Leadership crises turn short-term thinking into long-term failure

If Tony Abbott loses his job as Liberal leader, the two major parties will have changed their leaders seven times since the 2007 election. AAP/Nikki Short

As the public awaits the result of a motion to spill the Liberal Party leadership, MPs, political observers and the public alike should seriously consider what the never-ending spill culture means for long-term policy development.

The further the week has gone, the more likely it was that this “leadership crisis” could be solved only one way: a ballot. The media seem to have forced this conclusion on the Liberal Party. Consequently, the public’s appetite for an adversarial contest must now be whetted.

If Tony Abbott loses his job as Liberal leader and prime minister, the two major parties will have changed their leaders seven times since the 2007 election. If you include the election cycle before that, the ALP went through another two opposition leaders in as many years. That’s eight, possibly nine, changes of leadership by the major parties in ten years and two weeks.

The job description of a major party leader has therefore changed. The first objective is not to lead, but survive.

In an article reviewing Paul Keating’s anthology of post-prime ministerial speeches, After Words, political commentator George Megalogenis correctly forecast in November 2011 that party leadership would continue to change:

Over the past seven years, there have been three prime ministers and seven opposition leaders, with the likelihood of even more to come. Which one of them is McMahon? All of them, in fact. John Howard ceded the dignity of his office with his final-year spendathon; Kevin Rudd lost it in 2010 and Julia Gillard has lacked authority from about the second week of her elevation.

The issue of climate change has clearly had a hand in the defenestration. But there would have been another topic if the globe wasn’t warming. This is an anxious age. In political terms that translates to an anti-incumbent cycle in which voters keep switching the channel until they find a program that speaks to them. As each leader falls, the media gets a little nuttier in its hysterical search for a new messiah.

In raising these concerns, Megalogenis does more than accuse the media of inciting leadership contests. He also asks a question that is too often neglected: what does the spill culture mean for long-term policy objectives?

Climate change is cited above, but constant leadership changes affect other big issues too. If the first objective of a “leader” is to survive, then he or she has no interest in focusing on the long term, and in the impacts on future generations of the decisions our politicians make today.

Earlier this week, Treasurer Joe Hockey delayed the release of the next Intergenerational Report. According to the Charter of Budget Honesty established by the Howard government, an Intergenerational Report is to be handed down every five years. It was due on Tuesday.

When the concept of the Intergenerational Report was created, the then treasurer, Peter Costello, treated this as the policy landmark it was. If done properly, such Intergenerational Reports could and would take a whole-of-government approach to planning and policy development for the future.

However, if they are unsure of a leader’s fate, governments cannot plan for a long-term policy future.

Developing public policy is a hard, time-consuming business. Mistakes are made. There are differences of opinion. Not everything that voters would like to happen does happen.

This doesn’t make politicians dishonest, tricky or ineffective. If leaders are to create policy for the long term, they must be given the freedom to do so by their colleagues, by the media and at the ballot box.

When asked to comment on the “current leadership environment”, veterans of governments past often say that they couldn’t sell their own policies in today’s culture. To a large extent this is true. An Accord or a Future Fund in this environment would not necessarily generate public, media or policy interest.

But this is not a “politics was better in the good old days” type of argument.

All of the stakeholders in Australian politics have different expectations of leaders now. Due to a variety of different factors, political leaders are no longer given time to ponder the implications of their decision-making.

In October 2009, William Deresiewicz, a former professor at Yale University, told students of the American Military Academy at West Point that there is a crisis of leadership because leaders no longer have time for reflection. This leads them to merely re-brand old ideas:

What we don’t have … are thinkers. People who can think for themselves. People who can formulate a new direction: for the country, for a corporation or a college, for the army – a new way of doing things, a new way of looking at things. People, in other words, with vision.

Australia’s political leaders lack vision because they won’t let themselves, or anyone around them, have the time to map it out. Crises must be solved now; a response must be drafted immediately; action must be taken. Then the next day, the cycle begins again.

The long term has vanished for the sake of the quick fix. As quickly as leaders come, they go. Yet the one who stays the longest will be the one who has the vision to talk about Australia in the long term.