News Election 2016 Why our obsession with leadership has to stop

Why our obsession with leadership has to stop

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In the lead-up to the 2013 election, there was a big kerfuffle over who should lead the ALP to inevitable defeat against Tony Abbott, arguably the most effective “attack dog” Opposition Leader in Australian political history.

Should it be Kevin Rudd or Julia Gillard?

Back then, plenty of perplexed Australians questioned what was becoming a pathological obsession with so-called “political leadership” – as distinct from politics itself, let alone policy. And they still are.

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For an aggravating decade, Australian politics has been almost out of control, in the process probably missing the entire democratic point.

With the Australian media, it’s not bias or even subjectivity. Who’s been leading who up the political leadership path is a lot sexier, easier and far more fun than policy differences – let alone ideological ones.

How it came to this

After we recovered from “Mr Reliable” John Howard’s incredible 2007 loss of everything except his parliamentary pension, a series of leadership party contests began in earnest and have flummoxed Australian politics ever since.

In 2008 it was Brendan Nelson v Malcolm – yes, that Malcolm – for Opposition Leader. On his second attempt, Mr Turnbull picked up the job when Mr Nelson turned out to be a damp squib.

Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard's rollercoaster ride in office is explored in The Killing Season.
The nation became obsessed by the Rudd/Gillard leadership arm wrestle. Photo: ABC

Only 500 days later, after Mr Turnbull “Grech-ed” himself, it was Malcolm v Tony – yes, that Tony – for the opposition leadership.

Tony was backed by a phalanx of climate change “flat-earthers” lurking on the LNP Right. They mounted a coup and Mr Abbott took the Opposition Leader job from Malcolm by one vote.

Not to be left out, it was Labor’s turn to play musical leaders. After a dream start as the nation’s new PM, Mr Rudd, faced daily with a tearaway Tony Abbott, unravelled and an ALP leadership fracas was on.

Mr Rudd was dumped for Ms Gillard who won the special leadership accolade of first-ever woman PM. She did okay as leader – even with a not-so-well-hung Parliament. But with Mr Abbott on the rampage, the same Labor lads (including Bill Shorten) who promoted Julia to knock off Kevin, brought back Kevin and knocked off Julia.

In the 2013 election, resurrected Kev won enough seats to save Labor from total political annihilation, but not enough to stop Tony finally becoming PM. He turns out to be inappropriate, unsuitable and hardly democratic, given the narrow band of Australians he represented.

malcolm turnbull tony abbott
Malcolm Turnbull swiped the top job from Tony Abbott. But has the party’s ideology changed? Photo: AAP

Then, in September last year, the ghost of once-failed leadership aspirant Malcolm Turnbull reappeared, lambasted Abbott as an incompetent, out-of-date, divisive dill. He took the leadership, and prime ministership, after doing an ideologically compromising deal with the same bunch of LNP “Tea Party” types who voted him out as Opposition Leader.

Missing the point

Week by week, poll by poll, the country’s leaders and would-be leaders belt each other with media-provided feather dusters. As a result of our leadership fixation, we may have de-politicised the political debate.

Somehow, thanks to the leadership cop-out, we’ve reduced the difference between two ostensibly ideologically-driven political parties to a matter of degree, not difference.

Boiled down, competing policies amount to: “We’d do the same things as the other mob – but we’ll do them better and cheaper.”

If that’s what our democratic process has become, why bother with the whole tedious business? Why do we need political parties? Why not just put governing the country up for tender? Best bid wins! If that’s too much trouble, toss an old penny. “Heads, Labor wins; tails, the Libs.” It make as much sense as voting for leaders, not parties.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t vote for a leader. I vote for the ideology of the party the leader leads. Silly me. I thought that was what this whole Western democratic circus was supposed to be about.

And any individual who seriously thinks they can run a country without a lot of help from political and bureaucratic drones needs a shrink, not an election victory.

George Negus has more than five decades of experience in journalism and broadcasting and is the author of several books, including The World from Islam. In 2015, he was awarded a Member of the Order of Australia for services to media. You can read his previous columns for The New Daily here.

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