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Political Leaders, Policy, Personality, And Party Politics

In recent months, whilst Australian politics was wrangling with a leadership spill that never existed, the world saw the death of two extremely prolific political leaders. Major media sources fell over themselves in the race to report the death of Margaret Thatcher, the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, whilst comparatively; the media met the news that President of Venezuela Hugo Chávez had succumbed to cancer with virtual apathy. Two leaders, so diametrically opposed in their politics and philosophy, yet so similar in not only their dramatic impact on their nations, but also in their notability as personalities.

For those uninitiated in the history and nuance of world politics, perhaps it’s best to reflect on the lives and legacies of these two late leaders.

Margaret Thatcher

Vast accounts on Margaret Thatcher and her legacy have of course, by this point, already been written and dissected by every major news source on the planet. The general consensus – that she was a woman who polarised the United Kingdom – almost seems undeniably understated. A conservative neo-liberal who was elected as Prime Minister in 1979 and inherited a discontented nation wallowing in recession, Thatcher attacked British society with the ferocity and brute force of a steamroller.

Her Premiership saw mass privatisation of British industrial assets, rampant free marketeering, significant attacks on trade unionism and the working class, and a shady stance in foreign affairs, including refusing to impose sanctions on Apartheid South Africa, and even at one stage, support for the Khmer Rouge. From middle-class anonymity, to fortuitously securing an Oxford University scholarship, Thatcher’s steel will saw her ascend to the upper echelons of the British class hierarchy.

Upon the news of her death, the University of Melbourne Student Union’s (UMSU) Student Council almost immediately passed a motion to “celebrate her death unreservedly”. The fact that she has had the ability to inspire such vitriol, particularly from students who were not even alive to see her reign as leader, speaks volumes of her notoriety. “Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead”, the popular musical standard from The Wizard Of Oz, raced to the #1 position on the UK Singles Chart. Celebrations were held, not only within the UK, but also across the globe. Yet still, tens of thousands of Britons lined the streets for Thatcher’s state funeral procession.

Hugo Chávez

Hailing from a relatively poor background, Hugo Chávez sought a good portion of his education through the military, and eventually formulated his own brand of socialism based on Bolivarianism, labeled Chavismo. Placing heavy emphasis on social justice, education, a sense of harmony between the military and regular civilians, as well as balancing a strong sense of national sovereignty whilst encouraging Latin American unity, Chávez raised the nation to a level of prosperity never before seen in Venezuela. During just a ten-year portion of his reign, the poverty rate in Venezuela fell from 48.6% to just 29.5%.

Yet for all his achievements, Chávez’s failings cannot be ignored. Under his tenure, press freedom in Venezuela was ranked as some of the worst endured in the world. Whilst human rights were a fundamental focus in the constitution Chávez saw to introduce and uphold, a report released by the Organization of American States in 2010 expressed considerable concerns about – amongst other aspects of Venezuelan life – freedom of expression, threats to democracy, an erosion of separation of powers, authoritarianism and human rights abuses.

For Chávez, maintaining a positive image of himself in the eyes of his citizens and cultivating his celebrity was a primary focus in his life as political leader. Particularly in the early years of his leadership, Chávez was keen to sell his personality as well as his politics, hosting weekly radio and TV shows in which he not only revealed and explained his policies, but also spoke with citizens, and even told jokes and sung songs. This, along with some particularly creative and provocative barbs directed at his enemies, mainly in the U.S., helped endear him to a nation. He too, despite his failings, was mourned by a nation.

Yet in all the architecture that is applied in the construction of the public persona of any political leader, whether truthful or fabricated, whether an image of strength or one of affability, there is one simple factor that is often left well forgotten. There is an inescapable truth that a staff of likeminded and supportive individuals is required to stand behind any Governmental leader, each supporter with their own input and their own agenda.

In Venezuelan politics, the primary example of a likeminded off-sider is the recently appointed President Nicolás Maduro, once recognised as the “most capable administrator and politician of Chávez’s inner circle”. So aligned with his policies and principles, Chávez himself called upon the Venezuelan people to install Maduro as his successor in the event that he lose his battle with cancer.

