What makes a politician?


Is this the beginning of the end? John Howard’s personal approval rating has taken its biggest hit since he first took office, reportedly ‘plunging’ ten points in the space of a month.

Many will take this as the beginning of the ‘ten year itch’ that seems to plague supposedly invulnerable incumbents. Leaders who enjoy immense repeated success are often susceptible to hubris (Thatcher, Hawke). They begin to believe that their political success is wholly attributable to their own prowess, and fatally fall out of touch with either their electorate or their party.

While it’s hard to imagine a politician as canny as Howard being afflicted by such a condition, it’s certainly not out of the question. Every politician has a weakness, visible or not, which ultimately plays a part in their undoing.

Thanks to Bill Leak at the Australian

Thanks to Bill Leak at the Australian

I’m certainly not purporting to be an expert on the matter – I’ll admit that there are still many political strategies that bewilder me. For one, I have always been confused by the tendency of politicians to attempt to depict themselves as just like us. My local federal member, Danna Vale, actually campaigned at the last election under the slogan ‘One of Us’. Am I the only one who is flummoxed by this? I don’t want my leader to be just like me, I want those in greater positions of power to be far more intelligent, rational, wise and virtuous than I am!

And yet it can work, most notably in the case of American President George W Bush. At both the 2000 and 2004 elections he faced excessively genial competitors, with comparatively unblemished records, while he had to battle with allegations of cocaine abuse, alcoholism and going AWOL. In both cases, the American people, by and large, opted for the flawed and therefore easier to identify with candidate: Dubya.

My mistake was not realising that the absence of flaws is not an especially desirable characteristic if it comes at the expense of a true or perceived character. Perfection can be seen as bloodless, unhuman; voters are attracted to a politician who admits and acknowledges their own failings.

It is, of course, much easier to criticise others than to present an ideal alternative. I don’t claim to have all the answers, or the gift of political foresight, but it is possible to assess the fundamental hindrances in a variety of notorious losers, and how they sounded the death knell for their political ambitions.

Simon Crean was clearly unfamiliar with the teachings of Machiavelli, as he seemed positively bewildered by the notion that appearances were the most important thing in politics. Being good at one’s job is not, of course, sufficient. Being a good politician is one quarter being a good administrator, and three quarters appearing to be a good administrator. Although it was probably due to a lack of media savvy rather than any basic deficiencies in his character, Crean was consistently as appealing as an STI. His inability to rectify this problem as his approval rating dropped somewhere in the vicinity of Osama bin Laden’s, sealed his fate.

Kim Beazley has always been too contrarian without being sufficiently idealistic; one is somewhat hard-pressed to think what it is he actually stands for. Never was this more evident than during the 2001 election campaign, where he stood shoulder to shoulder with Howard on the defining election issues of refugee and defence policy, a move that made Labor appear as little more than a watered-down version of the Coalition. He now desperately needs to define his leadership as more than just being ‘the other bloke.’

Mark Latham was undone by his past, unable to shift his image from ‘attack dog’ to ‘amiable leader’. During the closing days of the 2004 election campaign, an excessively forceful handshake with Howard reminded voters of the aggressive, cursing, cabbie-punching Latham of old. Latham’s mistake was to lack the foresight to realise that one day he would be held accountable for everything he had ever done, including for actions that had taken place years before a career in politics was even be contemplated. A good politician knows they’re going to be a politician from a young age, and adjusts their future choices and actions accordingly.

John Kerry, 2004’s other political failure, seemed to suffer from a personality deficiency. He was yet another of the Harvard-educated-but-I-went-to-Vietnam types that the north-east of the US seems to specialise in. The Democrats must share some of the blame here, however. Clearly still never having recovered from the loss of Jack Kennedy, they see fit to nominate every wealthy, elaborately-coiffured war veteran who expresses the slightest liberal inclinations to lead the party.

It’s easy to point to some of the longest serving leaders and politicians as paradigms of political skill. But the effectiveness of a politician isn’t just measured in career longevity, but also, of course, their legacy. NSW Premier Bob Carr has himself passed the feted ten year mark, though quite what he will be remembered for is anyone’s guess.

So too Bill Clinton managed to serve the maximum possible term in the American top job, but will best be remembered for his indiscretions. It is difficult to conceive of a politician (or perhaps, person) as preposterously charismatic as Clinton. Yet his eventually renowned penchant for brassy underlings will ultimately prevent him from entering the realms of greatness.

As Australians, we generally judge our politicians by what they stand for and how much their own beliefs and policies align with our own. This is indeed a fortunate tendency, and one we should certainly cherish. However, there are characteristics, beliefs aside, which can also be sought in the pursuit of the ideal politician.

A politician should be compassionate and pragmatic, and should know which is better used when the two are at odds with each other. They should be a measured balance between idealism and realism; passionate belief coupled with a refined sense of political practicality. Their beliefs, whatever they may be, should also be grounded in secular notions of decency. A politician should always answer to their own conscience first.

A politician should have the ability to speak effectively, compellingly and passionately. They should never be afraid to be grand in the focus of their oration, so long as they are not merely being indulgent or waxing lyrical. They should also be able to demonstrate the conviction of their beliefs by tying them to fundamental notions of humanity and righteousness.

Above all, though, a good politician survives. This is the lesson that Howard has demonstrated most effectively, and one he must hold to if he is to see another term.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.