The late comedian Dave Allen once joked about then-British prime minister John Major that:
If John Major was drowning, his whole life would pass in front of him and he wouldn’t be in it.
Political leadership is a funny thing. Allen’s joke is a reminder how easy it is for leaders to actually lose sight of who they are.
Intelligent, ambitious and imaginative people fight and work and cajole their way to the top. They bend every faculty and characteristic to its best advantage as they convince those around them that they have what it takes to lead.
Eventually, they reach the apex of what Benjamin Disraeli so memorably termed the “greasy pole” of the prime ministership.
And then everything changes.
A deluge of advice pours over them. They are told what to say, how to dress and how to look in order to win over the voters.
People who displayed all the incredible gifts needed to reach the top suddenly struggle to remember who they are.
Leaders are told to slip on the political shapewear that will smooth out their flaws and show them to the best possible advantage. Their heads are filled with concocted lines and tested soundbites, and they are told so often to be careful not to say the wrong thing that they look scared in case they say anything at all.
The result is that our leaders start to buckle under the debilitating weight of having to be someone they’re not.
Tony and Julia, before and after
To go back and look at earlier footage of Tony Abbott’s career in politics is to see a very different person. He was not someone who measured every word, and then repeated every sentence, for fear of departing even slightly from some agreed line.
Abbott exuded the enthusiasm born of self-confidence. This led to the occasional gaffe, even serious ones, but he simply shook them off and bounced on his way.
As prime minister, to look at Abbott was to look at someone so restrained by political shapewear that he seemed barely able to breathe.
This instinctive, confident and exuberant political animal became instead some restrained and stilted version of himself, someone who could not hope to inspire the kind of admiration even from his own supporters that he was once able to achieve.
It’s a feeling Julia Gillard would know only too well. This persuasive, fiercely intelligent and gifted communicator rose to the top because of the almost universal agreement among her parliamentary colleagues that she had what it takes to be prime minister.
And then something changed. The Gillard who had risen to the leadership became submerged under a treacle-like morass of inescapable advice on what to do and how to do it.
So buried was she that she was forced, absurdly, to promise to rediscover “the real Julia” to break out of the choreographed descent foisted upon her in the 2010 election campaign.
The gifts that had guaranteed Gillard’s rise had disappeared from view, to be replaced by a slightly belligerent, robotic style that is an uncanny match for the prime ministerial persona of Tony Abbott.
Authenticity – despite what the cynics say – is not something that can be sustainably faked.
And herein lies the irony – not only is the concocting of a fake political persona incredibly difficult and unsustainable, it has the opposite of the desired effect.
Abbott and Gillard were embraced by a majority of their party, and by large sections of the community, as they fought their way to the top through the use of their obvious political gifts.
Once made prime minister, they suddenly tried to be what someone told them the voters wanted them to be. And it turns out the voters, and their parties, preferred them just the way they actually are.
Another gifted communicator takes the stage
Once more we have a new prime minister who is personally popular and has an obvious gift for communicating.
To watch Malcolm Turnbull interviewed by Leigh Sales on 7.30 was to see a man immensely enjoying being himself. Turnbull is a natural explainer and debater – he tries to analyse things at length because that is simply his default position. He looks happy and relaxed doing it.
That is not to say that he isn’t at some level thinking about what he’s saying – being authentic shouldn’t be confused with simply shooting your mouth off – but it does mean he is not straining every fibre to present a false image.
But we’ve seen it before and in very similar circumstances. Gillard too went on 7.30, on the night she became prime minister in 2010.
It was Gillard at her best. Charming, confident, even playful, this was the “real Julia” in full flight. Yes she was measured, and undoubtedly used some rehearsed lines, but she was unmistakably genuine as she laughed and joked her way through a tough interview.
The trick is to sustain it. To stay genuine even as the political missteps start to come and advice on how to avoid them starts to flood in.
Turnbull seems determined to be himself – to conduct an experiment in authenticity. If he can sustain it he might reap the rewards that Gillard and Abbott found illusive.
And if nothing else, he will avoid the Dave-Allen-like jokes of looking back over his own prime ministership and not seeing himself in it.