How to Pick an Opposition Leader - Michael Knight
01 July, 2021

How to Pick an Opposition Leader - Michael Knight

The Rock Stars, the Relentless and how Popularity is Overrated

Leading the main opposition political party in any parliament in Australia is a temporary job, not a career. It either ends in becoming  the Leader of a Government; or it ends in tears. Many lose the leadership after their party fails to win a general election. 

Some don’t even last until a general election defeat. Almost every Leader of the Opposition has periods where their colleagues, and the media, speculate on whether he, or she, is the right person to lead their party to victory. Sometimes that talk crystallises into a formal challenge.

Earlier this year Anthony Albanese, Labor’s Federal Leader, was the subject of intense media speculation that he will be replaced before the next election. Aspirants were trailing their coats, though no formal challenge has emerged, and looks increasingly unlikely. In Victoria, the State Liberal Leader, Michael O’Brien, is under siege.  Those who covet the position have not been shy about briefing the media on what they see as O’Brien’s failings. O’Brien survived a formal challenge by Brad Battin on 16 March. Battin was a surprise challenger and the numerical victory seemed comfortable: 22 votes to 9. However, O’Brien’s more serious possible challengers, and their supporters, voted for O’Brien.  It was not a ringing endorsement of O’Brien. Instead it was the preservation of their “right to challenge another day”.

In NSW, Labor Leader Jodi McKay for months appeared to be holding on by a thread – which snapped following a very poor result in the Upper Hunter by-election on 22 May. Her successor, Chris Minns, has made a good start. He might lead NSW Labor to victory, possibly in 2023, perhaps in 2027.

But, whether or not Chris Minns becomes Premier, it’s a safe bet that at some point while he is leading the Opposition there will be media speculation that he 

should, or will, be replaced.

MinnsWhenever surveys of public opinion fail to show that an Opposition Leader is almost certain to win the next election, then both the media and some of their own parliamentary colleagues will start agitating for change.

Whenever there is talk of replacing an Opposition Leader, the focus is usually on the perceived personal popularity of the contenders. I believe this is a superficial approach which fundamentally misunderstands the nature of political Leadership in the Australian electoral context. Generally, media pundits (and some MPs) want to pick Rock Stars.  But those often turn out to be shooting stars, who burn brightly for a short while in the glow of media, public,  or party adulation.  But they seldom win elections, and definitely don’t win consecutive elections.

At the outset we should acknowledge just how complex Leadership of a major political party can be, especially in Opposition. I will use a Rugby League analogy to illustrate this, but you could do the same with any professional sports team, female or male. Last year the NRL Premiership was won by the Melbourne Storm. Their coach was Craig Bellamy, Cameron Smith was their captain, and Ryan Papenhuyzen was their star player in the Grand Final. In the AFL their equivalents were Richmond’s Damien Hardwick, Trent Cochin, and Dustin Martin. Three big jobs; three huge talents. 

But in a parliamentary party, especially in Opposition, those three jobs have to be done by the one person. The Leader has to be the star player – the best at confronting the Government in Question Time, the best at pushing the Opposition’s agenda in the media and on the stump, and the best at relating to potential voters. 

The Leader also has to be the captain of the team, the person who manages the day to day tactics, decides what issues to “run on” each day, which team members should get their hands on the ball (a speech, a question in Parliament, a media appearance, a visit to a region etc), what percentage of the time to spend trying to disrupt the other team (the Government) and what percentage to spend trying to advance the Opposition’s own policy agenda. The Leader is also responsible for keeping up team morale when things are not going well. This role of “team captain” requires intelligence, toughness, vision, and interpersonal skills. And it’s made even harder because there are always some members of the team who only want to play their best if they, or someone they are close to, gets to be the captain instead.

To cap it all off, the Leader has to also take on the coaching responsibilities – to pick the team, that is, select the Shadow Cabinet and the Shadow Parliamentary secretaries; and hire the support staff. (The way the NSW parliamentary staff budget works is that the Leader gets a lump sum to hire the staff, in her or his office, to support not only the Leader but all of the Shadow Ministers). The Leader also has to drop players who aren’t performing and wear the odium for that. Above all,  they must devise a Game Plan for how to win the next election. And, like any good sporting coach, the Opposition Leader has to work closely with the Club’s management – the Party office - to have a common vision for the Party, its mission, policy agenda, and the role of its members, stakeholders, and supporters. They also have to work co-operatively to recruit the next generation of talent into the parliamentary team. 

