With the election almost upon us, thoughts are more than ever turned to political survival. While getting pre-selected and winning elections are the initial, difficult challenges of a political career, a major ongoing one is surviving in the treacherous galaxy of politics.
As part of our study of political leadership, during 2021 we interviewed 13 politicians from across the Australian political spectrum. They included federal and state ministers, senators, federal and state members of parliament, and mayors of local government (for ethics reasons, participants are not named).
As part of this, we looked at the complex reasons a leader’s political career might end, from the perspectives of politicians themselves.
While some of our interviewees told us “good leaders don’t fail”, there are plenty of reasons – beyond the ballot box – a political career can be brought to an involuntary end.
In recent years we have seen a huge number of leaders resign or be dumped, at both the state and federal level. Some have left for family reasons, but there have also been leadership spills, corruption investigations and harrassment allegations.
But a political career can end for more other, more complex reasons. As I have previously written, politicians today are under scrutiny 24/7 by the public, members of opposing parties and the media. The pace is relentless and unforgiving. Indeed, politicians rely heavily on their staff, colleagues, and other sources of support and information to do their jobs. As one former politician told us:
Sometimes they might not have the right people around them, because you can’t do everything yourself.
Another interviewee observed how precarious the situation is:
Good leaders can be provided with the wrong information; [there are] some things that cause leaders to fail which are just plain bad luck.
Beyond bad luck or bad advice (or bad advisers), politicians also need to make their own sound judgements. Being unwilling to listen to bad news may also lead to failure in political leadership:
Some leaders I think only want to hear the good news. They don’t like to hear bad news and they don’t like dealing with issues. They see leadership is more as a badge of honour, rather than a responsibility.
All about timing
One of the major criticisms of politicians today is not having the foresight to deal with emerging issues, such as climate change. But is this a symptom of what has come before?
While having a vision is essential to be an effective leader, sometimes being ahead of the political times can be disastrous. Former prime ministers who tried to enact policies on climate change may agree. As one interviewee observed: