In a president, character is everything. A president doesn’t have to be brilliant: Harry Truman wasn’t brilliant, and he helped save Western Europe from Stalin. He doesn’t have to be clever; you can hire clever… But you can’t buy courage and decency, you can’t rent a strong moral sense. A president must bring those things with him…
– Peggy Noonan, Ronald Reagan’s speechwriter
OVER THE COURSE of my career, I have learnt that democratic institutions I thought resilient and strong are in reality quite fragile. To a far greater extent than many realise, our system of governance depends on people – their ability and willingness to do the right thing. To perform their duties professionally, with integrity and public purpose – in accordance with longstanding traditions and conventions, often in the absence of laws or written rules. I have long been interested in public administration as a ‘craft’ and in the multi-faceted responsibilities that accrue to political leaders. We rely on them to safeguard our public institutions and political processes over the long term. And yet too often, they are failing to demonstrate leadership or ensure appropriate standards of behaviour – including and egregiously in Parliament House. An increasing number of political insiders, including some of the most senior, seem entirely focused on power, showing little understanding or concern for the long-term detriment to constitutional norms that provide the guardrails for effective governance.
Character matters in all facets of our lives, but seldom is it more consequential than in politics and political leadership. Even before the rise of Donald Trump, there was a widespread consensus in American politics that presidential character was just as important as intellect, organisational and policy capacity, media and presentational skills, and a vision for the nation’s future. Respected presidential studies scholar James Pfiffner argues character is critical because no one can predict the situations that will confront a president once in office. If, like sport, politics reveals rather than builds character, it is important for citizen voters to ‘select an individual who will apply a sound set of principles and values in unexpected circumstances’.
Of course, Australians don’t choose their political leaders, their parliamentary party rooms do – as has been demonstrated by the removal of a succession of prime ministers over the past decade, beginning with Kevin Rudd in 2010 and ending – for the time being at least – with Malcolm Turnbull’s replacement by Scott Morrison in October 2018. This, and the fact that there is no equivalent of a primaries process through which a prospective candidate might be scrutinised and become better known to voters, should make attention to the character of political leaders – but also to the members of parliament and senators who ultimately choose them – even more salient in the Australian context. Instead, and particularly now, we find ourselves reaping the bitter harvest of our collective failure to care enough about the calibre of the people we choose to represent us and to be vigilant in monitoring their fidelity to the awesome privileges and responsibilities of public office.
In the before times – when a leader-centric approach was less entrenched than it is now in the era of ‘permanent campaign’, when elected representatives served longer parliamentary apprenticeships and adhered less to talking points issued by unelected partisans in leaders’ offices, and when policy was debated within and outside the parliament, including inside large, more vigorous and representative political parties and through the agency of more robust and diverse media – in those times, voters could develop a clearer sense of who leaders and senior ministers were and what they stood for. Leaders’ potential to influence and shape their advisory arrangements makes it important to also pay attention to the character in the courts of loyalists who surround them, including party strategists, and the characters of those whom they appoint to leadership and other roles across government and the public sector. Character is revealed in the culture and values that political leaders cultivate and how they treat others, as earlier essays in this series and the recent Jenkins Review into Commonwealth Parliamentary Workplaces – among so many recent analyses – make clear.
CHARACTER IS A nebulous concept, often deployed negatively to attack a politician’s conduct in their public and private lives, their motives or their standing. This is done in the service of damaging their reputation or otherwise raising doubts about their suitability to lead. Former Canadian Liberal leader and academic Michael Ignatieff argues standing – who a politician is, their right to democratic respect – ‘has become the primary area of combat in modern politics’. Witness misogynistic attacks on Julia Gillard and numerous other female politicians. Witness concerns raised about Tony Abbott’s – and, more recently, Dominic Perrottet’s – traditional Catholicism. Witness concerns raised about Scott Morrison’s Pentecostal faith. These various slings and arrows aim to damage a politician’s reputation or otherwise raise doubts about their suitability to lead, but they engage little with matters of substance.
