Public service stalwart laments political leadership in face of Australia’s COVID-19 crisis

By Melissa Coade

Friday June 18, 2021

How Australia’s political leadership slipped back into its pattern of appearing to fix things or ‘dilly dallying around’ is a mystery. (Adobe/francis sabien/EyeEm)

Australia’s early response to the COVID-19 pandemic was all about going ‘hard and early’ and, with other government measures, it looked as though political leadership was capable of rising to meet the challenge of the virus head-on — but Dr Don Russell says that is slowly slipping away.

When Don Russell finished the last chapter of his book ‘Leadership’ in October 2020, he did so with a sense of hope and optimism that the pearls of wisdom he had stitched into its contents would be published at about the same time Australian federal politics was steering its way towards brighter horizons.

Dr Don Russell's book 'Leadership' was published in May.
Dr Don Russell’s book ‘Leadership’ was published in May.

For the first time in many years, the threat of COVID-19 had seemed to draw out a kind of pragmatism, vision and leadership that reminded Russell of the time of government and public service in action which he refers to as a ‘golden age’ — the Hawke-Keating years. Perhaps Australia’s leaders did have what it took to tackle the climate change crisis meaningfully and finally, he thought.

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“In the early months [of COVID-19], the problem was so enormous that the starting point of the political leadership was ‘What do we need to do to fix this problem?’ and that puts you in a situation where you’re trying to solve problems.,” Russell said.

“That’s where JobKeeper came from — when the federal government realised that they had to deal with what to do after people became unemployed. In other words, if you’ve got 20% to 30% of the workforce who are suddenly going to be unemployed tomorrow, tokenism isn’t going to work.”

Fast forward six months, in the throes of a promotional blitz for his book, and Russell is less hopeful. At so many turns in its response to various COVID-19 related fumbles, he has observed the government and politicians succumb to bipartisan potshots and populist polling over clear problem-solving and true leadership.

How Australia’s political leadership had slipped back into its pattern of appearing to fix things or ‘dilly dallying around’ is a mystery to the current chair of Australian Super and former bureaucrat who has worked at the top echelons of the federal and state public service.

“That initial response worked for the nation because we managed to negotiate what was a dreadful shock with a measure of aplomb,” Russell said.

“It was really good for the leaders too – the premiers and prime ministers. Everyone started to look at them differently, they started to see them as useful. It was good politically, and good for the country.”

“By now, you’d have to say that the early signs or the signs are not encouraging. [The politicians] do seem to have gone back to media management and trying to finesse problems rather than deal with them.”

Being a ‘pleaser’ and leading a national vaccination program

In his book, which maps out the evolving relationship between the APS and the government of the day, Russell describes two groups of politicians: pleasers and doers.

He says a combination of the 24-7 news cycle and rising value ministers place on polling has bred a new generation of politicians who are more likely to sit on the ‘pleaser’ end of the leadership spectrum, weaponise polls and impose them on others.

“There are now many who instinctively believe that politicians should take their cues from the observed views of the electorate.

“At its extreme, this belief has people testing policy options, narratives, even words through polling before political parties embrace a particular approach.”

Russell argues that being a pleaser does not always lead to the best outcomes because people’s views are often not that well defined and good policies should be.

When politicians mimic the same views as the majority in polls, he says they can often sound confused, incoherent or deceptive; they risk support for that position changing; and just because an idea is the most palatable does not automatically make it the best solution (which will hold up to scrutiny).

“This means that views that appear firmly held in polling can change materially as circumstances change and other views enter the debate.”

However, Russell adds, the shifting response to the COVID-19 public health crisis in the UK and the US (which were overrun with the virus in the early stages of the pandemic) has shown that ‘pleaser’ leaders can still be guided by a competent team of expert advisers and public servants to deliver good outcomes. Eventually.

The vaccination rate in both countries is now admirable (in America about 65% of adults have received a COVID-19 vaccine shot) and public confidence in the government has enjoyed a boost since the initial days of the pandemic response.

“In Australia wiser heads should have said ‘We’re only going to get out of this when people are vaccinated’, and then someone should have said ‘Well, what do we have to do to get everyone vaccinated?’.”

“Somehow the old political instincts returned and [the Morrison government] saw everything as a media problem, not as a problem they should try and embrace.

“It wouldn’t be beyond us to get everyone vaccinated. We should be better at it than the Americans and the Brits given our early success,” Russell said.

Dr Russell will be joining us to explore more ideas from his book at the next Mandarin Talks event on June 22. Register today.


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