27 December 2010

Can Gillard last?

Can Gillard Get it Together? is the question addressed by Geoff Kitney in a major piece in the Perspective section of the Weekend Australian Financial Review, 23-28 Decmber 2010.

He notes the unusual circumstances in which the Gillard Government finds itself:

In the precarious new world of minority government, in which the Gillard administration is not in control of its own destiny, the battle for political advantage is intense and unrelenting. The new order in which power is shared between the Labor Party and a gaggle of independent and minor party MPs and senators has changed politics in ways that are yet to be fully understood.

The more important question to my mind is whether Gillard has what it takes, a question which Kitney addresses at some length. Some, like Trade Minister Craig Emerson, say that she does have what it takes:

As we go through 2011 ... and as she more clearly defines her philosophy and our policies ... the public will come to see her as a leader of integrity, strength and ambition and she’ll begin to look very good compared to Tony Abbott.

Others are not so sure.  Some unnamed “Labor insiders”

... question whether her interests and experience are broad enough to cope with the challenges of the prime ministership.

Another senior Labor figure

... says he finds it odd that Gillard appears to have had so little curiosity about issues beyond those which motivated her to become politically active.

“I don’t think there’s been a Labor leader so little interested in the bigger picture of Australia’s place in the world,” he says. “I find that very odd and I think her lack of an instinctive view about international affairs is a major weakness which is apparent in her handling of Afghanistan and the asylum seeker issue”.

These doubts add weight to a question posed by Kitney – will Gillard grow into the job?

The great test of political leaders is whether they grow in the job. So far, Gillard seems not to have done so.  She hasn’t shrunk in the way that, say, William McMahon did to the point where he became a figure of ridicule. But she shows no sign of following the example of her political mentor, Bob Hawke, who rapidly overcame doubts about his ability to transform himself from partisan trade union boss to leader of the nation.

 Towards the end of the piece Kitney says:

Ministers say that at their final cabinet meetings of 2010, she indicated that in the new year she would move to set out a detailed medium- to long-term policy agenda, with economic reform at its centre. She is planning series of speeches and engagements in coming months in which she will try to set an ambitious policy agenda which one insider said would aim to “recapture the reformist energy and ambition of the Hawke-Keating era”.


(1)    Much as I respect the judgement of Craig Emerson, I think there is a fundamental flaw in the notion that someone can become Prime Minister and then make it a project to define and communicate a policy agenda.  That sounds like someone who wanted to become Prime Minister for no better reason than wanting to be Prime Minister. I would have hoped that anyone who became Prime Minister would have had a head full of ideas, to which he/she was deeply committed, about how Australian society could be changed for the better. Julia Gillard is being presented here, and behaves, as a person who says, in effect, “Now that I am Prime Minister, I am going to try to figure out what the Australian electorate would like me to do and see what I can do about giving that to them”.

(2)    By saying that Gillard will “begin to look very good compared to Tony Abbott” Craig Emerson is in my view setting a very low benchmark, as anyone who has read The real Tony Abbott will discern.

(3)    Gillard’s lack of curiosity, leading inevitably to a lack of requisite general knowledge, is also a worry.  Good strategy making and decision-making requires a combination of formal and informal skills, sufficient relevant knowledge to interpret and evaluate incoming information, and judgement based upon experience of dealing with similar situations in the past and reflecting upon the lessons learned. So far, Gillard shows no sign of being equipped in this way, and there is no way to bridge this gap in a short time – it is acquired as a matter of lifelong learning. People who are deficient in this respect will be fortunate indeed if they even manage to appoint the right advisers, for how can they know what is needed of those advisers, what to expect from them, or how to evaluate their advice?

(4)    Like most Australian politicians Julia Gillard has had a career path which has equipped her very poorly to manage complexity. There is nothing in Gillard’s career path or performance to date that suggests that she is up to the complex agenda which confronts her.