Not surprisingly, many Opposition Leaders struggle to fulfil this range of roles. Regrettably, some fail in all three of them. The way in which these roles mesh is crucial. The voting public and the media are used to seeing the Opposition Leader as their party’s main salesperson. What they usually see much less of is the role the Leader must take in the even more important task of developing the product.

Significantly, it is those Opposition Leaders who master all 3 of the main roles – star player, captain, coach – who go on to have the most electorally successful careers. John Howard (Federal) and Bob Carr (NSW) are two classic examples. Yet, neither of these Leaders initially fitted the media architype of what an ideal Opposition Leader should look like. They were not deemed to be “charismatic” or widely regarded as especially good looking. Above all, they were not “popular” to start with.

But they both had characteristics which I believe are far more important for successful political Leadership: high intelligence, a strategic mind, resilience, and political judgement.

Popularity, as measured in opinion polls, is a risky basis for predicting whether a Leader will win a future election. There are cases of Opposition Leaders who trailed badly in the polls but who went on to win multiple elections. Again, John Howard, Federally, and Bob Carr in NSW, are two who polled poorly but became long term Leaders of Governments. 

During his first period as Opposition Leader, the Bulletin magazine, on 20 December 1988,  carried a photo of Howard on its front page with the savage headline: “Mr 18%. Why on earth does this man bother?” Inside there was a Roy Morgan poll showing Howard’s preferred Prime Minister rating at 18%, compared to Bob Hawke’s 69%. Howard never got to find out if he could win the 1990 Federal election. He was ousted by Andrew Peacock in May 1989. In March the next year Labor narrowly won re-election (with only 49.9% of the two party preferred vote). The handsome, charismatic  and “television friendly” Andrew Peacock never fulfilled his long talked of “destiny” to become Prime Minister. Yet  the nerdy John Howard, in very different circumstances, won the Prime Ministership from Paul Keating in March 1996. Howard held it until November 2007. He served the second longest time of any Australian Prime Minister, only surpassed by Bob Menzies.

There is obviously a symbiotic relationship between how well a Government is perceived to be performing and the standing of the Opposition Leader. The higher the figure for the incumbent as preferred Prime Minister or Premier, the lower the figure for any Opposition Leader must be. When Bob Hawke was at his zenith, Howard’s rating as an alternative had to be low, whether he was any good or not. Similarly, in the leadup to the 1996 election, when Paul Keating’s Government was on the slide, Howard’s preferred Prime Minister rating was much better than it was previously. 

Carr and Knight

Bob Carr had an uninterrupted route to the NSW Premiership, although it did take him 7 years as Opposition Leader. And it was not without regular trauma. I served in the NSW Parliament when Carr was Opposition Leader and his core business included suffering regular media commentaries about why he couldn’t possibly win, while simultaneously fending off threatened Leadership challenges, both real and imagined. Carr’s poll numbers reflected this negative view of him. He was not burdened by high expectations. Prior to the 1991 election the Sydney Morning Herald gave great prominence to an article by its State politics reporter, Matthew Moore, headlined “Heading for a Carr Crash”.  In fact, at that election, Labor dramatically improved its position from holding 43 Seats out of 109, to winning 46 Seats in a Parliament which had been reduced to 99 Seats. In the leadup to the 1995 election, the conventional wisdom was that the bookish, awkward Carr - who didn’t even have a drivers licence, let alone children - could not possibly beat the “everyman” image of avuncular, ex footballer, family man John Fahey. Yet Carr not only won the 1995 election, he later became the longest continuously serving Premier in the history of NSW. 

A year before the 2011 NSW election, Barry O’Farrell trailed Kristina Keneally as preferred Premier (30% to 45%) in a Newspoll survey. The estimated two party preferred vote for the Coalition he led was favourable – 55% compared to Labor’s 45%. But there were regular concerns that O’Farrell could be a drag on his party’s vote at the election, that Labor could ride a wave of personal popularity for Kristina Keneally to victory. However, at the subsequent election, the O’Farrell led Coalition increased its representation by a staggering 34 additional Seats, while the Keneally led Labor Party was reduced to a rump of 20 MPs.

On the other side of the coin, there are Opposition Leaders who looked good in the polls but failed to win Government. In March 2004, the then Labor Leader, Mark Latham, had a Newspoll personal approval rating of 66% - still the second highest of all time for a Federal Opposition Leader. But he did not win the election against John Howard only 7 months later. Instead he is now a One Nation representative in the NSW Upper House. The third highest Newspoll approval rating ever for a Federal Opposition Leader belongs to the Liberal John Hewson, at 55%, in January 1992. He also lost the subsequent election, just over a year later to Paul Keating.

