In praise of boring politicians

Do we really want political leaders with vision? Now that it’s leadership speculation season again, every speech or media appearance by a Labor politician is seen as an audition for the leadership. Supporters are looking for someone with big ideas, passion, and a vision for our future.

As Andrew Norton notes, Kevin Rudd is turning to British conservative thinker Michael Oakeshott for ideas. Oakeshott had plenty of ideas but none of them were big or visionary. Instead, he thought that political leaders should be boring:

To some people, ‘government’ appears as a vast reservoir of powers which inspires them to dream of what use might be made of it. They have favourite projects, of various dimensions, which they sincerely believe are for the benefit of mankind, and to capture this source of power, if necessary to increase it, and to use it for imposing their favourite projects upon their fellows is what they understand as the adventure of governing men. They are, thus disposed to recognize government as an instrument of passion; the art of politics is to inflame and direct desire (p 431-432).

This was exactly the kind of politician Oakeshott abhorred. He wanted leaders who shared his conservative disposition:

The man of this disposition understands it to be the business of government not to inflame passion and give it new objects to feed upon, but to inject into the activities of already too passionate men and ingredient of moderation; to restrain, to deflate, to pacify and to reconcile; not to stoke the fires of desire, but to damp them down. And all this, not because passion is vice and moderation virtue, but because moderation is indispensable if passionate men are to escape being locked in an encounter of mutual frustration (p 432).

This is the opposite of Mark Latham’s passionate hatred of his political opponents and their policies. It is also a warning against exploiting fear and conflict during election campaigns. Too much talk about ‘us’ and ‘our values’ heightens the contrast with ‘them’ and their rejection of our values.

How Oakeshottian does Rudd want to be?

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12 Responses to In praise of boring politicians

  1. Tony.T says:

    Good to see The Age mentioned in dispatches, Don. People are always complaining that The Australian keeps giving it to Beazley, but The Age has been all over The Bomber this week.

  2. Patrick says:

    If my very cursory recollection of ideas once heard is correct, Oakeshott disliked Hayek as essentially a simplist anti-political activity activist whilst ending up endorsing a very Hayekian model of governance…

    …was some off the cuff remark of Oakeshott’s the basis for Rudd’s nearly irrational (ie with no rational basis if he had read Hayek) opinion of Hayek?

    But whilst I certainly like the idea of modesty and restraint in politics, you had better be careful – I am pretty sure that N Gruen and Fred Argy count it as one of Howard’s cardinal sins :) (of course, they argue that he has been restrained where it was not appropriate but activist and radical where it wasn’t).

  3. Not so Patrick. I like the idea of modesty in policy – though no doubt as much as some. My complaint about Howard is that he is a policy activist wherever it suits him, but has no real interest in policy. Take for instance Mark Wooden’s point about Work Choices. There are lots of people who support labour market deregulation, but to do it properly you have to reshape welfare arrangements as well. But Howard hasn’t really done that. That’s partly political timidity, but it’s also that policy doesn’t interest him much. Likewise he’s an activist on apprentices, self funded retirees and various other things – which has led to him sending cheques to all these people in the mail. Is it $800 for a ‘tool kit’? (stop that laughing up the back). It’s pretty pathetic as policy – but it’s activist.

  4. Ken Parish says:


    Howard is ostensibly a social conservative and HAS largely been inactive/restrained in that area. However, on economic policy he’s been very much an activist albeit in a hapahazard, idiosyncratic way as Nicholas observes. And on foreign affairs Howard has also been activist in an un-planned, idiosyncratic way (East Timor or x 2, Afghanistan, Iraq, Solomons, PNG, Tonga, tearing up and renegotiating treaty with Indonesia, US/Australia free trade agreement etc etc). Howard is anything but an Oakeshottian conservative (or indeed any sort of conservative except the neocon kind) on foreign policy.

    Moreover, as mentioned above he’s also not a neoliberal/small government conservative on economic policy. The size of government and the tax burden have not fallen under the Howard government, and the voluminous (and dubiously workable) Work Choices legislation is one of the most striking examples. It certainly evidences a desire to smash the trade union movement, but is anything but a model of restraint or deregulatory simplicity. At least Howard has now belatedly reversed the absurd requirement for all employees to keep time diaries irrespective of whether they were paid wholly by salary, but Work Choices remains an unwieldy and excessively complex piece of legislation. I strongly suspect that it is indeed the result of Howard having no real interest in policy, and Kevin Andrews not having a clue and therefore being snowed by bureaucrats who love nothing better than a nice complicated set of rules that allows them to empire build to their hearts’ content. Similarly with that idiot Brendan Nelson and the micromanaging bureaucratic dog’s breakfast he created for tertiary education. God knows what he’s doing to Defence as we speak.

