The national conversation of Australia is buggered. It’s about complaint and blame, and fascination with the complaint and blame. What generates the conversation is the absence of big-enough problems. Following is the text of a post about the conversation for leadership in Australia; it was originally published here in December 2011.
The game of politics as it is played in Australia is every bit as “nasty, brutish and short” as anything Hobbes envisaged. Politicians visiting from other countries go home restored thinking maybe they don’t have it so bad after all.
Worse, the game of politics is the predominant conversation in Australian public life. It’s always before us, this ugly, unredeeming spectacle, setting the bar for what’s possible and what’s not possible when it comes to the idea of Australia.
The very last thing we need in this situation is yet another description of the situation. Unfortunately, that’s what Glyn Davis has just produced.
Davis is Vice-Chancellor of the University of Melbourne, and a professor of political science. In an article for the Griffith Review he compares the behaviour of Chicago street gangs in the 1920s, as observed by the deliciously-named sociologist Frederic Thrasher, with the model of political leadership currently practiced in Australia. He finds little difference between the two.
I’ve got several issues with the article.
Useful vs Picturesque
Davis adopts the street gang metaphor to discuss Australian political leadership, even though, despite years of research and observation, Thrasher couldn’t in the end draw any conclusions about leadership. Unsurprisingly, Davis finds he can’t draw any conclusions either. Why then follow some research that didn’t actually generate something new or useful? It seems to be only in service of making a picturesque tale.
The old misunderstanding
Davis rehearses the misunderstanding of leadership I discussed a little while ago, confusing it with popularity and followership. He accepts without question that leadership is given by one’s followers and held at their pleasure; ie, that the source of leadership is followership. Again, how do we call this leadership? It’s not; it’s an artefact of followership.
I’m not saying we don’t conceive of leadership in this way; I’m saying in doing so we are mis-conceiving leadership.
We are looking through the wrong end of the telescope. And here’s my radical thought – the mere act of looking through the other end of the telescope would result in something very different, without any other action being required. If we could start to get leadership as something which has itself as its source, the political game would change.
Describing oneself into a corner
My main issue with Davis’s article and other writings like it, including the recent book, Sideshow, by the former politician, Lindsay Tanner, is that it just adds to the general store of cynicism and resignation.
That’s what description does. Simply shores up whatever is the prevailing “agreement” about the way to look at a situation. When Davis tries, very near the end, to come up with some solutions, he’s stuck, just like Tanner. They’ve described themselves into a corner, and what they offer up as a solution is so tiny and token, it would have been more intellectually honest to leave it out altogether.
Description of the existing game is not what’s required. What’s required is to invent a new game, a new conversation. To write and speak in generative, productive ways. And for any readers, including the professor himself, who might claim the privilege of spectatorship and object that creating new ways of doing politics and leadership is the responsibility of the leaders themselves, I’d say
Well, who are you if not a leader? If we cannot look to a professor of political science to create new ways of doing politics, who can we look to?
Besides, here’s the truth: we are all responsible for having the game of politics played the way it is at present, and we are all responsible for inventing a new game.
If you enjoyed this post …
If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy the following: