Australia has had a long history of antipathy towards its political leaders. The current political climate has done little to quell this growing aversion towards politicians.
Though occasionally there is a politician who is able to capture the mood of the public and translate this into successful political outcomes. Sometimes these individuals are not the loudest or the most senior member of a particular political party. Rather they are a figure of whom the public have come to respect and in some cases admire. But who are these people, and more importantly what makes them a good politician? Are they simply able to say what the people are thinking in the loudest voice or do they possess more nuanced qualities?
Bizarrely these questions are rarely discussed in the Australian polity – until now.
There are several qualities that any good politician ought to have prior to entering public life. Long serving U.S. Congressman Lee Hamilton, observed a number of qualities of which he believed were essential to any aspiring political leader. Having a political career that has spanned over three decades, Hamilton was of the view that the hallmark qualities of a successful politician included honesty, loyalty and intelligence.
Politicians must be trustworthy. The public are constantly on the lookout for politicians who speak in hyperbole or offer misleading statements. Australians like our political leaders to be upfront and will recoil from any hint of deception or spin. In support of this view, Dr Mark Triffitt from the University of Melbourne recently opined that open and honest discussion ought to become the new benchmark for political skills. He further remarked that the public would ‘fall over themselves to reward honesty and plain speaking’. He may not be wrong. In 2014 Readers Digest named the independent senator from South Australia, Nick Xenophon, as the most trusted politician in Australia – a politician well known for his frankness. Some two years later his political party was able to claim a seat in the House of Representatives and three seats in the Senate. Coincidence?
A good politician must be able to relate to their electorate and not succumb to the Canberra bubble that can occasionally thwart judgment and perspective. They must understand their constituents and the issues which are impacting on their daily lives. Whilst such a quality may seem only natural in our representative system of government, it seems that even the most experienced political operatives ignore this important quality.
In 2013 following the election of the Coalition government, senior frontbencher and shadow minister Sophie Mirabella was unable to secure the very safe liberal seat of Indi. Many attributed Ms Mirabella’s election defeat for her not spending enough time in her electorate, a factor Ms Mirabella later conceded in her unsuccessful re-election bid in 2016. It follows that even the most senior political operatives need to continue to remain strong advocates for their local community and loyal to their constituents.
Mark Twain famously said that “Sometimes I wonder whether the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on, or by imbeciles who really mean it”.
In view of the Australian parliament, there are clearly many politicians with a wide variety of experience and superior intellect.
Take for example, Labor Shadow Minister Dr Andrew Leigh. At age 44, Dr Leigh has been an Associate to a High Court judge, a Lawyer, Academic and Economist. With more degrees than a thermometer Dr Leigh is a politician of serious intellect and real world experience. Perhaps it is this intellect that has seen him propelled from the backbench into the position of Shadow Assistant Treasurer despite having only been in the parliament for six years. This level of intellect has allowed Dr Leigh to engage with matters of public policy without being encumbered by the ideological blinkers that often consume the, let’s face it, uninspiring political figures. This intellect serves politicians like Dr Leigh well in allowing him to move beyond partisan politics – which resonates well amongst the public.
Admittedly, not all intelligent politicians are able to harness this intellect into sound political outcomes. Indeed, Malcolm Turnbull aptly observed in an interview with Leigh Sales on the ABC 7:30 report that prime ministers must have ‘emotional intelligence’. He emphasised that as prime minister, it is essential to be a self-aware person who recognises the needs of others. It seems that this view is shared amongst many political observers.
In 2013 researchers from the U.K attempted to identify the key personality traits that a good politician ought to have in order to succeed. The study led by Professor Jo Silvester interviewed politician’s and political officers and then invited the political officers to rate the performance of the politicians. After analysing the performance ratings provided by 740 political officers and 975 local politicians researchers found that a politician must be emotionally stable in order to succeed. Interestingly, politicians who engaged in manipulative Machiavellian behaviour or politicking were considered to perform poorly by their colleagues.
The concept of emotional intelligence being a necessary skill for political success is certainly not a new revelation. On her reflection of the U.S. Presidency, Sarah Ofusu-Ameyaw suggested that:
‘the emotionally intelligent leader is better able to rise above the unwarranted criticisms and is better able to serve his constituents’
There will be many individuals who will be of the view that any successful politician must have the oratory skills of President Barack Obama or the finely tuned PR skills of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and this may be true. However, it is clear that no amount of spin or conjecture can ever substitute authenticity. No amount of communications training will ever be enough to take on the challenges inherent with a career in public life. Political leadership demands much more.
It’s a tough game politics. It is by no means a vocation for the faint hearted. But despite all our protest and cynicism towards our political leaders, deep down we all yearn for the perfect politician. Fortunately, they’re out there, and you do not have to look too far to find them – some are just harder to spot than others.