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Political leaders dilute their power when they try to manage, control and strait-jacket their followers

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Editor-at-large, The Canberra Times

View more articles from Jack Waterford

Leaders dilute, not strengthen, their power when they try to manage, control and strait-jacket their followers

Illustration: Kerrie Leishman

Illustration: Kerrie Leishman

Micromanagement has its own inexorable corrective and - if recent Australian history is any guide - a fairly fatal one. So why are political leaders so attracted to the practice?

It killed Kevin Rudd, first time around at least. He had it doubly bad: unable himself to resist the impulse to control, to fiddle, to agonise and to irritate and annoy, and accompanied by an army of fellow, if subservient, control freaks. Either is usually fatal. His, on any day of the week, could bring any semblance of orderly and routine government to a halt. And, typically, if anything worse on the little things - matters that ought to have been beneath Rudd's notice. Long before the alienation of the caucus was complete, Rudd and his office had became so overwhelmed by things, big and small, that they ceased to know which was which.

The Julia Gillard personality was neat and organised, but she did not seem to have the same ego or desire to control. But, increasingly, her office did. Particularly with communications. It became totally centralised and, not by coincidence, more and more inept. Speeches by ministers had to be parsed by, co-ordinated with and ''cleared'' by her office to make sure that everyone was ''on-message''. Everyone, down to the merest ambitious backbencher, was doing the doors with the message. And the message began to get stuck. It wasn't the communication of it at fault so much as the message itself. Government ceased to communicate. And people stopped listening.

Tony Abbott, in opposition, was very disciplined, and always on-message, which was generally a simple slogan, one of only a few repeated over and over for nearly four years. A stern task-mistress and instinctive combatant in Peta Credlin herded any natural tendency to expand, to dilate, to make self-deprecating jokes or to commit some unwitting atrocity. His self-control and her invigilation worked. The contrast between the ''real'' Abbott and the focused aggressive campaigner led some to see him as a tightly coiled spring that might, in power, suddenly let go. That hasn't happened yet, but Abbott is slowly changing persona, leaving the bayonet work to Credlin. He is presenting himself as rather more relaxed, regal, generalist and presidential.

But his Prime Minister's Office is in perhaps more total control of affairs or communications than any of his predecessors, even the monsters. The PMO's control over ministers, ministerial staff and the senior bureaucracy is tighter than ever. Efforts to manage who is saying what, where and when, and to whom seem to be as maniacal as any effort to organise the personalities, presentation, ideas and style of presenting ideas or facts of the frontbench by Rudd or Gillard.

Dangerously for Abbott, the PMO focus seems as much on disciplining his followers as it is of him, or in seeking to control events and the message. In opposition against a minority government Abbott played hardball with numbers, refusing any sort of automatic pairs to the government and, by tight control of his team, could threaten Gillard in Parliament at any time. He now has a comfortable majority. But, if murmurs from his backbench are any guide, he has not loosened the tight discipline on them.

Any prime minister has inducements or sticks to use with supporters: ministerial jobs, post-career appointments and influence over preselections. There is moral pressure to stick with the team, to focus on the opposition and simple solidarity.

Some backbenchers have a power base, a personality resistant to being told what to do or think, or ordered about like a sheep, or are at that stage of a career when they are immune to offers of reward or punishment. It is when control freaks are as focused on controlling supporters as on trying to influence opinion or control events that leaders get into big trouble. If they have great power over their followers, so do their followers over them, as Kevin Rudd discovered.

When John Howard was first an opposition leader, he had a tendency to micromanage, and to get lost in detail. His office staff's work often suffered because everyone reported to him. His difficulties were compounded by disloyalty (deserved since he gave little loyalty to others himself), and by events. But Howard learnt from the experience, and not by becoming more intense and distrustful, but by being willing to allow some freedom of manoeuvre to others.

In this sense he was similar to Bob Hawke, whose effectiveness as prime minister turned in major part of his playing the chairman, and by giving considerable latitude to his ministers, particularly those whom he saw as effective. Hawke had, for his time, a big PMO, but it operated as an intelligence service and early warning system for political trouble, and on the grand narratives and messages. Hawke did not like criticism but he did not insist that ministers follow scripts or march in step. He could quickly master a brief but rarely bothered to immerse himself in the detail.

Howard had sometimes to resist compulsions to interfere. Like Hawke, Howard had excellent antennae. His PMO was busy and effective but not a choke point - and the centralising tendency was mostly reflected not only in efforts to manage the message but to frighten and terrify everyone, but particularly minders and public servants, away from leaks and indiscretions. He also erected a curtain of deniability between himself and the front door of his PMO - so that he could blandly deny knowledge of, or involvement in, anything inconvenient.

