Laura Tingle, Follow the Leader: Democracy and the Rise of the Strongman (Quarterly Essay 71, Black Inc 2018)
Follow the Leader is Laura Tingle’s third Quarterly Essay, a third instalment in a loose trilogy. Great Expectations (QE 46 2012) dealt with Australian expectations of government, Political Amnesia (QE 60 2016) with failing institutional memory, and now Follow the Leader with political leadership in the modern world (links are to my blog posts). ‘For,’ Laura Tingle writes, ‘whatever our expectations of government, whatever the state of our institutions and institutional memory, it is leadership that helps to settle those things, and change them.’
She might have added that the ills of political leadership looms large in the age of Trump, Duterte, Putin, Rudd–Gillard–Rudd–Shorten and Abbott–Turnbull–Dutton–Morrison.
The tagline on Laura Tingle’s website is ‘Reporting on politics from Canberra’. This essay is very high level reporting, and not just about Canberra, offering incisive accounts of political developments in the years since Howard’s prime ministership and invoking the insights of historians, political scientists, politicians (from Kim Beazley to Barack Obama), speechwriters, military leaders, philosophers, other journalists and more.
The essay takes a key idea from Ronald Heifetz’s 1994 book Leadership Without Easy Answers that ‘leadership, power and formal authority too often get confused and need to be carefully distinguished’, and offers his definition of leadership as ‘helping a community embrace change’ as a touchstone against which to judge the functioning of our elected leaders. (incidentally, her account of Heifetz’s discussion of Lyndon Johnson’s handling of the US war in Vietnnam – big fail – and Civil Rights – big win – is enlightening.)
The reality is that elected leaders in Australia and elsewhere are much more committed to their own survival in office, treating their rivals as enemies or pushing their ideological agendas as ‘would-be strong men’ (I love the way that phrase punctures postures) than to leading in the Heifetz sense, and in the face of global warming, mass displacement of people, stunning unequal distribution of wealth, and increasingly dangerous international politics, that is just plain terrifying. Laura Tingle gives an account of how we have come to this dire situation, and perhaps reassuringly sketches alternatives, mainly in the leadership style of Angela Merkel, who is masterly at building consensus, and giving her opponents room that allows compromise.
I’ll give Laura Tingle the final word in this sketchy account of the essay. Her closing words, which I wish could appear in letters of fire over the entrance to parliament House (notice the eleg:
We need our leaders to be wary of simple solutions built on scapegoating and hatred, and to resist succumbing to those who relentlessly conjure up reasons for intolerance. We should expect our leaders to help rebuild the national debate and protect other voices within it. We should be looking for strong leaders to follow, not a strongman.
Follow the Leader is the sixteenth book I’ve read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge.
Why is it that we seem to have had more than our fair share of dud leaders? (And I’m not just thinking of the recent revolving doors. I’m thinking of Billy McMahon and Harold Holt &c).
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Yes, there’s quite a list. One of Lara Tingle’s points, though, is that up until Howard the story wasn’t just about the leader: in Whitlam’s time the press was full of stories about battles among Whitlam, Cairns and Connor. Under Fraser, Hawke and Keating there were policy battles within cabinet. Now we have ‘obsessive focus on the leader’, and captain’s calls, with a weakness of policy as a result.
But looking at your short list, Lisa, I breathed a sigh of relief that Mark Lathem never got the top job
Yes, I see her point.
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