‘Strong’ men in peril: PM hangs on amid NT and Qld shake-up

Strong men with a strong message to promote: Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Queensland Premier Campbell Newman in happier days at the Federal Liberal Party Council meeting, June 2014. AAP/David Crosling

* Updated Tuesday 11pm AEDT: A state premier gone, a chief minister fighting off a coup, and a prime minister struggling to avoid the others’ fate.

Australian politics is suddenly all about consultative rather than “strong” leaders.

So what’s been going on behind that swing away from self-declared strong leaders? What are the lessons from the Queensland election and the power struggle in the Northern Territory? And has Tony Abbott shown any sign of learning what the true definition of a “strong leader” is?

Trouble in the Top End

In the early hours of Tuesday morning, the Northern Territory’s ruling Country Liberal Party revealed that government MPs had ousted Chief Minister Adam Giles, replacing him – only temporarily, it later turned out – with Willem Westra van Holthe.

It’s important to note that the NT leadership spill has roots going back long before last weekend’s shock Queensland election result, as Rolf Gerritsen has explained.

But Westra van Holthe said that the rout of the Queensland Liberal National Party and its leader Campbell Newman was a contributing factor in moving against Giles:

Under my leadership, this government will be more consultative with Territorians and engage with them before we make important and crucial decisions … If you look at the result of the Queensland election, government there was punished because the people of Queensland thought they had lost touch with real people.

But the chief minister was not going down without a fight, refusing to quit his position.

Remarkably, by Tuesday night Giles had been reconfirmed as chief minister, with Westra van Holthe becoming his deputy.

A nation’s captain at sea

Meanwhile, just as the Top End power struggle appeared to be over, the federal government’s woes appeared to be deepening. Coalition backbenchers including Queenslander Warren Entsch and West Australian Dennis Jensen have now spoken about the need for a leadership spill.

Their comments came just a day after Abbott gave a speech that he hoped would save his prime ministership, after too many misjudged “captain’s calls”.

Addressing a room full of journalists and Coalition colleagues at the National Press Club, he used his prepared speech to define his view of leadership:

Leadership is about making the right decisions for our country’s future. It’s not a popularity contest. It’s about real results, it’s about determination, and it’s about you.

However, when questioned by reporters about his “captain’s pick” in awarding Prince Philip a knighthood without consulting his cabinet, Abbott promised to seek more advice from them in future:

I like my colleagues, I respect my colleagues, I trust my colleagues, above all else, to want to do the right thing by themselves, by our party, by the government and by the country.

Those two quotes illustrate the dilemma of modern political leadership.

How ‘strong’ can a leader be without alienating people?

One of Australia’s leading scholars on political leadership, the late Graham Little, concentrated much of his research on answering this question. His 1988 book, Strong Leadership: Thatcher, Reagan and an Eminent Person, was based on his studies of leadership through observing Malcolm Fraser, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.

Based on this research, Little argued that strong party leaders “have become symbols of who we are, personifications of our way of life and our deepest beliefs”. In arguing this, Little acknowledged a changing political environment in which a leader’s personality and party ideology were becoming intertwined.

Little also argued that “a strong leader” must preserve his own thinking by insulating himself against other points of view. Above all, a “strong leader” must trust in his convictions, often at the expense of others.

Less than two decades later, Australian politics professor Judith Brett applied Little’s theories to John Howard, in her Quarterly Essay, Exit Right: The Unravelling of John Howard, which analysed the outcome of the 2007 election. Early in the essay she noted that:

sometimes Strong Leaders lose. All through 2007, as opinion polls gave Labor a minimum of a ten-point lead, and Howard was staring at defeat, we saw the inherent limits of this style of leadership. Strong Leaders can’t last forever; they can’t admit their mistakes; and they’re not very good at policy.

The rise and fall of Howard and Rudd

2007 marked a turning point in Australian politics. During the 2007 federal election, “strong leadership” was at its apex, as Howard struggled to maintain his “strong leadership” while Kevin Rudd thrived on his own.

The ALP rode a wave based on highly personalised slogans like “Kevin 07”and “New Leadership” to win that election.

The ALP’s strategy was to personify Rudd as Modern Labor in every conceivable fashion. It achieved this by portraying Rudd as a master of new policy initiatives, the boy from country Queensland where the ALP itself had been born, and the man who understood the party’s values better than anyone else.

Kevin Rudd’s 2007 pitch for the prime ministership.

Since the 2007 election, the voting public has not responded well to the “Strong Leadership” strategy. But the major political parties have yet to move on.

At the 2010 federal election, Gillard tried to find “the real Julia” as a model for “Strong Leadership” and ended up losing a number of seats, hobbling into minority government in the process.

A loud message from Queensland

Negative reactions to “Strong Leadership” have occurred in state elections too, most notably in Victorian Labor’s loss in 2010, (“strong leadership for the times ahead”), and the South Australian Labor (Jay4SA) near defeat last year.

Last Saturday’s Queensland election was the clearest sign yet of voters’ feelings about strong leadership taken too far.

Despite promoting a “Strong Team”, Campbell Newman dominated the LNP’s election advertising.

Throughout the Queensland campaign, Campbell Newman parroted the word “strong” at every opportunity, using it as the backbone of the LNP’s election strategy, to the point where it became a joke.

Newman became the sole focus of the campaign, and his destiny became tied to the LNP’s. Many voters had already decided that they didn’t like Newman. As a result of the strategy, it was harder for them to like the Queensland LNP much either.

Having gone into this 2015 election holding 73 out of 89 seats in parliament, the LNP is now on the brink of losing government. Not the strong performance they had been hoping for.

The Queensland premier had a very strong key message for voters.

Federal fallout from the Queensland rout

If the Queensland LNP’s federal Coalition counterparts weren’t aware of the trend against “Strong Leadership” before, they certainly are now.

Unnamed federal MPs are using the Queensland result to justify a push for Abbott to consult much more widely. The days of “the captain” choosing his team’s direction in isolation are behind him: his teammates are demanding a say.

In the meantime, speculation of a federal leadership challenge shows little sign of dying down.

Abbott’s prepared remarks to the National Press Club suggest he believes that his ingrained political instincts led him to the top job. It’s only when questioned that the prime minister’s spontaneous remarks indicated that he might be realising that what he once saw as an asset has become a dangerous weakness.

Abbott must navigate this contradiction to ensure that he is not only a “strong leader”, but a leader with the strength to do what he keeps promising: to listen and learn before he acts.