While inevitably imprecise, commonsense and popular-usage definitions of character include ideas of trustworthiness, fidelity, respect for others, willingness to accept responsibility, self-restraint and compassion. Trustworthiness alone is a multifaceted thing; it encompasses, at its heart, honesty – Pfiffner notes that one of the most devastating criticisms of a politician or indeed any person is being labelled a liar. This observation seems almost quaint given daily evidence that we now live in a post-truth era. Trustworthiness also includes integrity and reliability (does this leader keep their promises?) and loyalty. But loyalty can be double-edged, particularly if a leader is seen to afford special treatment to their friends, as is widely perceived to be the case with public grants and government contracts. Responsibility, the willingness to be accountable for one’s actions and to own the results of decisions and policies, be they good or bad, is another dimension of good character. Leaders who shirk responsibility or develop a reputation for claiming credit while deflecting blame to others can expect to be marked down in the character stakes.
Other desirable traits in a person of good character include the ability and willingness to exercise self-restraint as well as compassion and empathy. As Kevin Rudd and Scott Morrison have found to their cost, flashes of anger raise red flags about temperament. Another commonly desirable aspect of character is vision and purpose – perhaps this is ‘conviction’ in the Australian parlance. Peggy Noonan, Ronald Reagan’s speechwriter, notes that ‘a vision is worth little if a president doesn’t have the character – the courage and heart – to see it through’. Pfiffner argues citizens have a duty to look at the evidence of a leader’s character and to make their own judgments. In a week that saw the Prime Minister and senior Coalition figures openly criticise the Independent Commission Against Corruption over its yet to be completed investigation into former NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian and LNP Member for Dawson George Christensen appear on a US conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’ online show to urge anti-Covid restriction protests outside Australian embassies, it seems timely to focus on character.
What then should Australians expect, and indeed demand, of people seeking election to public office in our country? Like anyone, a politician’s character is shaped by their background, personality, influences and experiences. We elect leaders to represent and exercise power on behalf of – and in trust for – all Australians, and this makes their formative experiences things to care about. Citizens should scrutinise a candidate’s understanding of the job they are seeking – be it local MP or senator, minister or prime minister. They should critically assess a candidate’s capacity and commitment to perform in the long-term public interest, including the purpose that has motivated them to public service.
What has shaped a candidate’s character? How has it been demonstrated on the journey towards seeking preselection or higher office? Are these people institutional thinkers who see themselves as part of something bigger, with responsibilities to preserve Australian democracy and to foster connection, belonging, confidence and shared purpose? Do they understand and accept the duties and obligations that accompany power, including the need to exercise it with restraint? Or have the institutions of representative democracy – in this country or in other Western democracies – become merely vehicles for their personal ambitions and ideological agendas?
Conservative scholar Yuval Levin attributes political polarisation and the crisis of isolation, mistrust and alienation currently experienced by many of his fellow Americans to the weakening of its institutions, which he defines as ‘the durable forms of our common life…the frameworks and structures of what we do together’. From the family to business, government, the professions, the media, religious and community organisations, Levin traces a shift in thinking about institutions from being moulds ‘that shape people’s character and habits towards seeing them as platforms that allow people to be themselves and to display themselves to a wider world’. This shift of emphasis from the collective to the individual and from the ‘formative to the performative’ has brought ‘a gradual replacement of a culture of integrity with something more like a culture of celebrity, in which achievement is measured by prominence and legitimacy by affirmation’. It is accompanied by the rise of connectivity at a previously unseen scale and speed through the confluence of social media platforms and the 24-hour news cycle. And it is also accompanied by the rise of ‘outsiderism’, where people seek the benefits of institutional positions (for example, the presidency or a seat in the Congress) while wilfully disregarding the obligations that these positions impose and require. In fact, instead, they often use that platform itself to scorn the institution of which it forms a part. Not surprisingly, as Levin argues:
This process undermines our confidence in institutions from two directions. On the one hand, people outside the institution – people who need it, or interact with it, or observe it – lose respect for the institution as they come to think of it mostly as a means for the personal promotion of those within. On the other hand, people within the institution forget the value of whatever constraints it might impose on them and come to understand it as a platform for themselves. From one direction we find a loss of respect for authority, process, integrity and expertise, and from the other, a loss of responsibility, restraint and regard for a code of conduct. Each magnifies the other.