I don’t believe  in replacing an Opposition Leader simply because of bad polling, especially when their Party is competitive on two party preferred projections. Both sitting MPs and media commentators sometimes get seduced by the notion that  a “more attractive leader” will clinch victory for a Party which is competitive in the polling, but not  a certain winner. This often ignores the role that the incumbent might have played in getting their Party to that competitive position. However, an Opposition Leader’s case for survival is much weaker if they have had a reasonable period in the job and both their Party’s polling and their personal approval ratings are very poor.  More importantly, if the bad polling is reflecting deeper, fundamental reasons why they are not up to the job, then there is definitely a need to make a change. 

If you don’t pick your Opposition Leaders based on opinion polls, then how do you know who would be best? Part of the problem is that you never know who is any good at the job until they get to do it. Like at any job interview, some aspirants can present superbly, but turn out to be hopeless after you have given them the job. Conversely, some don’t do so well in the “job seeking phase” but grow into the job surprisingly well. So what are the clues to look for?  

“Popularity” is one of the most overrated things in politics. Of course, it is always better to be popular than to be loathed. But “popularity” is often spoken about as though it exists in a vacuum, as though it is some individual character trait. In fact, a Leader is more likely to be popular because they are being successful in their job, rather than being successful in their job, because they are popular. Significantly, John Howard and Bob Carr morphed from being “unpopular” Opposition Leaders to “popular” Heads of Government – when voters liked how their Governments were performing. 

If I have learned one thing in the decades I have spent involved with electoral politics it is this: electoral popularity never lasts. Unfortunately, it usually lasts longer for your opponents than you would like; and it never lasts as long for yourself as you want. But it never endures for anyone. 

I recall a sort of collective political depression amongst NSW Labor MPs after Mike Baird’s electoral victory in March 2015. They had bought into the general media narrative that Baird was hugely popular and therefore unbeatable. Similar things are now being written about Gladys Berejiklian in the wake of opinion polls which, justifiably, reflect her strong performance confronting the Covid 19 pandemic. However, following a range of self-inflicted political damage: forced Council amalgamations, lockout laws in parts of Sydney, a failed attempt to ban greyhound racing; Baird’s popularity collapsed. Between December 2015 and September 2016 his net satisfaction rating fell by a staggering 46%. Writing in The Australian, veteran political journalist Mark Coultan described it as "the biggest fall in net satisfaction of any mainland state premier in the history of Newspoll".  Quite sensibly, Baird retired mid-term.

Longstanding Liberal pollster, Mark Textor, has coined a wonderful phrase to encapsulate the transitory nature of “popularity” for many politicians. They might be superficially personally popular, but the underlying fundamentals of what they stand for, and how they perform, cannot sustain that. Alluding to an unusual body of water between Canberra and Goulburn, Textor refers to “Lake George popularity”. Like its namesake, such popularity is wide but shallow. And it can completely evaporate with little warning.

Popularity can be ephemeral. Intelligence is not. Howard and Carr might, or might not, have been the most intelligent members of their teams. But there is no doubting that both Howard and Carr are highly intelligent. A high level of intelligence is a much undervalued quality for political Leadership.  Nobody votes for Leaders because they consider them to be particularly intelligent. And it’s not a characteristic that anyone should campaign on. But, unless an Opposition Leader is very bright (not just “street smart” or cunning), they are unlikely to win an election. While a Prime Minister or a Premier can’t be expected to know the intricate details of every portfolio all of the time, they need to have a breadth of intelligence to understand how they all fit together. And they should have the intellectual agility to very quickly get across the detail of any issue in any portfolio when it emerges as a political or policy challenge. High intelligence is a basic requirement for the job; it is not an optional extra. 

No matter how badly a Government is doing, it is extremely difficult to defeat them if the voters do not think that the Leader of the Opposition is capable of becoming the head of a functioning Government. High intelligence is a significant part of that, although not the only factor. When they were Opposition Leaders, both Carr and Howard suffered numerous criticisms, some justified, some not. They were both frequently characterised as “not being electable”. But there was never any widespread perception that they were “not up to the job” of running a Government if they somehow managed to get elected. In contrast, think of some of the recent Leaders of the Opposition who have failed to win elections that were genuinely up for grabs: Deb Frecklington (Queensland 2020), Peter Debnam (NSW 2007), and Michael Daley (NSW 2019). All of them pleasant and decent people. But the internal party research of the winning party revealed a perception that, rightly or wrongly, the voters did not consider them  to be “up to the job” they were seeking. 

