Steve Smith with his dog Charlie at the cricket where his team played David Warner’s team. Picture: Jenny Evans
Steve Smith with his dog Charlie at the cricket where his team played David Warner’s team. Picture: Jenny Evans

We have leaders in name only

BOB Hawke looked old last week when he announced, through the Woodford folk festival, that he was in "terrible health" and had "done his time".

Sure, 89 years old is old. But Bob Hawke always seemed different. For almost three decades, since losing his prime ministership, Hawkie didn't seem to age. Sure, he got a little slower in his legs, but from downing beers at the cricket, giving speeches around the world and making jokes on his balcony, Bob was a timeless reminder of a bygone era. An era of Australian leadership, where we knew who we were, what we believed in and had greater clarity around Australian identity.

Australians are craving strong leadership like Bob Hawke’s but is it even possible in the modern 24/7 news cycle? Art: Terry Pontikos
Australians are craving strong leadership like Bob Hawke’s but is it even possible in the modern 24/7 news cycle? Art: Terry Pontikos

Was it a perfect time? Certainly not. Look back on the 1980s and there was enough casual sexism, racism and homophobia that would horrify today's polite company. But there was also progress on those fronts. And it's wrong to blindly apply today's standards to a different era.

The 80s were a time of opportunity, hope and promise. Bob Hawke provided leadership. He set a national agenda based on his values and ideology and then implemented reforms to achieve it.

Bob Hawke backstage at the Woodford Folk Festival last week. Picture: Megan Slade/AAP
Bob Hawke backstage at the Woodford Folk Festival last week. Picture: Megan Slade/AAP

But seeing Bob, more frail than I've seen him before made we question: can the type of national consensus leadership Bob espoused ever happen again? Could it exist in the world of instant media cycles, fake news and rampant partisanship?

Australians are desperate for leadership. That's a no-brainer. I've sat in more political focus groups than any sane person should put themselves through. In each the message is clear; Australians will give the benefit of the doubt to leaders who, while they might not agree with on every policy, have a clear agenda and purpose.

We used to call it the "I know voter". During the Howard era, they would walk into a room, trash the last five decisions John Howard had made but declare at the end that they were voting for him? Why? Because, as they would repeat in unison "at least I know what he stands for".

It wasn't the consensus leadership of Hawke. But it was leadership nonetheless. And for more than a decade Australians lapped it up.

Scott Morrison is headed towards a record defeat in this year's election, in large part because the changes from Abbott to Turnbull and then to Morrison have made the Liberal party a leadership void.

You can forget the individual policies - the overall narrative is one of dysfunction. Disunity is death. But it seems to be a lesson no one near Australian politics can comprehend. The current government certainly didn't learn from the mistakes of the previous Labor administration.

John Howard and Bob Hawke were political opponents, but they had strong, unequivocal leadership in common.
John Howard and Bob Hawke were political opponents, but they had strong, unequivocal leadership in common.

But it's not just in politics that leadership is lacking. It's happening everywhere. The Australian cricket team is a mess. More than any other sport, cricket (particularly in summer) is intertwined with the Australian identity. But I think the decision to not bring back David Warner and Steve Smith - people who have already paid their dues for a stupid mistake - shows how weak this country's cricket administrators have become. The players have paid a huge price already and the administrators should be standing by their talent. It's as if Cricket Australia is terrified of a few angry tweets and a couple of columns.

And even the captains of corporate greed, the Australian bank CEOs, are running around in circles. The banking royal commission is a circular firing squad of highly-paid bank executives blaming each other for their collective guilt. It's a pathetic performance. Spineless.

I wonder what Bob Hawke thinks of it. I wonder whether he thinks his model of leadership can rise again; whether he believes you can still bring people together and use that energy to strengthen the community. I suspect he does. I suspect he's had such an extraordinary life because he is an outstanding optimist.

Hawkie will look at people like me, who say the political system is fundamentally broken, and laugh it off with his famous "the mob will always get it right" sentiment. He doesn't see Australia as groups of people in different political camp who are unable to compromise, unable to work together. He sees a community of people who can come together and work together.

I was having drinks on his balcony when Bob told me that parliament was a Potemkin village. I didn't even know what that meant at the time. I was a few drinks in and distracted by his 1980s artwork.

But the term refers to villages that were created solely for appearance when Russia's Catherine the Great would pass through. A fraud. A sham. Something designed to deceive others into thinking the situation is better than it was.

But Hawke went on to explain that this provided an opportunity. That you can use the versatility of the political system to shape Australia. That as hard or horrible things get, leadership is about never losing your lodestar. Leadership means you have to stay strong and positive in the face of adversity.

I think we could all do with more of that optimism. It's infectious.

Sam Dastyari is a former senator and a political commentator and broadcaster.

@samdastyari



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