Ideas for a brighter future for all

Character: Doing the Right Thing

"In a president, character is everything. A president doesn’t have to be brilliant: Harry Truman wasn’t brilliant, and he helped save Western Europe from Stalin. He doesn’t have to be clever; you can hire clever… But you can’t buy courage and decency, you can’t rent a strong moral sense. A president must bring those things with him…"

Peggy Noonan, Ronald Reagan’s speechwriter”

Over the course of my career, I have learnt that democratic institutions I thought resilient and strong are in reality quite fragile. To a far greater extent than many realise, our system of governance depends on people – their ability and willingness to do the right thing. To perform their duties professionally, with integrity and public purpose – in accordance with longstanding traditions and conventions, often in the absence of laws or written rules. I have long been interested in public administration as a ‘craft’ and in the multi-faceted responsibilities that accrue to political leaders. We rely on them to safeguard our public institutions and political processes over the long term. And yet too often, they are failing to demonstrate leadership or ensure appropriate standards of behaviour – including and egregiously in Parliament House. An increasing number of political insiders, including some of the most senior, seem entirely focused on power, showing little understanding or concern for the long-term detriment to constitutional norms that provide the guardrails for effective governance.

Angela Merkel
Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, 2005-2021.

Character matters in all facets of our lives, but seldom is it more consequential than in politics and political leadership. Even before the rise of Donald Trump, there was a widespread consensus in American politics that presidential character was just as important as intellect, organisational and policy capacity, media and presentational skills, and a vision for the nation’s future. Respected presidential studies scholar James Pfiffner argues character is critical because no one can predict the situations that will confront a president once in office. If, like sport, politics reveals rather than builds character, it is important for citizen voters to ‘select an individual who will apply a sound set of principles and values in unexpected circumstances’.

Of course, Australians don’t choose their political leaders, their parliamentary party rooms do – as has been demonstrated by the removal of a succession of prime ministers over the past decade, beginning with Kevin Rudd in 2010 and ending – for the time being at least – with Malcolm Turnbull’s replacement by Scott Morrison in October 2018. This, and the fact that there is no equivalent of a primaries process through which a prospective candidate might be scrutinised and become better known to voters, should make attention to the character of political leaders – but also to the members of parliament and senators who ultimately choose them – even more salient in the Australian context. Instead, and particularly now, we find ourselves reaping the bitter harvest of our collective failure to care enough about the calibre of the people we choose to represent us and to be vigilant in monitoring their fidelity to the awesome privileges and responsibilities of public office.

In the before times – when a leader-centric approach was less entrenched than it is now in the era of ‘permanent campaign’, when elected representatives served longer parliamentary apprenticeships and adhered less to talking points issued by unelected partisans in leaders’ offices, and when policy was debated within and outside the parliament, including inside large, more vigorous and representative political parties and through the agency of more robust and diverse media – in those times, voters could develop a clearer sense of who leaders and senior ministers were and what they stood for. Leaders’ potential to influence and shape their advisory arrangements makes it important to also pay attention to the character in the courts of loyalists who surround them, including party strategists, and the characters of those whom they appoint to leadership and other roles across government and the public sector. Character is revealed in the culture and values that political leaders cultivate and how they treat others, as earlier essays in this series and the recent Jenkins Review into Commonwealth Parliamentary Workplaces – among so many recent analyses – make clear.

Read more at Griffith Review


Professor Anne TiernanDr Anne Tiernan is a leading Australian scholar in public policy. Her career spans higher education, federal and state government, consultancy and teaching. Now managing director of mission-led consultancy firm Constellation Impact Advisory, Anne consults regularly to organisations committed to purpose and positive impact. She has written extensively on the political–administrative interface, governmental transitions, policy capacity and executive advisory arrangements. Her publications include The Oxford Handbook of Australian Politics (co-edited with Professor Jenny Lewis, 2021), Lessons in Governing: A Profile of Prime Ministers’ Chiefs of Staff and The Gatekeepers: Lessons from Prime Ministers’ Chiefs of Staff (both with RAW Rhodes, Melbourne University Publishing, 2014), Learning to be a Minister: Heroic Expectations, Practical Realities (with Patrick Weller, Melbourne University Press, 2010) and Power Without Responsibility: Ministerial Staffers in Australian Governments from Whitlam to Howard (UNSW Press, 2007).

Dr Tiernan is a National Fellow of the Institute of Public Administration Australia and a Fellow of the Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG). An Adjunct Professor with Griffith University, and previously a member of the university’s senior leadership team.

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