While  “popularity” is probably the most overvalued quality in political leadership, the most underrated quality is “political judgement”.  It is the great intangible of politics but it is none-the-less profoundly important. You can’t teach it – though, over time, John Howard seemed to have developed it himself.  It is the quality which always accompanies successful long term political Leaders. Neville Wran was attractive, intelligent, well spoken, and the TV camera loved him. He also had fantastic political judgement. Wran instinctively knew where the voters were on particular issues, which issues he could move them on, and which positions he had to accept whether he liked it or not. Bob Hawke, Carr, and Howard also had great intuitive political judgement. The same could not be said of all of their successors. Annastacia Palaszczuk has it in spades whereas Campbell Newman appeared to have a congenital deficit. Mike Baird’s lack of political judgement led him badly astray on several issues, including his attempt to ban greyhound racing. 

 I acknowledge that “political judgement” is a less objective characteristic than “high intelligence”. But it is none-the-less both real and immensely important. And the effluxion of time usually shows whether a Leader’s political judgement was on target or not. Rather than try and define it, I want to give two examples. Following his victory in 1988, Nick Greiner introduced legislation to create the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC). Many in NSW Labor feared this would be a sort of standing Royal Commission into their recently completed 12 years of Government. Bob Carr insisted that Labor support the legislation. He stared down massive opposition in his own party. His political instincts were that unless he did this, Labor would be perceived by voters as pro corruption and covering up for past misdeeds; that Labor would never have clear air to attack the Greiner Government on their performance failures. Not only did Carr’s judgement prove to be accurate  but an ICAC Inquiry later led to Greiner himself being forced to relinquish the  Premiership.

In July 2016 Mike Baird announced his intention to completely ban greyhound racing. He relied upon a report from former High Court Judge Michael McHugh outlining some pretty horrific animal cruelty. There was initially strong support for Baird’s proposed ban from media commentators, and also from many in the State Parliamentary Labor Party. Opposition Leader Luke Foley’s instincts were that, whatever the problems in the Greyhound industry, Baird’s proposals were an overreaction that could rebound on him. Foley felt that no-one would shift their vote to Baird because of this single policy. However, substantial numbers of voters, particularly in rural electorates, could shift their votes away from the Government on this policy alone.  Foley came out quickly against the proposed ban. This was not initially popular with his colleagues and some of them tried to use this issue to undermine his Leadership.

Like Carr with ICAC, time vindicated Foley’s judgement. Baird’s greyhound ban was a significant contributor to the Nationals losing the by-election in Orange on 12 November 2016. This led directly to the forced resignation, two days later, of Deputy Premier Troy Grant. And to Baird’s own voluntary retirement two months later. Whatever you might think of the merits of the issue, Foley’s political judgement on how it might play out was proven to be accurate.

Good political judgement is particularly an issue for Opposition Leaders. They frequently need to respond, at very short notice, to Government announcements, mistakes, and initiatives. Often there is little time to consult. Unlike in Government, there is no time (or money) to research public attitudes. In the example above, Luke Foley had to personally make a very quick decision. These decisions are driven by judgement (good or bad) not by focus groups.

The climate in which Opposition Leaders need to exercise their political judgement is becoming more difficult. Both the explosion of social media, and the intensification of hyper-partisanship among the keyboard warriors, raise additional challenges. Perhaps the greatest challenge is to decide when to attack and when not to. It is easy for an Opposition Leader to attack the Government on everything. That will bring immediate approval from those who follow that Leader on their own social media platforms. Indeed, if the Opposition Leader is not whacking the Government at every opportunity, they are likely to be criticised as too quiet, weak, compliant, lazy, or just plain useless. They will get that from mainstream media commentators, on social media, and from their own colleagues. However, being seen to be overtly partisan on certain issues can be counterproductive with the electorate generally, and swinging voters in particular. 

How various Leaders of the Opposition have handled the politics of the Covid 19 pandemic reveals some very different political judgements.

Michael O’Brien (Victorian Liberal Leader) and Jodi McKay (NSW Labor Leader until 28 May 2021) have been constant critics of the handling of the pandemic by the Governments in their States. Harsh words have been used, and resignations have been called for. O’Brien has especially focussed on the second wave in Victoria which emanated from weaknesses in the State Government’s quarantine system. But attacking the Victorian Government has been his default position. Interestingly, it has not inoculated O’Brien from those Members of his Party who seek to replace him. Some of his colleagues have still criticised O’Brien for being “too soft on Daniel Andrews and his Government”.  McKay was a strident critic of Gladys Berejiklian and her Health Minister, Brad Hazzard. The Ruby Princess debacle and the tragic deaths at Anglicare’s Newmarch House aged care facility were particular targets. But, no failure escaped her attention, including the inevitable problem of waiting times the first day a new pop up clinic was set up in response to an unexpected outbreak.

