It’s hard to be a good leader with voters like us: Amanda Vanstone

One of the most pathetic questions politicians are asked is: “Will you show leadership and do x, or y, or z?”

“Leadership” is, of course, the bullet behind the question. When it comes to click-bait journalism, the reporter is defining good leadership for the audience. If you say no – or avoid the question – you look weak. If you say yes, you have caved to pressure.

In these cases, the journalist is not using editorial time to tell us (the audience) about the leader’s views, but to tell us what they ought to be doing. It is “infotainment”, not journalism.

But it does raise the question of what we think a good leader is. No doubt the Covid experience has invited us to think about leadership more than we normally do.

In theory, leaders can make decisions more easily than many. To use the colloquial expression, when it hits the fan, good leaders remain calm. They think ahead.

It is almost our national pastime to complain that our politicians don’t think past the next news cycle, but it is true long-term planning is critical. Where to put roads, hospitals and schools are some of the most basic examples.

As voters, we say we want long-term thinking, but we also want the gravy train to stop at our station first. When one side puts out a longer-term plan, it is immediately criticised if it “won’t be delivered until after the next election”. Thus, both sides are actively telling us not to trust long-term commitments – unless they are the ones making them.

We want leaders to be strong, on duty and in charge. But at the same time, we want them to be “first among equals” and consultative. So, we want them in charge but listening. Listening to our elected representatives, to experts and to us. And collaborating with each other. In a pandemic. Political leaders have tough jobs.

So we liked the idea of a national cabinet – we faced a national issue and so we wanted as much co-operation as possible. Sadly, we may have been wearing rose-coloured glasses because, realistically, bringing people together to co-operate does not mean there won’t be differences of opinion.

New polling by the McKinnon Prize in Political Leadership has revealed two-thirds of Australians believe the federal and state governments have not co-operated well during the pandemic. Perceived failures of co-ordination predictably included the vaccine rollout (76 per cent), border closures (73 per cent) and quarantine (70 per cent). These are the areas we are most frustrated about.

It’s been a great lesson in “Federalism 101”. Premiers are responsible for their own states and, if there’s an election in the wind, guess what? They will shamelessly put re-election prospects high on the agenda. In any event, you and five mates probably would not order the same coffee, so why did we ever imagine a group of leaders with different constituencies would suddenly become clones of each other? It was never going to happen. The national cabinet is a good idea. We just have to be realistic about how much we can expect from it.

Understandably, as Covid-19 moved from being a new thing to an ongoing mutating nightmare, we have become disillusioned. We’re fed up. But why take that out on our leaders? You can bet they’d rather be managing happier things – longer-term things.

The McKinnon Prize in Political Leadership does two important things in regard to this issue. It recognises good political leadership and rewards those with the long-term vision and the willingness to collaborate to effect positive change. Recognising good work isn’t done enough. By asking Australians to nominate contenders it invites us to turn our minds to what we really expect from good leaders. Once we recognise that a good leader isn’t someone who just does what we want today, we can start to seriously consider what we do expect.

Leaders can never make everyone happy. But if they do focus on longer-term thinking, and they do try to collaborate with counterparts, we should shine a light on that and reward it with our votes. Because that will show critics what real leadership is.

About Amanda Vanstone

Amanda Vanstone entered the Australian Parliament in 1984 and was a Liberal senator for South Australia from 1984 to 2007. She was the only female member of the Howard cabinet following the 1996 election that brought the Coalition to power, where she held several ministerial portfolios.

After her resignation from the Senate in 2007, Amanda served as the Australian ambassador to Italy until July 2010. Amanda was a commissioner on the Federal Commission of Audit in 2013-2014. She also serves on the boards, councils and committees for various organisations, including DrinkWise Australia, the Adelaide Festival of Arts, Woomera Protected Area Advisory Committee, Lockheed Martin Australia, the University of Adelaide and Vision 2020.