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5 Prime Ministers in 11 years… Australia, we need to talk about leadership! …or is it followership?

Rather listen to Dr Lou - here's the link to the podcast

As I sit here, the new Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison (30th Australian Prime Minister) is slowly sorting out who is going to be in his cabinet.

For the international readers, that makes 5 Australian Prime Ministers in 11 years. Now you could be forgiven for worrying about our clearly extremely short election cycles… only the main turnover during this time hasn’t been due to democratic processes… no… it’

s been down to the party in power ditching their leader and inserting a new one.

That’s right, the leader who was voted in, yes by the people of Australia, is ditched out by their own party. (You can do that in Australia because we have the Westminster system of governance)

Why do they oust them…? Well… the strategic goals of a governing party in the Westminster system are to retain power, to be voted back in to government.

So they did it for that reason yes?

No… they didn’t. (GASP!)

The last one to be ditched, Malcolm Turnbull (29th Prime Minister), described this as sheer madness, and I think he has a point, at least in his case. He was polling above the opposition party’s leader, as preferred leader of Australia. Quite a bit above actually.

The person who replace him, Scott Morrison, polls much lower than the opposition party’s leader, as preferred leader of Australia.

It’s okay, you don’t need your ears or eyes checked, I did say LOWER.

So, either the party currently in power are now actively trying to lose the next election…

Or… they are really stupid people…

Or… they really hated Malcolm…

Or… there is some other hidden agenda here, possibly related to the fact that Malcolm was unable to lead in his own way, because his party has issues with following a leader.

(Possibly related to a certain energy policy… and his party’s traditional base …think white – Anglo – traditional – conservative – anti new energy technology… are now voting for another party…no, no that would not be it… ha! What am I thinking!)

No! No political party in Australia has problems with followership!

Malcolm turned himself and his policies inside out to get the love of his followers IN his party… and failed. So you have to ask, what more could he have done?

Let’s compare this event to the ousting events of the other characters in this mix of 5 Prime Ministers to really understand it…

In descending chronological order because… well it does seem rather fitting.

Firstly, let’s take Tony Abbott (28th Prime Minister) , the one before Malcolm. He was ousted because his polling was low and getting lower. This means that the decision to replace him with someone who polled as a more popular leader was actually pretty sensible if your plan is to stay in Government. So even if you loved Tones, it was at least understandable from a strategic goals standpoint.

All good then, democratic Westminster traditions met here.

Then there was Kevin Rudd (26th Prime Minister, this guy got a couple of goes with Julia Gillard in the between part), before Tony Abbott. Kevin was ousted the first time because he was unable to run government, and the second time because he lost the election to Tony Abbott (so this bit was very democratic, will of the people stuff, all good then for the second part).

The first ousting of Kevin Rudd deserves some further discussion because some people take it as Julia Gillard stabbing him in the back to just take power for herself. However, he too was polling badly. Yes… but just once. Yes, I did say that. Just once. He was a popular leader with the people, but he was hell to work with and Australia was slowly grinding to a halt with him as the leader. He also openly admitted to struggling with the job on an episode of insiders (pollie TV in Australia) on the ABC. Kevin reduced his cabinet to a number he could deal with and then just let his deputy (Julia Gillard) handle most of it anyway, at the end she was handling it all.

Kevin was a man of extremes really, he did some amazing things (such as the Apology to the Indigenous People of Australia) and then did nothing. He really suffered from a lack of resilience.

So Kevin’s ousting was really all about trying to win the next election too, as who votes for a buggered government? So again, all on strategy, all good. Not pleasant, but it fits what had to be done to stay in government and allow Kevin the time he clearly needed to improve his head.

Now let’s talk about Julia Gillard (27th Prime Minister).

Julia is, rather obviously, the only woman in this bunch, and Australia’s first female Prime Minister.

The FIRST! It’s 2018 people! Anyways…

Some believe, me included, that Julia then did the honourable thing by the Australian people by calling an election ASAP, just 24 days after she became PM. She seemed to know both that she had the momentum, popular support for her party, and she didn’t have the right to govern officially yet. That could only be bestowed by the people in a democracy.

So this fits democracy and was good strategy for staying in government.

She then won the election, only just, with the help of alliances that would eventually be her undoing. But hey! We all make mistakes.

Julia was also the most successful PM we’ve ever had. She got through more legislation in a hung parliament than any Prime Minister before her (whether they had a hung parliament or not). She got 1 act passed around every 2 days.

So she had total competence in the roll.

In comparison, Kevin Rudd was only mediocre at that particular competence, he got an act passed around about every 3 days which would be a significant difference.

Tony Abbott’s competence is lower than Kevin’s by the way.

See the data here:

I’ll update this once the analysis for Malcolm has been done…

Julia Gillard did make some key mistakes that made her unlikely to win the next election, but replacing her with the less competent Kevin Rudd….

What did Malcolm say…? Sheer madness.


There was good strategic reason to oust everybody on this list aside from… Malcolm Turnbull.

And probably the worst choices for replacement were: Kevin Rudd (mark II) and Scott Morrison.

So what does this tell us about Australian Prime Ministerial leadership?

1. Selection issues

Clearly there needs to be some thought about competence and popularity before you put someone in the PM role. They need to either have demonstrated they can negotiate like Lucifer himself (think Julia here and all that legislative throughput) or they need to poll well regardless of the difficulties they have faced as a minister or a PM (think Malcolm).

2. Followership issues

It would easier here to say “leadership issues” (and I’m sure many will do that in months to come) and then talk about how you have to keep your followers on your side and all the rest of that text book Harvard Business Review leadership bollocks advice.

But let’s face it, Malcolm turned himself inside out to do that, so clearly no, that’s not the answer.

That’s right, nothing to do with leadership issues…

No, the real problem is followership.

Malcolm’s political party chose him, and If you choose your leader based on competence, and popularity (good selection criteria!) and then… you choose NOT to hand over your time, interest and effort to that leader… to ensure you win and keep winning government (remember those strategic goals).

You’re a bad follower.

And if you’re a bad follower… only a fool will try to lead you.

You can’t have good leaders without good followers… it’s an interesting problem isn’t it, a kind of pact, you lead and I will follow on xy conditions.

So few people have explored what followership looks like in Australia, and there are some complexities. We don’t like tall poppies, but we know we need leaders. We like down to earth leaders, people you can have a beer with, but it doesn’t give them much license to tell us what to do. We want a vision, but we’re suspicious of why it was chosen, we also don’t want to be too uncomfortable to get there.

One thing is for sure… if your own party can’t role model what a good follower looks like… don’t expect the Australian people to do it for them. Expect the Australian people to see you as the tall poppy you clearly are…

What were those governing party strategic goals again?

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