for a referendum and a positive vote in an interview with Hamish Macdonald on ABC Breakfast, on the morning before she delivered her oration. (9 minutes). She stresses that a voice to Parliament is far beyond symbolism and tokenism: it is a practical measure, giving indigenous Australians a place at the table. To reassure those who are anxious about its powers, she also stresses that it’s a voice, not a veto. Also, recognizing the difficulty in achieving constitutional change, which is virtually impossible without opposition support, she reaches out to the Liberal and National Parties, gracefully accepting apologies from those who have made offensive and misleading remarks about the Uluru proposal.

Her oration, in which she accepts the support of religious organizations, and stresses once again that what is sought is “a voice, not a veto, has been recorded by Sky News in a 15-minute YouTube clip. It’s worth a watch, for it’s a carefully-crafted speech, into which she even manages to weave a quote from Rudyard Kipling’s If, but the accompanying comments from Sky’s regulars are best ignored.

There is a statement by religious organizations in which they assert “As leaders representing diverse religious communities, we declare our support of the Uluru Statement and its call for a First Nations Voice guaranteed by the Constitution”. You can download it from the Uniting Church website. Notably it carries the endorsement of all mainstream Christian churches (not including some strident fringe movements that carry the label “Christian”), as well as Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu and Sikh organizations.

On the chances of getting a referendum passed, Stan Grant has an article on the ABC website. He reminds us of the hurdle – a majority of voters in a majority of states – and that in our history only 8 out of 44 referendum proposals have been carried. Without bipartisan support a referendum is dead, and the Coalition, while in office, has already twice rejected the idea of a First Nations voice to Parliament. But he sees ways in which the Coalition can draw on its own traditions to come on board, and he concludes that because the authors of the Uluru Statement never intended it to be a political document, its pathway to success is “to take it out of the hands of Peter Dutton or Anthony Albanese”.

The first post-election Essential poll has a number of questions relating to the new government’s policies. One is about support for the Uluru statement, including “enshrining an indigenous voice to parliament in the constitution”. Support has been growing over the last five years, but there are significant partisan differences, with Coalition voters showing far less support than voters for other parties.

National Sorry Day

On a related issue, May 26 was National Sorry Day. University of Canberra Chancellor Tom Calma shares his thoughts on where we’ve come from, and his hopes for the future. There is still much to be done, but we’re on a good track.

An Australian head of state

The Albanese government has a ministerial post that didn’t appear in the Menzies government, but could have been in the Turnbull government.

Matt Thistlethwaite was sworn in on Wednesday as Assistant Minister for the Republic. You can hear him give a short account of his job on ABC Breakfast. Getting to a referendum will be a slow process: he isn’t going to scare the horses, or upset the corgis. (9 minutes)

You can also hear Andrew Bolt and Rowan Dean warn that this is a cultural assault on Australian values, the first step in a socialist and communist takeover of Australia. We can expect to hear less strident, but no more defensible arguments, from those whose loyalties still lie with a distant European kingdom.

Some may ask why a government should invest political capital into what many see as a symbolic issue, but it is more than symbolic, because we need a head of state with a degree of legitimacy to carry out the limited, but occasionally crucially important, functions that attach to the role.

We could realistically imagine a different outcome from the election on May 21 – if both main parties had been well short of a majority and Morrison had not resigned, while various Greens and independents remained uncommitted for the time being. Theoretically such a situation should be resolved in Parliament through a vote of no confidence, but that process can still be chaotic, and the governor-general could have to intervene, exercising his or her own judgment. One message from November 11, 1975 is that we don’t want there to be any suspicion that appointing a prime minister is influenced by foreign interests.

The head of state also has day-to-day duties, including presenting a non-political presence at ceremonies and turning up to occasions when people are in distress or grieving, such as in the aftermath of bushfires. Over the last four years, the prime minister has increasingly butted into those occasions, effectively conflating the roles of head of government and head of state. That conflation of roles has served the US poorly and it serves us poorly. The case for a republic in Australia rests in large part on the need to prevent the role of prime minister morphing into the dysfunctional US model.

Also we should not kid ourselves that cultural issues and sentiment do not count materially. It’s notable that London was often on Morrison’s itinerary, while he passed over more significant European countries, and allowed himself to be sucked into an ancient UK-France conflict in the AUKUS deal. UK Prime Minister Johnson is smart enough to know that in trade and defence deals he can rely on the sentiment of Australians with a colonial mindset to promote his country’s interests at the expense of ours.