Demands and requirements of political leadership in this day and age

It is a very common theme among people who follow politics closely to reflect on the mainstream media and it’s relationship to substance in the national political conversation.

You’ll often see the critique that the media cycle has sped up to a ridiculous pace due to a demand for entertainment rather than substance or real issues and this dynamic is making it pretty much impossible to govern effectively.

Former government minister Lindsay Tanner wrote an entire book on this subject and it got a lot of coverage when it was released.

Right now, most of the federal government and their supporters appear to be in a perpetual battle with the media. The theme tends to be that the reason people are turning away from the ALP at the present moment is because the media are too focused on the political game and superficiality rather than issues of substance.

Last week, Prime Minister Gillard gave an interview with ABC Brisbane’s morning radio show where she told the interviewer that she felt misunderstood by the media and they had overreacted to certain political events such as two ministers resigning that played on a lot of these themes.

Yesterday we got this response from the Opposition Leader:

“If I do badly in an interview that’s not the interviewer’s fault, it’s my fault for not being able to argue my case well” – Tony Abbott, March 6th 2013

This is Abbott once again employing the tactic of emotionally baiting the ALP, progressives and their supporters in order to control the frame of the national political conversation.

In this case, the frame is Prime Minister Gillard is irresponsible and shifts the blame to someone else whenever she makes mistakes whereas Abbott takes responsibility for his mistakes and doesn’t attribute blame to anyone but himself. Whether that’s true or not (I believe it’s a falsehood in the extreme) is irrelevant. This is what’s being communicated and the Liberal Party have been exceptionally efficient at deploying this frame whenever possible during this term of parliament.

I have written about this dynamic of Abbott using certain lines to control the frame of the national political conversation a few times here and here. It’s one of his only tactics and he gets away with it far too often, mostly due to the ALP and progressives not understanding what he’s doing.

Having said all that, in this particular case, I happen to agree with Abbott’s point even though I severely doubt he’s being truthful.

The public’s expectations of leadership at a federal level in this day and age have increased to an almost unreasonable level.

For a start, any kind of blame or shifting of responsibility is immediately viewed unfavorably. I believe the reason for this is because the average voter isn’t allowed to do it in their daily lives and if they do, they can expect some sort of punishment. They get up, go to work, do the best they can, try to have a normal family life, pay their taxes, watch things happen without their consent or social license in the national political conversation, not to mention the petty bickering over trivial issues and think to themselves “if I was to do that in my life, I wouldn’t survive! I do my best! I don’t make excuses! I pay their salaries! They better do what I expect of them or face the consequences!”

What is happening in people’s lives is that society is demanding more and more out of them and if they don’t meet those demands they fall behind. The mental apparatus people require to function in this day and age often exceeds most people’s psychological levels of development. This is doubly true of political leadership.

I’ve written about this in relation to certain dynamics in the electorate in far more detail in a previous post located here.

In this day and age, if you’re the government, it is a requirement that you have your game together at an extremely high level otherwise the electorate immediately switches off and looks for an alternative. The judgement is harsh and swift and once it’s formed it takes an incredible amount of work to overcome.

What this means is that in order to be an effective politician in this day and age you need to be a great communicator (extremely rare given everything it entails), you need to have the policies that address people’s demands that are approved of by the electorate and delivered effectively, you need to have mastered basic political skills, you need to be able to persuade your opponents to see the world your way and act accordingly and if you make mistakes, you must admit to making them and take responsibility immediately because any whiff of a cover up or lack of transparency is immediately treated with anger, resentment and contempt.

This also means no blaming the media, no blaming your political opponents, no blaming the public or any other dynamics in the external environment for your problems. It’s all your responsibility!

You’re now required to lead by example and take the public with you. If you don’t, the noise rises to the surface of the national political conversation by default and you get left with the trivial nonsense that we all complain about.

Aren’t those expectations unreasonably difficult? Sure it is. But we aren’t talking about a normal situation here. This is the leadership of the country and public life we’re talking about.

If you don’t have extremely high standards and you aren’t the best, you’re pretty much dead!

Too often I’ve seen critiques, usually from progressives blaming the media, Tony Abbott and everything in the external environment for the government’s political problems. This is a very convenient way of ignoring and avoiding these realities.

Former Secretary of the ACTU and hero to the Labor Party Bill Kelty hit the nail on the head during his address to their national congress last year:

Seems to me we have a mirror image of the 1980s. Hard decisions were made in the ’80s. Real pressures on living standards, high unemployment, but we never, ever lost a sense of hope and trust that government and unions would see it out and there would be a better future. Today we have better economic conditions but that hope and that trust has retreated.

I’ve got be frank. It’s too easy to blame the media, too easier to blame the playthings of politics. And there’s no purpose blaming the opposition for doing, what after all, you’d expect them to do and that’s to beat you.

In a sense I think we make politics just simply too hard.

The truth will normally do.

It would be truly great if more people on all sides of politics woke up and took those words to heart!


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