Regenerating political leadership in a populist age

If Australia’s main parties are to regain popular support they will need some radical thinking, a focus on consensus, and a willingness to listen

By Professor Gareth Evans, Chancellor, Australian National University; University of Melbourne alumni

There has been a notable decline in the quality of Australian politics and policymaking in recent times, with prime ministers changing with pantomime frequency, the major parties losing ground to fringe dwellers, decision-making on important social and economic issues too often paralysed, and sloganeering too often taking the place of policy substance.

We may not have the booby prize to ourselves – Britain and the United States have been offering strong competition with Brexit and Donald Trump – but we have little to be proud of in our recent governance performance.

It is not difficult to identify some core underlying reasons why effectively-functioning Western liberal democracy is under populist strain, in Australia as in so many other parts of the world.

There is economic anxiety, driven by the reality that the world is not only globalising but digitalising at crazy speed, with far more people finding this a worrying time than a Turnbullian “exciting” one. There is security anxiety, palpable since 9/11, with fear of terrorism, violent crime, and growing concern, not least with the North Korean and US leadership behaving as they are, that major war might not be the thing of the past we had hoped.

And there is cultural anxiety, the all too familiar phenomenon of economic and security anxieties manifesting themselves as backlash against ‘the other’: usually with complete indifference to evidence and rational argument. Immigrants are seen as taking jobs, asylum seekers as taking welfare, and Muslims as threatening our security.

In this fraught environment, restoration of stable, good quality government is tough, but not impossible.


The crucial challenge for the major centre-left and centre-right parties is to win back the traditional levels of support for them that has been so conspicuously eroding in recent times.

In doing so, it isn’t a matter of resorting to crude populist appeals. Nor is it a matter of blaming the new media environment for making serious discussion of serious policy issues impossible. It has always been the case that most people, most of the time, prefer light to heavy.

But the current political generation doesn’t need to feed either the traditional media or social media beasts as much as it does. It certainly shouldn’t be as spooked by the 24/7 media cycle as it has been. There is a great deal to be said for the old rule (not that I always observed it myself) of talking to the media only when you have something to say, and not talking when you don’t. Not all publicity is good publicity.

Restoring effectively functioning Western liberal democracy, here as elsewhere, is going to require new listening, new thinking, and new acting by our political leaders.

As to new listening, since Bertold Brecht’s advice to governments in trouble – ‘dissolve the people and elect another’ – is a little hard to implement, the sensible course isn’t to blame the people, but to understand why they are reacting as they are. That means leaders listening, not lecturing.

Not many in our recent Australian past have had that instinctive ability to connect. John Howard seemed able to manage it across a fairly broad spread of the community, but Bob Hawke was probably the last to be able to do that across pretty much the whole social spectrum.


New thinking means new policy approaches to the issues that are really resonating with the disaffected – above all addressing the central concern that no-one be left behind.

The Hawke-Keating Government was able to achieve massively necessary and long overdue economic efficiencies by its compensatory ‘social wage’ approach, but these approaches may be much harder to implement now.

Maybe we have to start thinking again about more radical approaches, like a Universal Basic Income, especially if artificial intelligence and other technology-generated unemployment starts climbing, as many fear it will, to catastrophic levels over the next twenty years or so. Whatever the answers, it is imperative that our political leaders visibly start looking for them, and not just peddling the same old remedies, or looking for the same old (or new) scapegoats.

New acting means above all else bringing a new style to the business of politics, which is both more cooperative and consultative, but also more courageous. For parties in government there should be less focus on point scoring and more on finding common ground, supporting summits and consensus-building conferences of the kind that Bob Hawke made an art form.


Parties in opposition should generally allow governments to govern, opposing outright only those measures which are absolutely and fundamentally at odds with their own party policy or ideology. Chalking up a relentless and indefensible record of negativity comes back to haunt you when you return to power with a legislative program of your own to get through.

The successful political leaders I have known have all possessed certain qualities – or at least the capacity to persuade others they had them (bearing in mind that, as Groucho Marx once said – it could equally well have been Tony Blair – that “the secret of success is sincerity: if you can fake that, you’ve got it made”.

Apart from a degree of self-belief that defies normal human inhibition, those qualities are serious intellectual ability and demonstrably high-order judgment; communication skills, and the quality of empathy which, more than anything else, enables one to connect with, and persuade, others; unimpeachable personal integrity; a clear sense of strategic direction; and, highly desirably, a work ethic, and associated physical stamina, well above the prevailing norm.

To hold down a political leadership position for any length of time requires all of them. If you lack any one or more of these qualities, your colleagues or the electorate will sooner or later find you out.


That’s a pretty formidable list of requirements, but I don’t believe they are in impossibly short supply in current Australian politics. Voters have shown over and over again, both here and overseas, that they will respond positively to an attractive story-teller telling an attractive story. Whether we have in place now, in the two major Australian parties, story-tellers with all the right skill-sets is something on which views will differ.

Malcolm Turnbull’s problem may be that the electorate now knows him too well, Bill Shorten’s that it doesn’t know him well enough. I suspect that – although this is not well captured by opinion polling – what matters almost as much as the appeal of the party leaders themselves is the perceived quality of the ministerial or shadow-ministerial team they assemble around them, and Labor may prove to have a decisive edge in this respect.

What ought to be readily deliverable, with some determined new listening and thinking, is an attractive storyline. On the evidence of the past, and recent developments in Europe, I suspect that the storyline most likely to be found attractive – and that will restore some real quality in policymaking if embraced – is some contemporary variation on the ‘third way’ approach that the Hawke-Keating governments made their own (viz. dry, disciplined, competition-driven and productivity-focused economic policy; warm, moist and highly compensatory social policy; and liberal internationalist foreign policy).

What worked in the past is not always the best guide to the present, and maybe my judgment is afflicted by nostalgia. But if the government I served a generation ago is still widely regarded as the gold standard in Australian political history, it’s for a reason.

Gareth Evans is writing on political leadership in support of the McKinnon Prize in Political Leadership, a collaboration between the Susan McKinnon Foundation and the University of Melbourne.

Gareth Evans, now Chancellor of the Australian National University, was a cabinet minister in all the Hawke-Keating governments from 1983 to 1996, and President of the International Crisis Group from 2000 to 2009. The themes in this article are further developed in his just-published book, Incorrigible Optimist: A Political Memoir (Melbourne University Press, 2017)

This article was first published on Pursuit. 

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The McKinnon Prize in Political Leadership is a collaboration between the Susan McKinnon Foundation and the University of Melbourne through the Melbourne School of Government.


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