    In all areas but social regulation, Howard is the very antithesis of a restrained conservative. But he’s much worse than the sort of passionate but principled activist Oakeshott had in mind, because his activism is motivated by lifelong malice combined with a complete lack of interest in policy detail or in re-examining any of the underlying assumptions that led to his initial passionate/malicious determination.

  5. Don Arthur says:

    Tony T – Yes, Michael Costello is particularly grumpy about the Australian’s coverage. Today he devoted his entire column to explaining why the Oz was unfair and innacurate.


    Patrick – In ‘Rationalism in Politics’ Oakeshott wrote:

    This is, perhaps, the main significance of Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom — not the cogency of his doctrine, but the fact that it is a doctrine. A plan to resist all planning may be better than its opposite, but it belongs to the same style of politics. And only in a society already deeply infected with Rationalism will the conversion of the traditional resources of resistance to the tyranny of Rationalism into a self-conscious ideology be considered a strenthening of those resources (p 26-17).


    I’ve been wondering whether Rudd’s reference to Oakeshott comes from a book on ideology by Robert Eccleshall.

  6. David Rubie says:

    Ken Parish wrote:

    [workChoices legislation] certainly evidences a desire to smash the trade union movement, but is anything but a model of restraint or deregulatory simplicity.

    In the ultimate of ironies, the dwarf of steel has managed to make trade unions safe to join again. After they had been smashed out of the dire apathy engendered by compulsory unionisation, then actively attacked by Workchoices, they started to offer services that encourage membership (and so they should).

    I wouldn’t be surprised if 2005-2006 turned out to be the turning point back up for union membership in Australia, even if people are only joining to actively combat WorkChoices. Let’s face it, they’ve been getting lots of better press lately (Bill Shorten popping up at Beaconsfield, the DIMA fiasco with 457 visas and the surprising CFMEU greenhouse policy).

  7. Don,

    I’ve read that Oakshott book a good decade or more ago, and while I found it well put, a good read, well considered etc, it did get rather repetitive. But thanks for that quote re Hayek. I think it’s great. It’s where I part with the right. I have a great respect for the writing and ideas of Hayek. I think they’re powerful ideas. But they’re just ideas – principles – and take their place with other equally powerful principles. A point I tried to make in one of my first posts at this place.

    Your Oakeshott quote makes the point well.

  8. Robert says:

    Oakeshott in the second quote must surely be referring to an entirely different political animal than Howard. That quote appears to refer to a quiet captain of the ship, steady as she goes, managerial PM. Howard is in fact a severe radical. That Howard has masked his severe agenda with the language and imagery of the person referred to in the second quote is cause for confusing him to be in that category. This mask – the fact of it – is further evidence of his extreme radicalisation of Australian politics, by using the “good honest bloke” theme in Australian life as a political tool, completely disregarding what it actually stands for.

    I find the above two quotations by Oakeshott to be valuable. But in talking about Howard, we really are talking about a one-off radical, and I seriously doubt in time we’ll see the leadership likes of him again in this country.

  9. “extreme radicalisation of Australian politics” – sounds a bit extreme to me Robert. Will we be lopping heads off soon?

  10. Robert says:

    By Australian standards, Nicholas. It has happened incrementally, much of it under the media radar, and represents an intensive systemic overhaul. Not easy to see of course, as its effects are many years off.

  11. Robert says:

    (though, yes, the word ‘extreme’ is unnecessary in respect of ‘radicalisation’. Clumsy, my apologies)

  12. Don Wigan says:

    “…or in re-examining any of the underlying assumptions that led to his initial passionate/malicious determination.”

    That is an excellent analysis of Howard, Ken. Though he can react to bushfires with quick-fix back-flips, he has, as Robert Manne noted once, almost no capacity for reflection, which means he probably feels no regret about anything he has done. Iraq, a monumental stuff-up and a humanitarian disaster? So what? We did our bit to secure the future of our country. We have seen something similar in his reflections on our Vietnam War commitment.

    When the left and the centre have tried to convince him to embrace reconciliation he has genuine problems with it. He is not just pandering to the Hansonists. He has no empathy, even though there might be votes in adapting.

    It is indeed a bit of luck that he has over-reached with his Workchoices hotch-potch. He is likely to stay with it even with political warning radar and that will be his downfall.

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