By contrast, when there was a Covid outbreak in South Australia in  November 2020, Peter Malinauskas, Labor’s Opposition Leader, was quick to pledge bipartisan support to fight the virus. He specifically made it clear he would not be adopting the approach taken by Michael O’Brien. In part, Malinauskas’ media release said:

“Doing this the South Australian way means we’re going to look after each other as much as we look after ourselves.

We’re going to fight for each other, not against each other.

Which means, as far as I’m concerned, unlike in Victoria, as Opposition Leader I’m here to support the government, not undermine it.”

Since then Malinauskas has been overwhelmingly non-partisan. But not silent. From time to time Malinauskas has raised suggestions that he hoped the Government would embrace. When they have not done so, he has expressed disappointment rather than outrage. Where they have embraced his ideas, Malinauskas has praised the Government, and not indulged in petty claims that he has “won”.

Similarly, in the Federal sphere, Opposition Leader, Anthony Albanese, and his then Shadow Health Minister, Chris Bowen walked a careful path focussed on confronting the pandemic rather than the Government. Their approach could best be characterised as “yes, but…..”.  For example, they acknowledged the Government’s good work in signing deals with several possible vaccine producers, but suggested they should get some extra players involved to spread the risks. Similarly, they supported the Government’s initiatives in JobSeeker and JobKeeper, while also pointing out gaps in those programs and the risks of ending them prematurely. Compared to O’Brien and McKay, there has been more emphasis on co-operation and less on conflict. On the occasions where Albanese and Bowen diverged substantially from the Government, they picked their targets carefully and positioned themselves unambiguously on the side of the community rather than simply being ‘against the Government’. 

With Australia’s Covid suppression strategy generally working well, Albanese has now turned his attention to three areas where the Government’s position is much more contentious: the extremely slow rollout of the vaccination program, the appropriate role for the Federal Government in relation to quarantine facilities, and the nature of the post Covid recovery. Albanese adopted a bipartisan approach for over a year while Australia was locked into a daily fight for survival against the virus. He is now becoming more assertive in the contestable space of how a national Government should secure the future of our citizens against the ongoing threat of Covid 19 and other potential pandemics.

Chris Minns has started his time as an Opposition Leader in NSW adopting an approach on Covid 19 similarly to Anthony Albanese’s earlier iteration, and mirroring that of Peter Malinauskas. One of Minns’ first acts as Opposition Leader was to write to Premier Berejiklian, giving credit to the Government for its success in combatting the pandemic and declaring that "As the new Leader of the Opposition, I want to join the fight against COVID-19 and I offer you my bipartisan support in this endeavour". 

Which of the political judgements is the correct one? The O’Brien/McKay model or the very different Malinauskas/Minns/Albanese approach? As with all political judgements, time will tell which were sound. But the fall of Jodi McKay and the imminent political demise of Michael O’Brien does not augur well for their general strategic approaches.

So, when it comes to picking the right Leader of the Opposition these are the qualities I would place a premium on: high intelligence, resilience (it’s a tough job where you are bound to have more bad days than good days), and political judgement. I would always favour someone who can straddle the multiple roles of star player, captain and coach over someone who the commentariat merely declares is popular. Above all, I want someone who thinks strategically  about how to win the next election, how to progress that plan, and how to implement a defined agenda in Government. 

If they look and sound nice, that’s a significant bonus. But I would be looking for someone who understands how tough it is to win from Opposition. I am always wary of the leadership aspirant who believes that the voters will choose them over the incumbent Prime Minister, Chief Minister, or Premier simply because they are a better person, or more attractive, or more deserving - those whose underlying electoral strategy is: see me, love me, vote for my candidates.

I always prefer a potential Leader of the Opposition who can tell me how they can win rather than why they should win. By and large, those are the same Leaders who do win closely contested elections. And who then go on to lead long term Governments.


Michael Knight spent 20 years as the Member for Campbelltown in the NSW Parliament. He held positions as Minister for Roads, Minister for Public Works and Services and Minister for the Sydney 2000 Olympics.


Publication Information:

ISSN: 2652-9076-02

Series: Australian Fabians Review - Issue 2

Author: Michael Knight

Year: 2021

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