In a column for The Washington Post, journalist Robert Kagan notes ‘ambition is a powerful antidote to moral qualms’, citing the extraordinary failure of the Republican establishment to criticise Donald Trump, despite ‘their known abhorrence for everything [he] stood for’. They not only came to Trump’s defence ‘but fashioned political doctrines to justify his rule, filling in the wide gaps of his non-existent ideology with an appeal to “conservative nationalism” and conservative populism’. Having purged dissenting voices, they have since used their institutional power to shield Trump and his followers from the consequences of January 6. Kagan makes a powerful case for ‘a national unity coalition’ for the purpose of saving American democracy, and yet he too wonders ‘whether modern American politicians, in either party, have it in them to make such bold moves, whether they have the insight to see where events are going and the courage to do whatever is necessary to save the democratic system’.
WHILE AUSTRALIA’S DEMOCRACY is under challenge, we must have the courage to ensure that as in previous times of uncertainty and political conflict in Australia’s history, our system will prove resilient. That it will bend but not break. As then, this will require leadership and a willingness among political combatants to step back from the brink.
Performativity and outsiderism have become the twin scourges of Australian politics too. At all levels of government, our politics is replete with examples of people seeking individual gain along the spectrum from dishonestly and dissembling to rorts and other abuses of power such as those documented by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins in the Set the Standard report and those delineated elsewhere in this series. It is replete, too, with people such as George Christensen, who use their visibility and their status to spread misinformation and breed cynicism, whether that’s by challenging the legitimacy of the legislatures in which they were elected to participate, or Scott Morrison, who insisted that ‘the rule of law’ apply to Christian Porter but who cynically undermines an independent statutory body in a state-based jurisdiction for political gain.
These developments have been largely facilitated and enabled by the professionalisation of politics as a career – or an industry – and the emergence of a career structure. In the latter case, this will often see student politics provide a direct pathway to preselection via publicly funded parliamentary or ministerial staff positions or other roles directly related to politics – perhaps with a union, or in government affairs, or as a party official. This has created a ‘political class’ on both sides of politics, comprising political professionals whose entire careers have been spent in a political environment, with politics at the centre of their lives. It should come as no surprise their concerns seldom align with those of ‘ordinary Australians’, the great imaginary conjured through the prism of polling and focus groups, whose approval they so assiduously seek to cultivate.
If professionalisation is one driver of these increasingly narrow and self-referential politics, another is the ‘quite unnatural life’ and the ‘uncomfortable combination of celebrity, conflict, power and risk’ that becoming a modern politician entails. Don Russell, who has worked with politicians at all levels of Australian government and internationally for more than four decades, argues that the people who find themselves in this profession are categorically ‘different’:
As a class they tend to be risk-lovers, which explains why they do so many inexplicable things. They wear scars from a highly adversarial working environment where they are continuously subjected to savage criticism, and a career structure where the pathway to success depends on the regard of their colleagues. It is a warrior’s profession, where all are surrounded by enemies – some external, and some within their own party or faction, where bitter rivals masquerade as colleagues. Some are better at hiding it, some try not to engage, and some are naturals, but as with all fighters exposed to continuous battle, the risks can take a heavy toll.
Little wonder that politicians tend to be self-selecting. Former Independent Member for New England Tony Windsor is fond of saying that ‘the world is run by those who turn up’. In recent decades, those who have turned up in Australia’s democratic institutions have been prepared to ply the professional pathway and to submit to sclerotic, unreformed political parties where factional warlords distribute spoils among their loyalists while blocking the path of the genuinely well-motivated and talented people keen to serve the Australian public. We’ve seen this toll in the haemorrhaging of talent from Australian parliaments and the replacement of a generation of parliamentarians who were capable of occasional displays of bipartisanship with extremists or cynics who relish the game. The toll has also fallen on voters and democratic institutions, who have been collateral damage in the continuous battle over not very much. From the climate wars to the culture wars, for the past decade Australian politics has been an interminable war of attrition, while political tactics have hardened on all sides.