Conversely for Thatcher, it was the loss of a party ally that ultimately proved to be her undoing. Geoffrey Howe, Thatcher’s Deputy Prime Minister and the last remaining member of the first cabinet she established in 1979, tended his resignation, and began a domino effect which saw Thatcher demoted to warming the back bench of Parliament within the space of just two weeks.

As Thatcher learnt during those weeks in November 1990, no one leader acts alone. Adolf Hitler is frequently cited as one of history’s greatest monsters, and rather aptly. But even in such a prominently documented example of political power as the Third Reich, the impact and influences of the likes of Goebbels, Göring, and Himmler are often forgotten in general discussion. Currently, in the United States, Barack Obama has enjoyed the active engagement of many cabinet members, most notably former Presidential hopefuls John Kerry and Hilary Clinton. In Russia, an unusual power-sharing arrangement labeled a ‘tandemocracy’ has been loosely formed between Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, describing how the two alternate between the Russian Presidency and Prime Ministership with the support of their conservative ‘United Russia’ party. Even Kim Jong-Un, perhaps currently the world’s most fashionable despot, has a large number of deputies and consultants, many of their services inherited from his father, former leader Kim Jong-Il. Whilst political leaders hold varying degrees of power over the policies they put forward or enforce, politics is inescapably a team effort.

Of course, Australian politics is no different, yet we have a habit of forgetting the input of those that stand behind our leaders. Take for example the competing National Broadband plans currently being debated. The plans have been primarily engineered by Stephen Conroy and Malcolm Turnbull and their staff as part of their roles as Communications Minister and Shadow Communications Minister respectively, and adopted by their parties as policy. Yet almost without fail, when something we find reprehensible is discussed as policy, it’s “Bloody Juliar” or “Fucking Abbott” who still bear the brunt of our derision.

One needs to wonder: if the recent Labor leadership spill had gone to Simon Crean’s plan and seen Kevin Rudd resume the role of Prime Minister, would attaching a different, more popular face to what would inevitably be the same policies have really been any more than a band-aid solution for an increasingly unpopular party leading into an election? Are we this shallow? Are we, as Australian citizens, really so superficial in our political engagement that we are willing to vote against a Prime Minister because we don’t like the sound of her voice? We chuckle at images of Tony Abbott in his speedos, but do those budgie smugglers truly have any relevance in his aptitude as a potential Prime Minister? Are Julia Gillard’s new glasses really front page news? Even Bob Katter, with his complete inability to verbally articulate anything other than garbled nonsense, has the ability to form, support and even direct intelligible political policy.

I, for one, will not be joining those metaphorically dancing on the grave of Margaret Thatcher – yet I will not judge those who choose to. I will neither mourn, nor celebrate the deaths of Thatcher or Chávez – yet this is not primarily due to a reverence for the recently deceased. Instead, it derives from the realisation that these people, whilst wielding power, are simply figureheads of a larger regime. In the purest sense, they are largely symbols of political ideology.

Legacies have already been transcribed into the tomes of history. Lessons – we hope – have already been learnt. Pain and bitterness borne from injustices lingers, but aside from providing a moment of catharsis and closure, moments such as the deaths of Thatcher and Chávez often produce no tangible change. But there is a lesson to be taken from this. Without the considerable support of a group of peers, such as a political party, or a military junta, or an autocrat’s cabinet, politicians and political leaders have no course to assume power. And without power, they are just idealists, philosophers and daydreamers, sitting at home, yelling at the TV.

When the Federal election rolls around on September 14, which will be the first opportunity to vote for many Lot’s Wife readers, remember to inform yourself and vote for policy, not personality. Unlike your voting slip for the Logies, your vote can actually change lives. If we ever reach a point where Joel Madden is elected to Australian Parliament, then we have all made a grievous, horrible error.

Bren Carruthers

The author Bren Carruthers

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