Politicians must change if they are to earn our respect
Wednesday 12 March 2014
There is a chronic leadership malaise in Australia, with many voters disillusioned by leaders who seem to put party interests and the wishes of their close supporters ahead of the wider social good. We have just lived through a decade of negative politics in which playing the man or woman, not the ball, and black and white (rather than informed) debate are the norm.
Australia's leaders have a specific responsibility to rebuild trust in our institutions and the practice of politics. Rethinking the way they talk to each other and to us is a necessary first step in this. Imagine what our political leaders would say if, instead of talking tough to buy popularity, they sought to earn our respect instead.
Let's have a closer look at how, say, the Minister for Defence, senator David Johnston, could have handled matters better when he made a statement to the media recently, criticising the ABC's reporting of the alleged mistreatment of asylum seekers by some members of the Australian Navy - the so-called ''burnt hands'' incident.
The minister began by saying that he was ''sick to the stomach'' and ''extremely angry'' over what he saw as biased reporting that vilified the reputation of the navy. As a result, he had delayed his statement for several days to allow his anger to abate.
I, too, have let some time pass before writing - to allow the controversy to settle so I can use Senator Johnston's statement as a touchstone for reflecting on the state of Australian political leadership in 2014.
Drawing on what is on the public record, here is an alternative version of the statement that Senator Johnston might have made:
Thank you for the opportunity to brief you this morning. I would particularly like to thank you for your patience in waiting several days for this statement.
When I last spoke to you, just after allegations against some members of the crew of an Australian Navy ship were aired, I told you three things. One, I was shocked that allegations such as those could be made. Two, I had asked senior naval commanders to investigate immediately and report back to me. And three, I would share the findings of their investigation with you.
Today, five days later, I am reporting back to the Australian people with a progress report on the investigation.
I am afraid that the report at this stage is inconclusive. Five days have not been enough for the thorough investigation we need.
Mindful of this government's pre-election commitment to be as transparent as we responsibly can be, I am happy to inform you that copies of the report I was given are available from my office, obviously minus personal names and details of operational matters not related to the allegations.
There were no CCTV cameras on the deck of the ship in question. So there is no footage to show exactly what happened. The investigation team I established has spoken to the captain. He has interviewed his crew, who have denied that the alleged cruelty took place. The captain vouches for their honesty.
However, we have not yet located the men who claim that they were injured. They are somewhere in Indonesia.
Without hearing from the alleged victims, it would be unfair to come to a firm conclusion. However, please let me assure you that we are doing our best, but procedural fairness and thoroughness take time.
Let me now say a few words about the ABC and the Australian Navy.
Has the ABC acted honourably in this matter? This is for the public to judge, but it doesn't reflect high journalistic ethics to report second-hand allegations without fact-checking with all sides first. It would be tempting to describe the ABC reports as hearsay, innuendo, and rumour that have maliciously maligned the good men and women of the navy. But that is not the sort of language I like to use.
If a small number of rogue sailors behaved inappropriately, they will be dealt with.
However, I am proud of the three services of the ADF and have respect and admiration for every serving member. They are highly trained and work in dangerous and frequently distressing situations. This does not mean that anyone is beyond reproach or criticism - where it is justified. We know this is not the case - and, when in government, the current opposition established an inquiry that led to criminal charges against a small number, albeit still too many, of our defence personnel.
How would this alternative statement contribute to a renewal of public leadership in Australia? It would show that our leaders are dignified, fair-minded and respectful of others and of due process. They are not intimidated by pressure for quick answers and do not, themselves, speak and act in anger or with hubris.
They are willing to take and defend a position - but only after they have all the necessary evidence. They defend their organisations and their staff, but are not blind to the possibility of rogue behaviour - and take firm action when they find it.
They are tolerant of those who criticise them and willingly recognise the achievements of others, even their opponents.
Such a speech would be a display of strength, not weakness, the very model of a true leader's statement.
The alternative is continuing with the current pattern of behaviour that reinforces public disengagement from and disenchantment with the political system, with damaging consequences for our democracy.
Alternatively, surprising voters by aiming higher than a boost in the opinion polls might be worth trying, just to see if instead of buying popularity, earning respect is a pleasant surprise - for followers and leaders alike.