January 16, 2004 | Peter

Latham and Moral Leadership

I’ve been reading about the transformation of the US military under pressure from ‘digitisation’, and what impresses me most about this discussion is the way actual military participants (as opposed to civilian commentators) continue to stress morale as the key factor in military success or failure. In military terms morale is often based on group solidarity, but there is also an element determined by the justice of the cause being fought for. Ultimately, this is about morality. I think this observation about the importance of morality is relevant to political parties and also to modern nation-states. This is a fact largely hidden by the mass media which focuses almost entirely on material well-being as the only important political determinant.
So this blog entry looks at the question of national morale, considers Latham’s potential as a moral leader, and reviews his chances against a PM who, I argue, has minimal claims to moral leadership.
New Labor leader Mark Latham’s recent comments on the refugee problem have been encouraging. He has said Labor would end the Pacific option – one of Australia’s more shameful episodes – and put in place an Australian-based system that processes asylum seekers quickly. How exactly this is to be done is not stated, but it is very much a step in the right direction.
Furthermore, it encourages me in thinking that leadership will mature Latham. He has said some pretty brutal things on this issue in the past, but he knows it is one of those things that define political leadership. Is Labor still the party of principle and fairness over expedience, even when it comes to the treatment of non-Australians? For Latham it is important to get this right – not just for the coming lection, but also in order to begin healing some serious rifts emerging within the Labor Party.
Over the period of his government, John Howard has had a profound effect on the national mood. A truly phenomenal part of Howard’s role in this is his manifest confidence that he personally embodies what ‘average’ Australians really think. In a real sense Howard believes he is a quintessential Australian, and that we are at heart like him. This is why he so easily and consistently plays the role he does, which includes identifying with explicitly nationalistic endeavours, especially successful sporting activities, and dismissing alternative ideas about Australian culture.
And what is the essence of Howard’s worldview? Mostly, it is fear. In particular Howard is afraid of diversity, of things being different to how he wants them. So he has promoted policy that pushes the idea that there is a specific way of being Australian, and that he, and those other ‘true’ Aussies, know what that is.
At the heart of this Howard’s Australia is a simple, brutal materialism. Howard reflects the old pioneer idea that the real environment of this unique country is fundamentally terrifying, but that it can be kept at bay by hard work along with deference to old values and institutions (like the monarchy). As for maintaining the means to live, he reproduces the need to focus on the mechanics of survival under pressure.
This unrelieved ‘survivalist’ attitude explains why, despite being one of the most wealthy and secure places on Earth, Australians feel so threatened. It is also, somewhat paradoxically, a core reason why Australians play so hard.
This narrow view of hard life in a hard land never had any time or place for the original Australians, who lived in this country very differently. Coming here when Howard’s and my ancestors were likely still discovering hunter-gatherer life outside Africa, Aborigines made themselves at home in this strange, old land. After a few mistakes, they settled in to manage this extreme environment so well they thrived for about fifty millennia. That is, until Europeans arrived.
This view also has little to say about the environmental peculiarities of Australia, which the indigenous people directly confronted. This is why Howard has nothing useful to say about environmental issues. Howard still believes in the pioneer idea that the environment must be subjugated, not understood or negotiated with.
Having come to Australia and progressively dispossessed the aboriginal people, Australians then developed a fear of others doing the same. This was especially easy if these putative invaders looked different. Our failure to treat refugees humanely is a direct result of this long-held fear.
Over two centuries what was a harsh but pragmatic way of living in this hard land has curdled and turned into an increasingly xenophobic conservatism. It still works to a point because the problems of environmental degradation and global change have not yet really hit Australia. But they will.
In the meantime, Howard says to Australia, “Just support my tough xenophobia, my unquestioned support for the US, my sustained attack on those who can’t be ‘productive’ Australians, and I will allay your fears”. The price of this paternal protection is of course perpetual infantilism, and a deeply buried but real sense of shame.
If Mark Latham wants to lead this country he must give Australians a better option than that. Sure, Australians want to keep their material affluence and national security, but they also want to stop being afraid, and ashamed. They want to deal with the obvious problems of social change, international upheaval and imminent environmental crisis, but they need strong leadership. They need to believe in a leader who has moral courage as well as practical policies.
Moral leadership, which means being constant in the face of adversity and maintain principle, is necessary because Australians know that new approaches, necessary to deal with the problems, will themselves generate new problems. Therefore, the leader must have the moral strength to keep the overall goal in mind, and communicate that resolution to the nation.
In essence, whatever else their strengths and weaknesses, Australians did not trust Beazley or Crean to act with moral strength, rightly or wrongly. If they do trust Latham then he will win the next election.
There has been little in Latham’s past ideas on reform that indicate his readiness to act as a moral leader, in the sense that many of his ideas are about devolving social decisions back to the individual level. The state and hence political leaders thus play a decreasing role in constructing the national identity and value system. But his sustained attempts at developing a coherent set of new ideas does show his intellectual seriousness (itself an increasingly courageous position in anti-intellectual Australia) and a willingness to build and defend a personal position.
As new ALP leader Latham carries an enormous load, not just in relation to the ALP and its usual supporters; he also carries expectations of all those who want to feel better about themselves. Whatever else it has done, Howard’s government has failed to show moral leadership. Instead, it has confused harshness (towards Aborigines, refugees, the unemployed, students, etc) and an unquestioning alliance with US military power with real strength. If Latham can continue to show moral courage, and if the electors decide that they can have enough of the material goodies with Latham as leader, he will become the next prime minister.

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