THE 20th anniversary of the Port Arthur massacre this month invites assessment of leadership in Australia and leadership in general.
The response by Prime Minister John Howard, who had been in office for less than two months, was one of the best displays of leadership in Australia since World War II.
He put into effect strict gun-control laws. These banned automatic and semi-automatic weapons; mandated licences; instigated the gun-buyback scheme; and regulated gun storage.
You could say that the horror of 35 murders and large popular support made the task easy. Not so. The US has any amount of gun horror and popular support for gun control, but nothing happens.
Howard’s action displayed leadership because he overcame vociferous opposition from many in his own party and almost all members of his Coalition partner.
When opposition to your plan is mainly from your own side it takes more courage.
Howard’s plan looked as if it would cost a lot of votes because many gun-owners regard gun-owning as so important that it overrides almost everything else when it comes to voting.
And there were several other leadership qualities about his action.
The buy-back scheme was a world-first. Gun-control laws on their own do not take guns out of circulation.
Further, the actions were in the national interest.
It was also made harder because Howard was new to office and therefore feeling his way. He had every reason to be cautious.
It was also further contrary to his side’s view of the world because gun-control (other than imports) was by and large a state matter and Howard’s party was the states’ rights party and the party of less government interference in people’s lives.
Essentially, Howard’s leadership was in seeing what was the right thing to do and being prepared to stand up to strong interests on his own side of politics to do it.
And the proof of it came over the next 20 years. In the 10 years before Port Arthur there was a multiple firearm homicide (three or more killed) every year. Since then, there have been none.
Overall, firearm homicides have steadily fallen from 98 in 1996 to 25 in 2014. And firearm suicides have also fallen dramatically.
Howard’s gun-control action rates very highly on the good-leadership test.
Others will have a different post-war “Australian good leadership” list, but here is mine for what it is worth.
+ Ben Chifley starting the Snowy Mountains Scheme.
+ Bob Menzies’ determination to build Canberra.
+ Metrication (Menzies, Harold Holt and John Gorton), starting with decimal currency in 1966.
+ Holt’s 1967 referendum on Indigenous people.
+ Henry Bolte’s 1970 introduction of compulsory wearing of seat-belts.
+ Gough Whitlam’s 1974 universal health scheme.
+ The Hawke-Keating financial deregulation: floating the dollar, giving control over interest rates to the Reserve Bank (formalised later by Peter Costello), and removing unnecessary regulation from the banks.
+ Howard’s 1996 gun laws as mentioned.
+ The 2000 Howard-Costello GST.
+ Julia Gillard’s National Disability Insurance Scheme.
There are many reasons for these choices.
The importance of the Snowy Mountains Scheme has only increased as the nation faces climate change and a greater need for clean power and inland water.
Menzies faced huge opposition within his own government and popular apathy verging on opposition against spending money on Canberra. But it was an important nation-building project.
Metrication seems obvious now, but the US, Canada and Britain have either not done it or made a hash of it. New Zealand basically followed Australia.
The 1967 referendum had unforeseen consequences, but Holt’s heart was in the right place and it did move the Indigenous cause along.
Victoria’s seat-belt laws were a world-first. They faced vigorous opposition. They were clearly in the public interest. Others followed.
Universal health care faced massive opposition. True, other countries had already done it, but in different – less individualistic – cultures.
Financial deregulation had a high degree of difficulty for a Labor Government. The leadership came from Paul Keating’s determination to educate his own side which had had a long history of support for heavy government control in the economy.
With the GST the leadership came not because of the GST on its own. It includes the tidying up of a lot of other messy taxes and the willingness to compromise and get most of the change through rather than none of it. There has been no sustained leadership on tax in the 16 years since.
It might be too early to include the Disability Insurance Scheme, but the hallmark of leadership was in doing the right thing by people who have little or no effective voice even though there were few votes in it.
Overall, good leadership is very difficult in a liberal democracy, as Australia has seen in the past decade or so. A liberal democracy is a balancing act between maintaining the strength to hold together a nation state on one hand and the requirement to respect the rule of law and for a government to be accountable to its people.
These political things are often in conflict with human nature and the way humans have evolved. We favour our kin and those we know over outsiders, making equality before the law and the fight against corruption that much harder. We are extremely cautious and opposed to the risk of change, making reform more difficult. We have a natural inclination towards group thinking because banding together and belonging helped with survival. That makes it harder for new better ways to get accepted.
Our evolution has generated a survival instinct, which is so strong that it exerts its force even when food, shelter and physical security are assured. It means political leaders put their own survival first, again making it harder for risky change to be suggested.
For a decade or so after the collapse of communism in Europe it looked like the demand for liberal democracy as the political system of choice was unstoppable.
But it increasingly looks like political institutions take decades or centuries to build in a way that counteracts the human evolutionary forces.
Liberal democracy cannot be plucked from the shelf in an Arab Spring. And even when you have got it, and it appears robust, there is no guarantee that good leadership will emerge regularly from within it.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and Fairfax Media on 16 April 2016.