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Follow the leader: Democracy and the rise of the strongman - a review

Follow the leader: Democracy and the rise of the strongman

Laura Tingle, Quarterly Essay, No 71, 2018

Laura Tingle is becoming increasingly familiar to us as she appears, it seems nightly, as ABC 730’s chief political correspondent. This is the third essay that she has written for Quarterly Essay. The first was Great Expectations (which I did not read) and the second was Political Amnesia (which I did read). This third essay is interesting because it is timely. It comes against the backdrop of and change in the Liberal leadership that, as Tingle herself would no doubt say, is mystifying to the great unwashed. Indeed, it must be mystifying to our new Prime Minister for he is unable to tell us why he is Prime Minister any more than he is able to tell us what is a “religious freedom”. But Tingle’s task in writing this essay requires more objectivity than this reviewer needs to review it or to assess Morrison’s inabilities. One thing Morrison is not is a strongman. There are plenty of them occupying podiums on the world stage; Trump, Putin and Xi spring to mind. Just this morning I noticed in The Guardian that voters in the Maldives have thrown out their “China-backed strongman president.” Of course, you know who that is; it’s Abdulla Yameen.

This is not a short essay, but neither is it particularly long. It is, however, engaging and if you have any interest in the vanities and prejudices and peculiarities of that human sub-species called politician then it is worth popping into Moruya Books and relieving Janice of one of the copies that she has there waiting for you. I was considering what I might say about Tingle’s essay when I noticed on my bookshelf Barbara Tuchman’s The March of Folly (1984). When you think of political strongmen in today’s context your mind goes naturally to the man Trump and it is not much of a stretch to conjure up the word “folly” not only in relation to Trump but also in relation to the electorate that voted for him. I opened the Tuchman book and read the preface. In the very first paragraph are two sentences that jumped out. She observes that “mankind makes a poorer performance of government than almost any other human activity.” And then, at the end of that first paragraph, she asks in relation to politicians “why does intelligent mental process seem so often not to function?”

Tingle’s essay is a look at leadership. As a student of organisational behaviour, I was interested in any distinctions she might draw between political leadership and leadership in the private sector. I concluded after reading her essay that there is little difference. One is as likely to find geniuses or fools as leaders in the private sector as one is likely to find them in government. She draws upon Ronald Heifetz (of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard) for her definition of leadership. Heifetz, she says, defines leadership as “helping a community embrace change, offering a map, a clear option to deal with a problem and corralling factions to a compromise.” I think that definition works well in the private sector. Certainly, when Lou Gerstner took the helm of the then-failing IBM in 1993 he did all these things. But the most important thing Gerstner did was to offer a map. He was utterly straightforward. The Internet was coming. We were to do e-stuff. We did, and IBM survived. It is in the need to offer a map, a sense of purpose or direction, that Tingle finds our current set of politicians wanting. Indeed, she says of Scott Morrison and Bill Shorten (and Malcolm Turnbull) that “neither seemed to have a particular view of where they wanted to lead the country.” And she is right. Who can say with any certainty where Scott Morrison thinks he is taking us? Does he even know?

The country needs to be led both on the domestic and the global stages. Tingle refers to Lyndon B Johnson’s use of “foreign policy to escape the obligation to consult and build a consensus.” Those of us of a certain age will have marched to protest the Vietnam war. The situation today is that our leaders must “find a path through complex global affairs and build a consensus.” She says that “having to deal with strongmen … changes what is required of [our] leaders. We might argue that the challenge today is no different than when John F Kennedy and Nikita Kruschev were respectively President of the United States and First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The Cuban missile crisis was an example of the effect of two strongmen. Thankfully one was stronger than the other though it is a moot point about which one. What is different today is the availability of information. Whether or not that information is accurate or not, and the degree to which it can be manipulated, are added dimensions to both the capabilities, constraints and effectiveness of a leader.

I do not know how Tingle manages to keep her balance when interviewing these people who are politicians. Still less do I understand how she copes with analysing the inconsistencies peccadilloes and plain untruths that she hears. I suppose that she writes essays like her latest to maintain a sense of perspective. Her essay draws strongly on the Australian context. She was perhaps lucky with her timing in writing her essay because she is able to draw her thoughts together against a backdrop that leaves any sensible person scratching her head and concluding that two-year-olds are easier to deal with.

I enjoyed reading this piece; Tingle’s style is elegant and engaging. It is a joy to read an argument that is well-structured. You won’t agree with everything here, and neither should you, but if you have an enquiring kind of mind you should read this.

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