Judith Brett on political leadership and the art of consensus building

Congratulations to all concerned on the establishment of these two prizes and thank you very much for the invitation to participate in their launch. The circumstances of today’s launch – at the beginning of a cancelled sitting week for the House of Representatives – couldn’t better illustrate the need for this prize to encourage our political leaders to rise above their short term political interests for the long term national good.

We are at the end of the neo-liberal period of policy reform when there was a general consensus among politicians and policy makers about winding back government spending and regulation. The energy of that reform agenda has now gone, but a new policy agenda is yet to emerge. We also face the unprecedented challenges of managing the impacts of climate change which are already in the pipeline and of transitioning to a clean energy economy to prevent even more.

What we desperately need is just what this prize will encourage – innovative political leadership committed and able to build politically sustainable policy consensus. To do this we need leaders skilled in the arts of consensus building who are prepared to compromise and to put achieving policy outcomes in the national interest above the narrow political interests of their parties. This is a big ask in today’s political environment where the need for party brand differentiation is often a greater imperative than the achievement of durable policy outcomes. Witness the continuing mess of Australia’s climate and energy policy, where the possibility of a bi-partisan agreement on a Clean Energy Target evaporated when some Coalition members thought it would bring them too close to Labor. Bi-partisanship is impossible when such thinking dominates.

But the political context is changing. Contemporary Australian society is complex – fragmented by social, regional, economic and cultural lines of difference and the two major political blocs of Labour and the coalition are fragmenting – Labor to the left with the Greens and the coalition to the right with One Nation and breakaway conservatives like Cory Bernadi. As a result minority governments are becoming more likely.

In my view, minority government is not something to be feared, but to be welcomed for the opportunities it provides for building consensus.

I have just published a biography of Alfred Deakin, called The Enigmatic Mr Deakin. Deakin was our first Attorney General and three times Prime Minister in the Commonwealth’s first decade. He was the most successful Australian Prime Minister before the second world war, despite, or perhaps because he mostly led minority governments. Many of the policies laid down in this first decade lasted for nearly three quarters of a century: tariff protection, racially restricted immigration, compulsory conciliation and arbitration. And some if its achievements, such as the establishment of the High Court, the Australian navy and old age and invalid pensions are still with us. We no longer share all of Deakin’s policy convictions, especially on tariff protection and immigration, but his policies are not where his lessons for today lie. They are in his statecraft and style of political leadership.

Deakin’s Liberal protectionist party was the centre party – between the new, Labor party that was rapidly increasing its electoral strength, and the Free traders/ anti-socialists led by ex-NSW premier George Reid. Deakin shared ideas and values with both left and right. To get his legislation through, he took support from wherever he could get it and he compromised to achieve outcomes he believed were in the long-term national interest and which had wide support. But he took support more often from Labour than from the Conservatives, and when Labor won government in1910 it completed much of his unfinished legislation within the already established broad outlines it had supported. That his legislation needed the support of others, Deakin argued, made it stronger, because it had to draw on a wider range of Australian experience. When he retired in 1913 Deakin was criticised for his weakness as a party leader, but Deakin only ever saw party as the means to achieve policy outcomes, not as an end in itself and he was untroubled by the imperatives of brand differentiation.

As a political leader, Deakin was a consensus builder. He was not a political warrior. Nor did he use anger and denigration as political weapons. Unfailingly courteous, he used his charm and powers of persuasion to prevent conflict from escalating in order to keep open the possibilities of cooperation across political divisions.

I want now to draw you attention to another example of successful consensus building which has survived since the early twentieth century: the Coalition between the Liberals and the Country party – now the Nationals. This has become so naturalised that it is easy to overlook its contribution to managing one of the great historic divides in Australian political life – that between the country and the city.

The coalition agreement was negotiated by Stanley Melbourne Bruce after the 1923 election. Preferential voting had just been introduced which facilitated the formation of the country party as a specialist party of farming and rural interests. It was essentially a breakaway from the major non-labour party, then called the Nationalists, which was in government. At the 1922 election the new country party took seats from the Nationalists and gained the balance of power. Its leader, Earle Page, was a tough negotiator. He demanded that the government replace its leader, the renegade Labor man Billy Hughes, with the business man Stanley Melbourne Bruce, and he demanded a coalition – not just an agreement to support a minority government.

Bruce, who had fought in World War One, had a genuine belief in a national interest that overrode considerations of sectional political advantage and was extremely generous to these demanding and disruptive newcomers. He gave them almost half the ministries – far more than their electoral support warranted. In my view he was too generous, but one can’t fault the long-term political success of the agreement. Of course there were and still are tensions in this settlement –and it has not always held at the state level – but in the early 1920s, Bruce successfully brought aggrieved rural interests into the centre of our national politics.

New coalitions are one possible response to the current fragmentation of our major political parties. The obvious one is between Labor and the Greens which are threatening Labor in the very same inner city seats which Labor took from Deakin’s Liberals over a century ago. The Greens are working to consolidate the geographically concentrated social base a minor party needs if it is to win seats in our single member system and are having some success, as seen in recent by-election win in the Victorian seat of Northcote. Coalitions between the Liberal or National Parties and the breakaway conservative groups are less likely, as these personality based parties lack the stable organisational structures necessary to form enduring political alliances.
To conclude: I welcome these two new prizes. So much in the current political context rewards those who sharpen up the lines of division, when what we need is for these lines to be softened and blurred, to enable the development of a new policy consensus as Australia heads further into the twenty-first century.

Thank you.