To paraphrase Julia Gillard in her farewell press conference, the three categories of ‘maddy’, ‘straight’ and ‘fixer’ do not explain everything about political leaders, but nor do they explain nothing.
As the previous column said, we’re indebted to the British politician Tony Benn for getting an immense amount of truth into one dazzling sentence: ‘All political leaders, irrespective of party, political system, country or period in history, come in one of three categories—straight men, fixers and maddies.’ This model helps us reach towards the truth Walter Lippmann uttered long ago: the supreme qualification for high office is temperament, not intellect. Accepting Lippmann’s assessment, the question becomes what we can know of a leader’s temperament and how that will drive his or her judgement and performance?
The character of leaders is fundamental to any thinking about strategy and strategic choices; no Napoleonic era without Napoleon, no Cold War without Stalin, and probably no containment strategy without Truman. Benn offers a simple but useful tool for thinking about how leaders do what they do.
The maddies push for change and newness, often blowing up what stands in front of them, and they change history. The fixers are the artists of the deals and bargains that are the lifeblood of politics from a dictatorship to a democracy. The Straights are incrementalists whose drives are more firmly grounded and framed than the other two categories, although the frame can be a set of understandings about power as much as any set of moral principles.
This column will assign Julia Gillard, Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott their categories in the Benn template: Julia is a fixer, Rudd is a straight despite his own party’s attempt to paint him as a maddy, and Tony is, ultimately, a fixer with some of the mannerisms of a maddy. If that’s correct, then this view of his temperament adds further to his chances of winning the federal election. In politics, the fixers win more often than the other two categories.
In a democracy, the great fixers must add a touch of popular magic to their mastery of the machinery. And in the magic department, Julia Gillard couldn’t pull much out of the hat. She prospered in the internal politics of the Labor Party and within the Parliament because her talents as a fixer were of the highest order. Gillard was one of the finest players in a milieu where winning is about doing the deals and sealing the bargains. Her performance in constructing a minority government and then driving it full term was the sustained performance of a virtuoso.
Her problem was that she couldn’t translate her undoubted talents as a political fixer into a broader belief among the voters that she could fix their problems. The Labor model for this is Bob Hawke, one of the great fixers of Australian political history. Gillard ‘fixed’ Kevin Rudd in the lightning coup of 2010, but was never able to convince the voters to get a positive ‘fix’ on her.
In restoring Kevin Rudd to the Prime Ministership, the Labor Party has had to accept the judgement of the voters, continually expressed through the opinion polls. Labor saw Rudd as a maddy while the voters think he’s a straight. The voters’ view has prevailed.
The word ‘dysfunctional’ was applied to Rudd Mark I as much by the public service as by Labor. But that Canberra perspective hasn’t prevailed. The Mark II version has returned because he didn’t blow up while blowing away like a failed maddy. Instead, Rudd showed the steel of a straight man. Like another of Australia’s great straights, Robert Menzies, Rudd’s willed himself to a second go at the top job. All successful politicians have huge reserves of self belief—the line between supreme confidence and various forms of mania can be hazy at the peak. All those qualities, and some of the contradictions, are what make Rudd such a straight to be reckoned with.
Rudd’s determination to return ended Gillard’s political career and shredded the career of many of Labor’s elite in federal parliament; the numbers leaving as Rudd returned testified to the bitterness of the worst leadership schism in Labor since the Split in 1955. To achieve resurrection, Rudd has decimated Labor’s leadership pool; his task now is to see that the voters don’t finish the job.
The Labor Party failed to prove to the electorate that Rudd was a maddy. Now Labor’s new task is to convince the voters that Tony Abbott is a maddy. The problem with this strategy is that Abbott is actually a classic fixer with some strong maddy habits of mind. This tension in the Abbot persona puzzles his own party as much as it tantalises Labor; hence Peter Costello’s barb that Abbott is set to become Australia’s first DLP Prime Minister.
It’s hard to get an ideological fix on a man who pledges allegiance both to Santamaria and John Howard. And certainly, with Abbott, there are plenty of contradictions to consider, as Waleed Aly lays out:
Abbott cannot be both a shameless populist and a man of unshakeable retrograde convictions. He can’t be driven to say anything to get elected, while also insistently inflicting his unpopular religious views on the electorate. This is the conundrum of Tony Abbott to many of his critics (and not a few of his supporters).
Aly argues that the urge to dismiss Abbott underestimates him completely, both as a politician and as a thinker. Not the least of the failure of imagination is the belief that Abbott would allow ideology get in the way of winning. Good fixers don’t work like that. And Abbott’s political career has been that of a fixer—as a journalist, then as a minder and as MP and Minister.
The journalist history is on display in Abbott’s command of one liners and his ability to sprout a snappy headline for the cameras. In the presidential age, these are essential skills and they reflect Abbott’s media grounding as writer and minder. Labor is in for a deep disappointment if it thinks Abbott will stand still while Rudd paints him as a conservative maddy. Fixers don’t stand still for much at all, and certainly not for their opponents. Abbott has been following a classic low profile and small target strategy while watching the war between Rudd and Gillard tear the Labor government to shreds. Now Rudd has triumphed, Abbott will have to do far more to define and explain himself. They are the sort of skills fixers always bring to the fight. Australia’s federal election will be a showdown between a great straight and a formidable fixer.
Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of Royal Australian Navy.