But bad changes to process, including secrecy, become cancers in his system. Good government, in particular, thrives on debate, on ideas and arguments, and, sometimes the collisions of interests. One can seek to keep arguments behind closed doors, to conceal the spillage of blood, or attempt not to frighten the children. Party processes, caucus, cabinet and co-ordination processes are designed to control and direct the energy of such debates, and to bind participants in outcomes. But people must participate first.

Debates are sometimes messy. But this is better than suppressing any discordant voices in the name of appearances, or pretending that all conflicting interests and opinions have been reconciled. That's particularly true in government. But it ought also be true of opposition, not least when the party is battered and flattened by defeat. Labor seems genuinely at some loss about how to proceed, and is still in the grips of an organisation and history that has ruined the party's reputation with voters (something about to be confirmed in two states on Saturday). Labor's wounds need the disinfectant of open debate.

What better time, some might think, for reorganisation to ensure tight message control from the ''leader's'' office, group think, personality cults and the exercise of raw numbers to close off any debate and to freeze out any evidence? Abbott and Shorten would each be better leaders if they arrayed their forces against their enemies, not their allies.

Jack Waterford is Editor-at-Large.

jack.waterford@fairfaxmedia .com.au

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8 comments

  • Good article Jack, keep them coming.

    I think micromanagement is the norm in business and government. My organisation seems to be full of them and they are thriving.

    Agree that difference of opinions should be abled to be aired. However I think both parties are scared of the way the media treats these difference of opinions, more than anything else. The media has a habit of looking for conflict and then beating it up to be something that is way bigger than it actually is. I know from my own field this is the case in media reporting.

    Still think we need a better way for politicians to explain bigger issues so we can have a rational discussion and help people understand the complexity of the issues. Again there are no longer any easy issues nowadays. Every issue comes with winners and losers, costs and benefits. It may be hard and uncomfortable, but government will have to make decisions, some unpopular, but are scared %^&*less of the blowback delivered by media and the public who mostly have very little real understanding of the issue and complications.

    Commenter
    Neil
    Date and time
    March 12, 2014, 1:26PM
    • Tony Abbott specializes in creating situations where the hard decisions must be made - usually to the detriment of the average Australian worker.

      Commenter
      adam
      Location
      yarrawonga
      Date and time
      March 13, 2014, 6:03AM
  • Please remove all mention of Tony Abbott in the article; his leadership skills exist in the limbo of vanished possibilities.

    Commenter
    Astroboy
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    March 12, 2014, 7:17PM
    • Abbott simply follows the IPA recommendations, doesn't he? See

      http://ipa.org.au/publications/2080/be-like-gough-75-radical-ideas-to-transform-australia

      Commenter
      Juan Term
      Date and time
      March 12, 2014, 7:57PM
      • We need to remember that John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton, said, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Therefore, it is very easy for a person in power to wield it and over-stretched that power by being controlling too much over too many things and people. After all, human beings are prone to commit errors of one kind or another from time to time. If the error is serious it will bring about unintended consequences.

        Commenter
        Sui Ting
        Location
        Glen Waverley
        Date and time
        March 12, 2014, 9:40PM
        • Lots of food for thought here. I'm with Neil though - the media landscape has changed since the days when pollies could 'feed the chooks', and with them all being permanently reactive to the twitter firehose, there's less room for a debate to form in isolation from the voter reaction. But I agree - they'd all appear a lot more human and likeable if they were allowed to talk of the many and varied passions and motives that made them seek a parliamentary life in the first place.

          Commenter
          cookster
          Date and time
          March 12, 2014, 9:59PM
          • The 'democracy and control' conundrum is ever present. What the media does with polticians' differences should be ignored. Most journalists are wet behind the ears and are a danger to democracy. While we have leaders with no balls their basic insecurities will always cause democracy to be undermined. We still live with the old authoritarian mindset and even when we fight a war to defend democracy we still believe it is OK to conscript people. In every industry and political situation we allow and encourage the control freaks and bullies to reign supreme. The sad fact is that it is a sign of weakness, even at the lowest levels of society we have people whose basic insecurities prohibit them from delegating with confidence.

            Commenter
            adam
            Location
            yarrawonga
            Date and time
            March 13, 2014, 6:01AM
            • How would you like to be on a battlefield with Tony Abbott giving the orders ?
              ERR , UMM, Carbon Tax, Stop the boots ? ? ?

              Commenter
              adam
              Location
              yarrawonka
              Date and time
              March 13, 2014, 6:10AM
              Comments are now closed

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