Friday 23 Feb 2018 | 06:21 | SYDNEY
Friday 23 Feb 2018 | 06:21 | SYDNEY

It's about leadership, not awareness



22 March 2010 08:32

I share Sam's scepticism about 'greater public awareness', so perhaps he won't mind me pointing out that I didn't use that phrase in the post he links to. I talked about the need for stronger political leadership, which is a very different thing.

The Grim Reaper ads were about 'public awareness', because the policy challenge in 1987 was to change people's personal behaviour in an area in which compulsion was impossible, so only persuasion based on an awareness of risk could work (unlike wearing seatbelts, for example, where a combination of persuasion and compulsion can be used).

But the stuff we talk about here on The Interpreter is not like that. Foreign and defence policy are the business of the state, and what matters is not how individuals behave but what the Government does. Public awareness matters inasmuch as it shapes what those who run the government can, or are willing, to do.

But how far that shapes policy depends on the politicians. Weak politicians allow their policies to be dictated by public opinion. Political leadership changes public opinion to support good policy.

Australians have seen some great political leadership in recent decades on economic policy – think of the economic reforms of the 1980s and the GST in the 1990s. We have sometimes seen it in foreign policy too – McEwan with Japan in the 1950s, Hawke with China in the 1980s, Keating with Indonesia in the 1990s.

In each case, they urged Australians to change their deeply-held views of the world to match changing reality and support good policy. But more often our political leaders think foreign policy is more a matter of urging other countries to change to match Australians' presuppositions about the world and our place in it.

Now maybe I've spent too much of my life around politicians, but I have great faith in the ability of political leaders to change public opinion. It is not done with chilling ads, but by clear argument.

So when I say we need stronger political leadership on questions like the relationship with Indonesia, or the implications for Australia of China's growing power, or the way we plan and manage our defence, I mean something quite specific. Australian political leaders should give long and detailed speeches, packed with argument and evidence, to explain Australia's international situation and how we should respond. I guarantee the media would report it.

Photo by Flickr user lamont_cranston, used under a Creative Commons license.

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