{SPECIAL: FOR AUSSIE READERS} Leader of the gang

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.


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16 thoughts on “{SPECIAL: FOR AUSSIE READERS} Leader of the gang

  1. Of course I liked this post. I could not think otherwise as a lot of what I write about deals with politics, big business leadership, and common greed being their tools of war, as in control of people and their social standards of living.
    Thus something important to consider is in the first paragraph of your post. “The absence of big enough problems”. As long as the political powers can keep their societies, sufficiently fed, as in just enough to keep their heads above water, with an additional bit of brain washing that has citizens frightened enough not to stir up the discontent that causes rebellion, people will maintain the status-quot. That is the strength of leaders of government,and big business who finance the politicos, which allows them to maintain their advantage over Joe public without the required drastic changes. Changes that would remove their high living standards, the self granted privileges, of no accountability, and the getting away without retribution when their wrongful acts are so blatant. How do we come between these controllers with their financial swaying powers, and the ability of voters to mass together sufficiently to defeat that status-quot? Hence so as to bring about the required drastic changes that would finally allow democracy to surface. Something I have yet to witness in all the years I have lived so far! I stop here because it is your post, and I’ve already taken up more than enough space. Thank you for ” the gang”, your inspired post. JJF


    • Insightful comment, JJ. I like this, “As long as the political powers can keep their societies sufficiently fed … people will maintain the status quo”. It’s also why the narcotic of complaining about politics, and complaining about the complaining, is so poisonous. It keeps us from starting other conversations instead of the one we are fed.


      • its a theme that runs all too familiar through so many levels of conversations. To be honest rightly and wrongly I have no real interest in following politics. However i can relate this negativity to right down to the workers level. Too many are way too busy looking at why that half empty glass can never be topped up.

        When politics does turn to bagging out the opposition they lose my interest completely. These are the people in charge of running our country or local government. If all they can offer is slagging out their opponents then they leave no reason why my vote should go their way. I’d much rather vote for those that will lead by example and just get in there and do a good job.


  2. I could have sworn I wrote something here earlier. Am I going gag ga? A good read and provocative. I think that leadership is overrated except in science or arts. I would chose a Rembrandt over a Bush or Nixon anytime.
    I could have sworn…A Carravagio over a John Howard.


    • Never fear, Gerard, you are not gaga … yet ;) Your comment was added to the original posting. Happy to move it here if you’d prefer.

      You will get no argument from me over preferring Carravagio over a John Howard. But that’s not really a fair contest, is it? Most would prefer a trip to the dentist over a John Howard.

      I’m puzzling a bit over your statement that leadership is overrated. Maybe because I see being a leader comes into every aspect of our lives including our families, our communities, friendships etc?


  3. I suppose ‘leadership’ is so often disappointing. It is seen as solely being the domain or related to polical leadership, and, if that’s not enough, so often to sports people. I mean what with Pretorius and Le Champ Armstrong and now Rugby and dodgy mining magnates and land dealings.
    My friendships are on the whole with equals and as for communities, perhaps those that quietly fight for better opportunities or hospices, mental health, rubbish bins on street corners etc. They are leaders but somewhat in the background.
    I remember Justice Einfeld. Supreme Court judge. President of the World Human Rights commission. When his human side became exposed, his followers had no qualms in jailing him remorselessly, just over a little lie over a traffic fine.
    We might well all be leaders or followers, depending on what’s on the menu or who does the cooking.
    I certainly think my mother was a leader, struggling to remain optimistic through thick and thin, adversity and against all odds.


    • Totally agree that we can all choose to be leaders; what we call “leadership” — the politicians, the sportspeople — needs a different name. Your mother is just the kind of person I too call a leader.

      I have a different view from you re Marcus Einfeld. He put himself in jail and compounded it dreadfully by not owning up to his lie. Awful, awful what he did to himself. I feel for him and how he must have suffered over his out in integrity.


      • I just read the blade runner’s name is Pistorius. I understand your disappointment with Marcus Einfeld. I could so easily have done the same though. Shame, shame Gerard.
        Are there any that have a clean slate?
        On another blog someone responded to something that I wrote, I thought my comment was without menace and innocuous.
        The response? Quote: “U r a total waste of space”.
        It is Friday afternoon, and time to lift my spirit. May I raise it to all you gentle people, sante. (with accent)


      • None of us has a clean slate, and it actually doesn’t matter. What matters is whether or not we clean up our mess.

        Horrid blog comment. Forget it. You are expanding the conversation here and I am grateful. Thank you.

        I see you now, Milo on one knee, Helvi on the other, a big glass in hand. A sante.


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