Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 28, 2021

Adelaide Writers Week: Whither Australian Leadership? Katharine Murphy and Laura Tingle, with Sharon Davis

Whither Australian Leadership?

This was the festival description of the event:

Two of our most incisive political analysts examine the state of leadership in Australia. Drawing on their recent Quarterly Essays, Laura Tingle (Follow the Leader – Democracy and the Rise of the Strongman QE71 and The High Road: What Australia Can Learn from New Zealand QE80) and Katharine Murphy (The End of Certainty: Scott Morrison and Pandemic Politics QE79) explore whether #scottyfrommarketing offers more than photo opportunities, if Albo missed his moment, and what we want and should demand from those who would lead us.

Both Murphy and Tingle are familiar faces as high profile political journalists, and I’ve reviewed their writing in the journals that I subscribe to (Australian Foreign Affairs and Quarterly Essay).

The session began with a discussion about the current crisis currently besetting the government and how the leadership is dealing with it.  These alleged rapes are extremely difficult issue to discuss because the complainant against a serving minister has taken her own life… we do not know for sure that a crime occurred but we do know that a death occurred.  An inquest will investigate what might have been the catalyst for that death and the circumstances in which her allegations were made.  The best thing, they all agreed, would be for that person to admit to what was done, because every male minister is under suspicion and the matter is paralysing the government.

The other issue that arises from this is the need to reform the employment status of political staffers.  Except in micro and family businesses, employees in Australian workplaces have guaranteed rights to make complaints when things go wrong and there is a process to follow.  But politicians want to maintain the current system where political staffers do not have any rights to protect them against bullying, unfair dismissal, sexual harassment and discrimination and so on.  This tends to affect women more than men, and they are especially vulnerable when they’re trying to network because they do need to be out and about socialising.  Someone needs to take a leadership role in this.

It was good BTW to hear both Murphy and Tingle say that they have never had any trouble themselves but that they should use their platforms to talk about people who don’t have the rights that they do.

It was generally agreed #Understatement that Morrison had handled the matter ham-fistedly.  He can change the culture, and he should change the culture.  But he pitches his discourse to men, not women—an interesting feature of his persona because it’s thought that it’s women who change the course of elections, not men.


The conversation moved on to Morrison’s leadership in general.  Katharine Murphy says he’s grimly fascinating because he constantly shape-shifts, just when you think you’re going to nail him.  (Utterly unlike Trump) Morrison is like an outline in a colouring book… a clear dark line to define him but he leaves it free for you to fill him in, in the colours you choose.    But he can’t keep doing it forever, a politician can’t outrun his record or continue to tweak his persona indefinitely.  Laura examined what makes a leader in her QE. Leaders usually guide us through change, whereas with Covid they’re having to try to keep everything the same.  But whatever the aim, leaders must be able to bring people along, to read the crowd, and must have the skills to articulate why something is a good idea and make people want to follow it.

Political discourse is usually not about policy, it’s been about the two leaders, but national cabinet changed all that because there are multiple leaders with equal powers upfront and contesting the space.  (Much of this was discussed in the ‘The End of Certainty’ (Quarterly Essay #79) so I won’t repeat it here.)

What I really liked about this session was seeing these two journalists being so relaxed and open.  Usually we see a performance, in some manifestation of a current affairs show, but this was a conversation… guided by good questioning, but still a conversation and not constrained by media rules which limit what can be said and how.

The other thing I liked was that they reminded us that the Morrison government is an old government now (it doesn’t look like it because they’ve had three leaders) and that might mean its time is up.  But at the end of the day, we have to be aware that most people are not even remotely interested in politics and are more likely to vote for someone they just like the look of.

This session was so interesting, I listened to it twice to make sure I didn’t miss anything.


  1. We’ve been too busy watching Trump, but the Liberals, like the Republicans, are only pretending to have any policy other than directing our money to their donors; and politics, run as it is on both sides by public school boys, is now entirely about point scoring.


    • Well, we’ll have to see what comes of this week…


  2. Thanks for this review, Lisa. I didn’t sign on for this session because I am so appalled by our current political state of affairs. It sounds as though I should try to log in retrospectively.


    • I hear you! I go through phases of just not wanting to know.


  3. Thanks for all these posts on the various online sessions – they’ve all made fascinating reading! :D


    • Thanks, I like to share them: not everyone, even here in Australia can get to these events, and while of course it’s nothing like hearing the authors speak for themselves, it’s still good to hear about a bit of it.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I confess to being guilty to blocking out much of this on the news due to sheer fatigue that this kind of thing keeps happening to women – I admit this to my shame as I know I should be paying more attention. The conversation sounds fascinating Lisa. I must but a reserve on this Quarterly Essay at my library. Laura Tingle is always worth reading.


    • Yes, though she’s not exactly unbiased, as we saw in her reporting of the last election when she was convinced that Shorten was going to win. I yearn for the old days when it wasn’t so easy to tell which side of politics journalists were on.


  5. On Sun, 28 Feb 2021, 7:01 pm ANZ LitLovers LitBlog, wrote:

    > Lisa Hill posted: “Whither Australian Leadership? This was the festival > description of the event: Two of our most incisive political analysts > examine the state of leadership in Australia. Drawing on their recent > Quarterly Essays, Laura Tingle (Follow the Leader – Democr” >


  6. Thanks for this Lisa … because I was going to be on the road I didn’t book for any of these events which is a shame. It sounds like a thoughtful discussion, which you’d hope to have from these two. I’ve seen Murphy in person before, but not Tingle.


    • It’s a real pleasure to be able to access these festivals…I hope that making digital versions available will continue to be a feature of litfests in the future.

      Liked by 1 person

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