So it is encouraging that in electorates across Australia, community groups and people who have never engaged in politics are mobilising around independent candidates. Non-aligned ‘Voices’ groups in seats such as Goldstein (Vic), Mackellar (NSW), Hughes (NSW), Wentworth (NSW) and Groom (Qld) have preselected accomplished professional women with diverse experience, community connections and broad networks to run at the 2022 poll with the hope of growing a crossbench of centrist women in the next parliament. Many of these candidacies have been inspired by former Member for Indi Cathy McGowan, founder of the Community Independents Project to support community-led campaigns that model a ‘new kind of politics’ and seek to attract supporters who have become alienated by the partisan fray – and her successor in the federal division of Indi, Helen Haines. Though local communities determine their candidates’ priorities in these new preselections, most have nominated climate action, integrity and gender equality as their top three issues. When former foreign correspondent Zoe Daniel, who will contest the seat of Goldstein as a community independent, spoke to The Age about the realisation that she needed to step up and get involved, she said: ‘If not us, then who? And if not now, when?’ Her remarks captured the wider sense of disillusion being felt about the parlous state of our politics. My motivation to pen this series was prompted by a similar sense of urgency that has only intensified in the past few weeks.
Beyond the horrors laid bare in Jenkins’ Set the Standard report, the prevailing atmosphere of tribalism and partisan conflict that pervades the atmosphere of Australia’s parliaments – and the characters they attract – has created perverse incentives. Former Federal Senate President Scott Ryan laments the loss of the capacity to debate, to discuss and to compromise, all of which are critical to governing and fundamental to democratic legitimacy. He argues that ‘an essential piece of our political system is in trouble’ and that if we don’t rediscover the skills of negotiation and practical compromise, ‘we will face deepening gridlock’. He notes that ‘politics can’t just be war by other means. It must be the resolution of conflict by all possible means’.
It is one thing to discuss the character of our politicians, the character of our leaders, the character of those attracted to the current system and those whom its awfulness repels. But it is equally critical to emphasise and insist on the importance of the character of the voting public itself. Our democratic character is revealed by our commitment to the institutions that matter to us most. Are we the people who will allow our fates to be determined by a tiny portion of swing voters who can be easily distracted, bought and swayed by cynics who undermine our institutions in order to vandalise them?
My efforts to imagine a way out of our current malaise have been influenced and shaped by writers whose nations are further along the trajectory of populist authoritarianism and democratic dysfunction than afflicts Australia. From One Nation’s flirtation with the National Rifle Association to Craig Kelly’s and George Christensen’s entreaties to the far right – with their colleagues’ tacit approval – make it clear that we are not immune. The consensus among those writers – Anne Applebaum, George Packer, Yuval Levin, Robert Kagan and others – is that bipartisanship, active citizenship and engagement with our institutions are truly our last best hope. Each in different ways urges us all to take action, from wherever we are and however we can. As Levin notes, ‘We don’t have to figure out how everyone might do this; we just have to do it ourselves. You and I. We can do it in small ways – in thinking about how to use your time and energy, how to pursue our goals, how to judge success and failure, how to identify ourselves when people ask us who we are, how to measure our responsibilities.’ Many of us feel overwhelmed by the scope and scale of the challenge that confronts us, by the seemingly bottomless, shameless nadir that our politics has reached. But this should not and must not deter us, because there is something small we can all do to start. Right now. Today.
Levin, Yuval, A Time to Build, Basic Books, 2020.
Noonan, Peggy, 2002, ‘Character Above All: Ronald Reagan’, PBS Newshour, https://www.pbs.org/newshour/spc/character/essays/reagan.html
Perkins, Miki, ‘Former ABC reporter Zoe Daniel to fight Liberals on climate and integrity’, The Age, 25 November 2021, https://www.theage.com.au/politics/federal/if-not-us-then-who-former-abc-journalist-zoe-daniel-announces-tilt-at-blue-ribbon-seat-20211125-p59c5y.html
Pfiffner, James P, The Character Factor: How We Judge America’s Presidents, Texas A&M University Press, 2004.
Russell, Don, Leadership, Monash University Press, 2021.
Ryan, Scott, Challenging Politics, Monash University Press, 2021.
Tiernan, A and Weller, P, Learning to be a Minister: Heroic Expectations, Practical Realities, MUP, 2010.