Hewson's View: 'Strongman' leadership

Disruptor: President Donald Trump's defining slogan has been 'Make America Great Again', but it's difficult to see what he's done to achieve this, argues John Hewson. Photo: AP
Disruptor: President Donald Trump's defining slogan has been 'Make America Great Again', but it's difficult to see what he's done to achieve this, argues John Hewson. Photo: AP

A most worrying feature of the significant, almost global, movement away from traditional centrist political parties/governments over the last several years, often to the extremes (Right or Left), has been the emergence of the so-called "strongmen" as leaders.

Donald Trump in the US, Xi Jinping in China, Vladimir Putin in Russia, Boris Johnson in the UK, Kim Jong-un in North Korea, Viktor Orban in Hungary, Recap Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Rodigo Duterte in the Philippines, to mention only the major ones.

Yes, all men! While we justifiably worry increasingly about "gender balance" here in Australia, the global imbalance in leadership should be alarming. Just imagine how different the emerging world would be if all these strongmen were strongwomen?

Unfortunately, the hallmark characteristic of these strongmen so far has just been "disruption". While all would claim to be motivated by their "national interest", and argue that they are able to provide the 'shake-up" needed in each of their countries, if not beyond, it is very, very hard, indeed, to see their "policies" as genuinely in their national interest, and often with most unfortunate fallout beyond their borders.

For example, Trump has pulled out of, or at a minimum undermined, a host of globally significant trade, security and climate deals. While it is easy to have found fault with, or identified limitations of, most of these deals, we are left to wonder what he plans to put, if anything, in their place.

His defining slogan, and promise, is to "Make America Great Again", but it is hard to see what he has actually done to achieve this. Indeed, most of what he has done has reduced the global standing of America, with little to boast about in terms of achievements at home as well.

Sure, you could argue that the US economy has been somewhat stronger than it might otherwise have been, with stimulus coming from his corporate tax cuts, some other spending on defence and infrastructure, and by "forcing" the Federal Reserve to cut interest rates.

But, this stimulus has been little better than a "sugar hit", with now considerable concern that it is not sustainable, with a mounting fear that the US economy may actually drift into recession in 2020. The tax cuts didn't stimulate much corporate investment, as they mostly resulted in record dividend payouts to shareholders, and record levels of share buy backs. They are also yet to be funded, having just blown out an already large budget deficit to over $1 trillion, with very large national debt.

Moreover, Trump's "trade war" with China is also working against the US, not only because of China's reaction, but Trump is now having to compensate Midwest farmers costing his budget more than he raises in customs duties, while world trade has collapsed, to the detriment of all.

Trump is not "rebuilding the Rust-Belt states to their former glory" as promised. He is attacking immigration that has underwritten much of the post World War II US growth, and labour market flexibility. Sure he has "drained the Washington swamp", but to what end - a dry gulch?

Similarly, Boris Johnson in the UK. It is hard to see, despite his assurances to the contrary, that he can deliver better than a "Hard Brexit", and probably with the turmoil of another early election. The UK economy has just recorded negative growth, promising much worse to come, and all this threatening the final outcome of a "Disunited UK".

While the UK Conservatives have changed jockeys, from May to Johnson, the horse is still crook - the mix of the Commons remains the same, and Johnson is most unlikely to win their overwhelming support.

In most of the other cases identified, the strongmen have been particularly oppressive on their citizens. Sure, in most cases this has worked to consolidate/strengthen their power bases but, again, to what end - power does "corrupt", and absolute power "corrupts absolutely".

Here in Australia, I get concerned that our leaders sometimes seem envious of these strongmen, seeming tempted, at times, to emulate them, by basically seeking to "normalise" their bad behaviour.

Here in Australia, I get concerned that our leaders sometimes seem envious of these strongmen ...

In all this, it is the self-absorbed focus of these strongmen, and the loss of a moral compass, that provides the greatest threat to our collective futures.

John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader.