A difficult legacy

Dr Paul Strangio

Dr Paul Strangio

by Paul Strangio

Certain types of people tend to lead the Labor Party – and the outcomes are eerily familiar.

During the valedictory speeches for Kevin Rudd, his successor as Labor leader, Bill Shorten, observed that Parliament would never see Rudd's like again. Though Rudd's story is, of course, singular, it is equally true that he conformed to a particular type of Labor leader, which also helps explain his tumultuous incumbency as prime minister.

Historically, leadership and the Labor Party have been uncomfortable bedfellows because of the inherent tension between the ALP's collectivist  (power-sharing) organisational principles and the impulse of leaders to bend the  party to their will. In turn, there have been two distinct Labor leadership types, each of which has responded differently to that tension.

On the one hand, there have been group leaders who have worked with the grain of the party's collectivist practices; and, on the other hand, there have been  personalisers who have chafed against them.

This duality was evident from the early days of Labor as embodied in two of its first generation prime ministers: Andrew Fisher and William Morris (Billy) Hughes.

Fisher, the only significant prime minister from Queensland until Rudd, was renowned for his modesty and faith in the principle of solidarity. While not quite true to say that Fisher effaced himself in favour of his party, probably no Australian prime minister has governed more in the spirit of the ideal of  first among equals. By contrast, Hughes, who succeeded Fisher as the nation's  leader during World War I, was dynamic and driven, a believer in his own infallibility, and incurably controlling. He was, in short, the antithesis of a team player.

One of his admirers, the young journalist Keith Murdoch (father of Rupert), once exasperatedly pleaded with him: ”For God's sake, learn how to decentralise, deputise … The art of being a great man is partly a selection of strong and reliable assistants. Get good deputies, and then, for heaven's sake, trust them.”

It hardly needs saying that on the spectrum of Labor leaders, while not quite as extreme an example as Hughes, Rudd was on the outer margins of the personaliser camp. His rival, Julia Gillard, with her talent for forging coalitions and negotiating compromise outcomes, sat more naturally among the group category.

In truth, extremes of either type are unlikely to make successful leaders. Labor has had its share of compliant group leaders who were incapable of driving the party forward and instead presided over periods of drift and inertia. On the other hand, excessive personalisers, while frequently brilliant and creative are liable to be dangerously wilful and prone to sowing division. In the case of Hughes, he blew Labor apart over the issue of conscription for overseas service.

Leaders who sit somewhere between these poles are most likely to prosper.  Examples are Labor's WWII Prime Minister John Curtin and the party's longest-serving office-holder, Bob Hawke. Both were skilful at harnessing the talents of their ministers and at fostering consensus. Yet they also led their governments and, where necessary, cajoled the party and imposed their will upon it.

An alternative formula for success is where Labor has been steered in government by tandems who together combined group and personalising attributes.  For instance, Fisher with Hughes as his chief lieutenant in 1910-13, and Hawke  and the Olympian-inclined Paul Keating in the 1980s. Notably, these tandems appear most viable when the group-orientated leader is prime minister, since it is alien for a personaliser to operate as a duet. This may help explain the unsustainability of the partnership of Rudd and Gillard, who otherwise seemed to possess complementary skills for an effective team.

There is an interesting question of whether trends in modern politics favour  personalising leadership types. Such trends include parties' increased reliance on leaders (rather than philosophies) as means of product differentiation and the media's focus on leaders as message bearers for their parties and preoccupation with their personal appeal (reinforced by incessant opinion polls).

In his valedictory speech for Rudd, Malcolm Turnbull highlighted the presidential nature of the former's victory at the 2007 election.

Certainly, it seemed that having campaigned as if he were largely autonomous from party and hence obtained a personal mandate, Rudd felt licensed to run his government like a capricious emperor.

He neglected relations with his cabinet, the caucus and, for that matter,  the stakeholders required to advance his ambitious reform program. That folly produced such calamities as the collapse of plans for an emissions trading scheme by 2010, and ultimately Rudd's alienation from his party room.

In the past, the ALP's reflexive response to being burnt by excessive personalising leadership has been retreat into a period of introspection and recuperation under a group leader. In the extreme example of Hughes, so searing was the experience that, as Gough Whitlam once observed, it ”undermined the Labor Party's trust in the very concept of leadership”.

There have been faint echoes of that reaction in the disavowal of ’’messiahs’’ in the recent leadership contest between Shorten and Anthony Albanese as both candidates emphasised their qualities as team players.

Whether that disposition survives long given the contemporary cultural bias towards leadership predominance is questionable, yet, ironically, for now at least, the tune of group solidarity is a legacy for Labor of the personalising Kevin Rudd.

Dr Paul Strangio teaches politics in the School of Political and Social Inquiry at Monash University and is author of ‘Neither Power Nor Glory: 100 Years of Political Labor in Victoria'.

This article originally appeared in The Sunday Age

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