There is a well established body of literature that demonstrates that the capacity to manage complexity is a product both of intrinsic capabilities and maturing through one’s career in the management of rising levels of complexity. No matter how talented a person might be, he/she cannot successfully “jump in the deep end” when it comes to handling complexity, which necessarily involves managing multiple variables over a long period of time.  This is the very good reason that military organisations do not fast track people through the ranks; they spend time at each level not only to demonstrate that they can handle that level of operational complexity, but to have time to absorb the lessons of that experience before moving up to the next level. For the definitive work on this subject see Elliott Jaques, Requisite Organization: A Total System for Effective Managerial Leadership for the 20th Century, Cason Hall & Co., Arlington VA, Revised Second Edition, 1996.

(5)    I commented during the election campaign that Julia Gillard is no strategist. The key, and little understood, difference between strategy and tactics is that tactics is the business of devising the most effective ways of responding to various types of situations – often formulaic responses that have been proven over time to have an acceptably high probability of producing an acceptable outcome. Strategy is the art of reshaping the battlespace to one’s own advantage. Gillard has signally failed to do that in all of the situations that demand a strategic approach.  In order to succeed on issues like Afghanistan, climate change, the Murray Darling Basin and asylum seekers, she needs to be making it easier for her Ministers to get the Government’s agenda up by leading the public debate and persuading the Australian public that the changes she is seeking are achievable and in the public interest. She needs to be shaping the environment of public opinion into which her proposed solutions are to be introduced. As far as the overarching policy debate is concerned she has been missing in action on all of them, and with the exception of the capable and self-starting Greg Combet, so have her Ministers.

(6)    In Reflections on the revolution in Canberra I said that the election outcome had been much as I had hoped and expected – a hung Parliament in which the independents would have the determining say in the House of Representatives and the Greens would control the Senate except when Labor and the Coalition combined to pass legislation (see A plague a’ both their houses).  I still feel that way, and would still like to see the Gillard Government succeed. But hope is fading fast.


My best assessment on the information available to me as of now is that the Gillard Government will continue to disappoint and that her personal trajectory will be more like that of William McMahon than that of her mentor Bob Hawke. I hope I am wrong.

On the basis of that assessment, I doubt that Gillard will last the year. The most likely scenario is that she will go the way she came: in the face of continuing bad polls, she will be displaced by her own party in favour of someone the party machine and Caucus considers able to lead the party to victory in the next election. If that happens at all it will happen this year, because if Gillard is doing poorly in the polls, the party will not be able to afford to wait: one independent losing heart or one backbencher deciding it’s all over and the party faces an election with a leader who has lost the confidence of the electorate.

Which brings me to the alternative scenario.  The independents and Green in the House of Representatives who decided to support Gillard did so because they judged her, of the two leaders on offer, to be the more serious about going a full term and delivering on the agenda that is important to them. It only takes one of them to decide that the Government they are maintaining in office is incapable of delivering anything and it’s all over.

My best guess is that there will be a change of Labor leadership some time this year.

1 comment:

Brigid said...

I liked your first comment - about only wanted to be Prime Minister. I think this is a salient point and appears to be the case with a lot of people who are careerist politicians from youth.

'Being there' is the whole thing. Nothing else matters. Currently we have one of them heading up Opposition in Victoria. I would feel more comforted if I knew he had been president of the local PC and, in Julia's case, headed up or volunteered for the local women's shelter.

Viewing recent electoral results in Australia and ensuing political attitudes, I don't think our MPs can interpret poll results or are willing to accept them. The repeated mantra from the ALP after the Victorian election was that it was time, the tide of events had overtaken them.

Apparently, Labor's defeat had nothing to do with poor decision-making, bad policies, and neglect of policy areas that meant something to the voting public.

Why do I need such prosaic assurances? In the end, we live in a democracy and I like to know that my representatives are in touch with more than opinion polls - and humble enough to go and seek diverse views, not just ones they wish to hear.

Perhaps Julia will never have a big vision for Australia. It is difficult when you have been an immigrant and don't yet have feet deep enough in the soil and sinews of the land and the nation. Many multi-generational native borns don't even manage it!