Government and governance | Australia, The World

31 January 2015

Can political leaders find a way to rise above the politics?

How different is the Barack Obama of today, compared with the Obama who won back in 2008, with all the promise of ‘Yes, we can’, and the inspiration that carried, particularly for American youth?

How different is the Tony Abbott of today, compared with the Abbott who won back in 2013, having so effectively revealed the weaknesses of, and so effectively demolished, the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd Government?

You’d have to say that both are very different people today, each struggling with the leadership roles they so coveted, and fought so hard for.

The qualities they were perceived to have then have not translated easily to the leadership roles they are attempting today. The expectations they created in getting there were easy to make at the time, but have proved difficult, if not impossible, to deliver against.

Both Obama and Abbott have had to accept that while they could mostly play politics, essentially saying or promising to do whatever it took to ‘win’, audience by audience, as they campaigned across the country, government is much more about policy, and good governance, practices and procedures.

And, indeed, the expectations they raised and the promises they made to get there have come back to haunt them as they have grappled with the realities of governing.

As easy as all this is to say, it really boggles the mind that they didn’t always appreciate it.

Has politics become such a cynical exercise that political aspirants now simply figure that winning is everything, and they’ll ‘double-cross’ those bridges when they are in office?

Are electorates and the media now really so accepting of politics as a mere ‘game’ that they simply expect political aspirants to over promise and under deliver?

Indeed, do they feel so isolated from, and disenfranchised in, and appalled by, the political process that many of the issues, challenges and politicians seem so far beyond their influence that they effectively opt out?

One of the most surprising aspects of both Obama and Abbott is how poorly prepared they were for the transition to government.

Even though Obama had been a Senator, he was still very much an outsider in Washington, with little or no real policy experience, or credibility, and very little capacity to carry the Congress, even starting, as he did, with Democratic control of both Houses.

Abbott, on the other hand, probably should have known better. He had been a junior and senior Minister in the Howard Government, and had some years in Opposition, yet he was still quite unprepared in policy terms, and attempted to make the transition to government with pretty much the same ministerial and staff team that had helped him win.

Both Obama and Abbott undoubtedly expected to win, and both undoubtedly believed (and probably still do) that they won in their own right, and because of ‘what they stood for’. But any objective assessment would have to conclude that the predominant reason each actually won was electoral dissatisfaction with the previous government – the pathetic Republican Bush Jnr in Obama’s case, and the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd fiasco for Abbott.

The challenge for both now is to find some way to rise above politics, and to show real leadership on key issues and developments.

Although Obama is now effectively a ‘lame duck’, facing a hostile Republican controlled Congress, in the final two years of his Presidency, he is attempting to do just that. In his State of the Union Address to Congress he was very confronting and challenging to his opponents in Congress, setting out what he intended to achieve in social reform, addressing inequality, and responding to climate change, and so on, with or without their support.

The only way Abbott can really remove the ‘barnacles’ on his performance is to forget politics and show some real leadership in meeting the needs and aspirations of our nation.

His time too is running out.

This piece was published in Southern Highland News:

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