Tawdry race to the bottom...

Here's a question in light of the near disintegration of the parliamentary process in the past week: what do the late Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, John Howard, and Jeff Kennett have in common?

All were prepared to lead, for better, or worse, and generally better, although all, with the possible exception of Hawke, overreached in the end – and paid the price.

Here's another question: what distinguishes Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, and Tony Abbott?

All, to an extent and for varying reasons, failed the leadership test if the yardstick is winning and sustaining the confidence of the electorate, maintaining internal discipline and advancing policy.

In the case of Whitlam, Hawke, Keating, Howard and Kennett the country experienced a leadership surplus. Now, we are facing a leadership deficit – if not a void – that mirrors what is happening in other Western democracies, with the notable exception of Angela Merkel in Germany, or the Pope in the exercise of his temporal powers.

Reinforcing despair globally about a widening leadership vacuum the Trump presidency represents, in its early stages, not so much leadership failure as a leadership meltdown.

Geoff Allen, business consultant, former adviser to Liberal ministers, and one of the country's more astute political observers has written and lectured extensively about what's required of political leaders.

In a useful paper for the Committee for the Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) – Politics and Leadership Styles – Allen focuses on the records of six leaders – Whitlam, Hawke, Keating, Howard, Kennett, and the New Zealand maverick Roger Douglas who laid the foundation for his country's emergence from its economic torpor.

  In a race to the bottom One Nation's Pauline Hanson outdid herself by appearing in the Senate in a burqa, or full body-covering, to mock the religion of 5 per cent of Australians. Photo: Andrew Meares

In a race to the bottom One Nation's Pauline Hanson outdid herself by appearing in the Senate in a burqa, or full body-covering, to mock the religion of 5 per cent of Australians. Photo: Andrew Meares

Allen's conclusion is there is no substitute for deep conviction about what is required and a willingness to risk failure in pursuit of desirable policy ends. Nowadays, policy trails far behind politics in an era driven by a nano-second news cycle.

"It's all about politics. It is not about policy," he says.

  Opposition Leader Bill Shorten during question time at Parliament House in Canberra on Wednesday. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten during question time at Parliament House in Canberra on Wednesday. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

In this regard, he quotes Keating in the CEDA paper as saying the great curse of political life is incrementalism.

What distinguished successful Australian political leaders of the recent past is they were prepared to crash or crash though in pursuit of their policy goals.

Whitlam faced down the troglodytes in Labor's establishment to achieve genuine reforms across a vast sweep of government activity; Hawke and Keating broke through union and left resistance to overdue structural economic reforms; Kennett reversed Victoria's decline with a ruthless restructuring of state and local government; and Howard with Peter Costello instituted a goods and services tax that no government will undo.

All were motivated by strong policy impulses.

Observing an Australian parliamentary fight-club last week devoid of policy impetus proved one of the less edifying spectacles in recent parliamentary history as politicians screeched inanities at each other across the dispatch boxes.

In a race to the bottom One Nation's Pauline Hanson outdid herself by appearing in the Senate in a burqa, or full body-covering, to mock the religion of 5 per cent of Australians.

This stunt pretty much summed up the week on top of Foreign Minister Julie Bishop's hyperbolic response to revelations New Zealand Labour had sought to question Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce's Australian citizenship.

Bishop threatened to boycott a future NZ Labour government.

Having sampled opinion in the past week in political circles outside Parliament itself and in the business community I can tell you that contempt is hardly a strong enough word for the low esteem in which the political class is held.

Unsurprisingly, greatest despair is felt in conservative ranks as prospects of electoral salvation rupture.

"If you can't govern yourself you can't govern the country," observed a Melbourne Liberal gloomily.

That would seem to be an understatement.

Speaking of a leadership void this brings us to Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten.

It is hard to overstate disappointment with Turnbull's leadership among those who had wished him well when he toppled Abbott.

He has not crashed through on issues that had defined him, rather he has stumbled in contrast to his distinguished predecessors.

For the Prime Minister and his leadership the clock is approaching one minute to midnight, not there yet, but not far off.

In Shorten the country faces a similar leadership – or lack of it – conundrum.

In fairness, he has done better as Opposition leader than his detractors anticipated, even if the bar was set low. However, legitimate questions persist: does he have convictions beyond a relentless pursuit of power for its own sake?

What sort of leader would he prove to be in difficult times ahead as a wasted commodities binges gives way to budget deficits as far as the eye can see?

Shorten's manipulation of the same-sex marriage issue – he was for a plebiscite before he was against it – and his opportunistic rejection of a Medicare levy to fund the National Disability Insurance Scheme after having supported such a levy are examples of politics at its worst.

The fact that a Shorten-led Labor Party appears to be electable tells you more than you need to know.