Feet of clay

Market research indicates that most Australians believe our strong historical ties with the United States of America are a valuable asset. Certainly there are times when we have no hesitation in adopting a differing stance when it comes to managing contemporary issues. But, equally, there is no disputing our tradition of dying in the trenches with our mates from across the waves. More than most nations we have stood should-to-shoulder with the Americans and few argue that it has not been a generally beneficial and productive relationship. Interesting, then, that we take such differing stances towards our national leaders.

Jonathan Chait in The New Republic argues that Americans have invested the presidency with far more than mere leadership of the government of the day. He quotes Gene Healy of the Cato Institute who suggests the President is seen as ‘a soul-nourisher, a hope-giver, a living American talisman against hurricanes, terrorism, economic downturns and spiritual malaise’. Instinctively, most Aussies would suggest that is an impossible burden for a leader to carry – or even attempt to carry.

It is interesting that our cynicism towards national leaders is so far removed from the trust Americans appear willing to invest in their President. Australians respect the office of Prime Minister – while hardly anyone appears to care about the office of Governor-General – but we are very pragmatic about what incumbents are able to bring to the post. We live in hope that our national leader will bring enormous qualities, intelligence and resolve to issues of the day but we are quite forgiving when they are unable to match expectations. Our national ethos is that we are not inclined to kick someone when they’re down. Not that our sense of fair play excuses all things. It took only a very short time to determine that the Whitlam administration in the early 1970s was inept and ill-equipped to govern the nation soundly. It tore at the national soul but we dispensed with them.

Americans, too, have not been backwards in repudiating presidents who are perceived to have been unworthy in the way they have managed the office. But that is quite different to the extraordinary reservoir of hope and faith that ordinary Americans invest in a president’s ability to act decisively to conquer adversity. Not just to deal with it, but to conquer it.

Perhaps part of the difference is the vast legacy of mythology that has been cultivated around the presidency. In all but a tiny handful of recalcitrant enclaves, the United States is acknowledged as the most powerful nation on Earth. This is in both military and economic dimensions. As such, the President is often acknowledged as the leader of the free world. This title counts for nothing in reality but it signifies a mantle of responsibility that is awesome in its potential.

Australians remain quite firmly sceptical about what we believe a Prime Minister can deliver. Perhaps we learned a valuable lesson when the remarkable goodwill that was granted to Gough Whitlam was so quickly squandered by poor performance. It seems we remain once bitten, twice shy.

We have acted with alacrity in making our feelings known about individuals whose leadership aspirations have not accorded with our perception of their actual abilities. Mark Latham was a case in point as was John Hewson. Yet we are now revisiting the Whitlam scenario in which Kevin Rudd came to the Prime Ministership with the trust of the majority of voters and a clear expectation that he could and would change our society in ways that would have lasting impact.

Yet it has all gone pear-shaped and even many of Rudd’s die-hard Labor supporters are expressing their angst at wasted opportunities and poor management. The thought of Rudd – any contemporary government for that matter – being a one-term wonder these days is difficult for most voters to conceive. Our expectation is that the major parties have a reasonable parity in perceived ability and that neither bloc represents overly radical alternatives if elected to office.

The Rudd mandate has not been entirely spent as yet and the benefits of incumbency are numerous and powerful. Still, as the days pass it seems less and less fanciful that the Whitlam expulsion may be about to be repeated.

Acknowledgement: Jonathan Chait, The New Republic in The Weekend Australian, June 5-6, 2010.