I’ve previously written that I’m in support of the ALP holding a leadership ballot. Here’s a quick revist of why:
But could a ballot be used to promote and communicate a sense of unity and stability within the ALP? Yes. […] The solution is to hold a ballot where the candidates ‘campaign’ for each other, rather than for themselves. Ordinary ballots have candidates striving to ‘win’ by promoting themselves and tearing down opponents. A ballot could instead have the message: ‘The ALP is overflowing with leadership talent. Here are three candidates that we think are excellent. Regardless of which is picked by the ALP membership, we will have a leader better than our political opponents. We believe this so much that our candidates will promote the alternative candidates rather than themselves.’
Since then, we’ve had the leadership ‘debate’ where the candidates, Bill Shorten and Anthony Albanese, have emphasised that the competition will be about policies and not personalities.
This completely misses the point of leadership debates.
The result has been a publicly civilised (though privately less so) conversation between two people who are struggling to show any sort of difference, any sort of disagreement, or any point of distinction from the other candidate. There has been some pressure — and, certainly, enough opinion writers have been braying for it — for the candidates to talk about differences in policies and opinions. The debate is slowly shifting into this area, with both candidates starting to discuss various quota systems and even asylum seeker policy.
But should a party’s policies be a discretionary matter for the leader? Does the ALP want a system where its leaders start arguing that they’ve got a ‘mandate’ to pursue a particular policy? Isn’t this one of the reasons we all criticised Rudd?
There were a lot of problems with the Rudd-Gillard governments and communication seems to be at the heart of most of those. The government seemed to be in free fall mode a lot of the time. You couldn’t be sure from one week to the next what various policies would be. In research policy, for example, universities were left in limbo wondering if ARC grant funding was going to come through as expected. In asylum seeker policy, we had a myriad of different directions advocated. In disability policy, we had the government stating one week that the National Disability Insurance Scheme and the National Injury Insurance Scheme would be developed side by side, the next week deferring the NIIS to concentrate on the NDIS.
Part of the reason why things felt like they were flapping in the wind was that there was no sense of unified leadership underpinning the enterprise of government. It started with Rudd who wanted to be seen at all times to be active and announcing something. Thus, instead of looking like the august leader, wise and noble, he looked like an overzealous middle manager. This resulted in the framing of Gillard’s reign: her first acts were to clean up the mess caused by Rudd, but then could never explain how her leadership style was going to be different.
People get anxious when politicians start to talk about style and manner, and for good reason. We’re sick of the style over substance politician who appears to be inauthentic (whatever that might mean — see my constant prattle about the affectation of authenticity crushing our political discourse). But the cure to ‘style over substance’ is not ‘substance without style’.
Albo and Shorten both seem to be people of substance, but they both seem to lack style. When they talk about why they want to be leader, they note all the wrong things. Albo, for example, thinks it’s a merit game where his history proves that he’s ready for the job. He even has his very own three-word slogan: ‘Vision. Unity. Strength.’ Shorten, on the other hand, thinks it’s about convincing people with logical arguments. ‘If A strictly entails B in all possible worlds, then vote for Shorten.’
When you go to purchase a car, you don’t expect the cars to debate each other in order to work out which is the best. You expect a car to stand out on its own terms. Regardless of what other car you look at next, this car is The Car. The Car feels right. Sure, you get it checked out to make sure that it’s actually got an engine and whatnot but, ultimately, it’s not about the numbers.
When you pick a leader, you want to make sure that they’ve got the substance and the ideas, but what you really want it to come down to is that leadership spark. Neither candidate is showing that attribute. Neither candidate looks like they could deliver a moving speech. Neither candidate feels like they’re a leader.
Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t a criticism of Albo and Shorten specifically. There are few people in Parliament who could really deliver a St Crispin’s Day speech that would make you feel ready to go into battle. We have politicians who aren’t statesmen, who aren’t orators, who aren’t philosophers. Politicians who aren’t leaders. In the current media-managed Age of Low Risk, we get the insipid who shuffle their feet and dodge biting bullets. We get the mediocre whose idea of a good job is not stuffing up so heinously that they won’t be reelected. And we get the insufferable who are there simply because they best reflect the mealy mouthed mendaciloquence of the electorate’s rotten core.
Either Albo or Shorten need to transcend the ordinariness of modern politics and ascend into a leadership figure. Instead of talking about what policies they’ll advance, they should be talking about how they’ll lead policy development in their new shadow cabinet. Instead of pandering to the noisier elements of their party over hot-button issues like asylum seekers and single mothers who received a particular payment before other single mothers, they should be talking about how they’d lead public discussions. And instead of answering the same old, same old questions from the unwashed masses, they should be out there hammering the public narrative on the anvil made out of their pure will.
Shorten argued that there was no room for messiahs in the ALP. He’s right. The ALP need Olympian deities who are not only competent in the day to day running of government business but also reflect the aspirations of people voting for them. They need to be more than mere mortals: they need to be larger than life. If this were a contest between Albo, Shorten, and Batman, Batman would win. Why? Because he’s the one that transcends the ordinariness, pettiness, and mediocrity of our ordinary life and makes us hope for something better.
Albo and Shorten have gone from one extreme to the other and missed that opportunity to re-enchant the Australian political veldt.
- Quick Post: A leadership ballot could change the image of the ALP #auspol (onlythesangfroid.wordpress.com)
- Week Three: The ALP Leadership Debate (theagonisedone.wordpress.com)
- Labor leadership race: the differences between Shorten and Albanese (theguardian.com)
- Quick Post: The Culture Wars and your weak Culture-Fu #auspol (onlythesangfroid.wordpress.com)
- Why extremists matter in persuasion but not in Australian elections #auspol (redearthbluesky.wordpress.com)
- Commonwealth agencies to be cut by Abbott Government #Auspol (auspolwatch.wordpress.com)
- How did #Auspol get this low? Via: En Passant “ (lefthack.wordpress.com)