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The art of democratic leadership.

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Thursday 17 August 2006

Gregory Melleuish, associate professor of history and politics, University of Wollongong


The Art of Democratic Leadership

John Howard has enjoyed ten years as Prime Minister and now possesses a dominance in Australian politics that has not been enjoyed by any leader since the later years of Sir Robert Menzies. Despite the claims of his critics that this stems from some radical Machiavellian streak in his character the more obvious explanation stems from Howard's mastery of the art of democratic leadership.

Any democratic polity, including ones that involve the direct participation of its citizens such as ancient Athens, divides into an elite that takes the lead and the rest, the mass, who follow. Our democratic system founded on the principle of representation formalises this distinction between elite and mass. What is not often recognised is that there is no natural harmony between these two groups. Distrust between the elite and the rest is endemic to democracy and is often cultivated by democratic politicians in the struggle for power.

Elected politicians, who are not delegates and hence not bound by promises made to those who elected them, sometimes are faced by circumstances that lead to them taking decisions contrary to what they have previously told their constituents. Government, however, would become unworkable if politicians did not have the freedom to change their minds.

To be a successful democratic leader means working with this constant underlying distrust, making sensible decisions without alienating the people. Even genuinely popular democratic leaders such as Pericles and Churchill did not escape the wrath of the people.

Being the leader of a democratic people has never been easy. But there are factors which have made the task much more difficult in recent years. In earlier periods of its history, democratic Australia was a much more homogenous country and there was often genuine agreement between the elites and the mass on such policies as White Australia. Democratic leaders now have to face a much more heterogeneous population with a variety of conflicting interests. With a much larger population Australians have become more individualistic as they compete for scarce resources. This is particularly true of the elites. In an internationally competitive environment poor policy decisions can have potentially devastating consequences. But, as the recent events in Lebanon illustrate, the Australian people still expect governments to act as their protectors.

The trick of democratic leadership in an age in which Australia has become a fully sovereign and responsible entity has been to marry a populism that ensures that one will be re-elected with a willingness to take hard policy decisions when the circumstances demand it.

Under these circumstances leaders cannot afford to appeal to only one segment of the population. They must be able to rise above, or at least appear to rise above, the parties that they lead.

Bob Hawke had that capacity, just as in partnership with Paul Keating, he was able to take unpopular but necessary decisions as well as win four successive elections. Howard has also demonstrated his capability as a democratic leader. One way of understanding Howard's electoral success since nineteen ninety six is to see him as having forged a coalition of voters, many of whom might disagree with each other but who agree that Howard is the best man to lead the country.

This means that Howard has to keep a number of balls in the air at the same time. At any given time he may be satisfying the aspirations of some of his supporters while frustrating those of other of his supporters. Yet Howard's reputation for slipperiness is more a function of his success as a democratic leader than a ground for criticism. Distrust and suspicion simply go with the territory.

Howard has succeeded as a leader because he has forged the political skills the hard way, after many failures that would have broken most other people. His strengths are not intellectual or the 'vision thing' but the consequence of a life devoted to his chosen profession as a politician. He knows when he should be populist and when he can afford to pursue unpopular policies.

The art of democratic leadership will become even more difficult in coming years. Any aspiring leader, of any political party, should carefully study Howard's career so that they can appreciate what is required to succeed in this most taxing of professions.


Gregory Melleuish  

Associate Professor 

History and Politics 

University of Wollongong