Emotional intelligence plus political experience equals political success.

Stone the crows! Politics has gone all quiet. But for irate Indonesians, Tony Abbott would have already achieved what Malcolm Fraser aspired to, sport on the front page of the papers for want of politics interesting enough to report.

Perhaps it only seems quiet because we are used to politics as wars of the roses re-runs, between the houses of Gillard and Rudd. Or perhaps it is because experience has imbued the prime minister with the political intelligence to know less news is good for a government, when there aren’t strife and stuff-ups to report. As Errol Simper suggests:

There may be such a thing as media neglect. There may be. More certain is that there is such a thing as media overexposure. There are many junctures when the most reassuring thing for the “civilian” population to know is that the prime minister is busy behind a desk in Canberra, running the country [i]

But it takes an emotionally intelligent leader to know it, a self-aware person who recognises and respects the needs of others and combines a capacity to convince with an ability to implement policy over time, a leader of men and women who sees politics as a vehicle for policy not the other way around.

Sarah Ofusu-Ameyaw suggests, in the context of the American presidency, that:

The emotionally intelligent leader is better able to rise above the unwarranted criticisms and is better able to serve his constituents. Emotionally intelligent individuals tend to have the charisma and the discipline necessary to be progressive with their policies. The emotionally intelligent president will also be the one who can sustain public support for his initiatives because he has the capacity to understand those around him.[ii]

However, there is more to political success than emotional intelligence – the added factor is political intelligence, a learnt discipline best acquired through long experience of governing.

It seems Tony Abbott has it, probably due to his nine years as a cabinet minister under John Howard. We saw the prime minister’s political intelligence applied last week over Indonesia negotiating a crisis not of his making with caution and courtesy, being respectful to Indonesia without making impossible promises to never spy on Jakarta than he cannot keep. As Dennis Shanahan puts it:

Abbott has kept his commentary to a bare minimum, copped criticism for Labor government actions without response and tried to ease the sense of an ever-rising crisis.[iii]

In contrast, Bill Shorten initially sought to play external anger to domestic advantage. By Thursday, having realised his mistake, he was talking of serving in “team Australia” but his deputy Tanya Plibersek was still trying to score partisan points.[iv]

Labor’s missteps were unnecessary errors born of an absence of executive experience, which is not surprising because it is what the leader is light on for. All the number crunching and factional brawling in the world is not a substitute for the craft and cunning it takes to govern, acumen only acquired by time in office.

Even Chris Pyne, if not the finest then surely the feistiest parliamentary tactician of our time, made mistakes born of inexperience when first education minister, (he only made it as a junior minister in 18 months of the Howard Government). Pyne suggested that he would look at abolishing the student amenities fee, an article of faith among Liberals who see it as a tax students pay for campus activism they do not endorse – perhaps not realising what would pass unnoticed in opposition was news from a minister.

The PM put Pyne back in his box quick smart, making it clear this was a fight not worth happening – a pragmatic if not principled judgement born of his cabinet experience which taught him which blues mattered.[v] Even with the Indonesian intel crisis, and there is no denying it is very bad indeed for Australia, the first months of the Abbott Government are as quiet as Christmas, despite their being ample explosive issues – the fate of the car industry and a potential Coalition split over deregulation of the wheat industry, for starters.[vi]

It’s an example of Tony Abbott’s political intelligence, which is emotional intelligence with the added experience of how public life functions. The former is the latter informed by experience and the ability to learn from it. [vii]

Which is what Julia Gillard lacked. There is no doubting Gillard was a competent minister capable of carrying an immense workload. And, while loathed by people who did not know her, she is immensely liked by many who do. As Bill Shorten suggests, it was because of her emotional intelligence that she was able to assemble a majority in 2010. [viii]

Like or loathe Fair Work Australia and her commitment to accountability in school education, there is no denying Gillard was an immensely able. Yet her prime ministership saw endless unforced errors in politics and failures to sell policies – notably the inability to explain how the interim carbon tax would be replaced by a trading scheme.

Barack Obama displays the same disconnect. Voters rate the president on emotional intelligence but Obama’s political intelligence has failed him on two major policy problems. The president seems incapable of forcing Congress to reduce the deficit or of bludgeoning Republicans into accepting the country must pay its debts. Bob Woodward’s description of the 2011 budget crisis demonstrated how President Obama was out of his depth, lacking the legislative experience and policy nous to push policy through.[ix] His strangely standoffish approach this year demonstrates he has not learnt enough to lift his game.

This is probably because Obama has not had time. It took Lyndon Johnson decades to master the Senate and build the power base to pass his civil rights law. And this he did by willpower and intellect, rather than any emotional intelligence sufficient to convince his peers. Indeed, LBJ was less light on for EQ than a paranoid personality[x].

Obama came to the White House with a few years in the Illinois legislature and four years in the national Senate.[xi] His performance demonstrates that emotional intelligence without the political equivalent is not enough. As the Weekly Standard editorialises, “In 2008, the American people elected a freshman senator as president of the United States – and, on occasion, it shows.” [xii]

The contrast with Tony Abbott is clear. John Howard said, on Saturday, that Tony Abbott “brings to the prime ministership high intelligence, discipline, a willingness to listen, good people skills, a complete lack of pomposity and a compassionate streak that will silence many of his detractors.” [xiii] Good-oh. But the EQ this describes is not enough. The question is does he have the political experience he needs as well to lead a sustainable government and continue to learn.



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[i] Errol Simper, “Lodge needs no rock star,” The Australian, September 16

[ii] Sarah Ofusu-Ameyaw, “The role of emotional intelligence in presidential leadership,” Papers of the 2009-10 fellows, Centre for the study of the presidency and congress,” @ http://goo.gl/1rHBbN recovered on November 23

[iii] Dennis Shanahan, “Diplomacy shown, criticism absorbed in first crisis,” The Australian, November 23

[iv] Dennis Shanahan, “Time for the old student politicians to grow up,” The Australian, November 22

[v] Mark Kenny and Daniel Hurst, “PM rebukes Pyne over unis,” Sydney Morning Herald, September 27

[vi] James Massola, “Wheat reform threatens to split Liberals,” Australian Financial Review, October 4

[vii] Jennifer Kahn, Can emotional intelligence be taught?” New York Times September 11

[viii] Sky News, February 24 2012, @ http://goo.gl/NbyPo7 recovered on November 23

[ix] Bob Woodward, The Price of Politics (New York, 2012)

[x] Robert E Gilbert, “Psychological illnesses in presidents: the case of Lyndon B Johnson,” International Society for Political Psychology, July 2008 @ http://goo.gl/WCT1dm recovered on November 23

[xi] Kathy Gill, “Barack Obama: political timeline,” January 3 2009 @ http://goo.gl/a3Afr recovered on November 23

[xii] Weekly Standard, “Exceptionally inexperienced,” September 23 @ http://goo.gl/XvsPmN recovered on November 23

[xiii] John Howard, “Tony Abbott: the ‘unelectable’ leader who changed politics,” The Australian, November 23

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