Guest Blog: Legitimacy in democratic leadership

27 March 2013 By Dr Lloyd Nash (WCLP '11)

Democratically elected leaders across Australian capitals are finding it hard to stay on their feet.  With breathtaking speed, those holding the office of Prime Minister, Premier and Chief Minister have been removed after a string of bad polls.  Kevin Rudd, Morris Iemma, Ted Baillieu and Terry Mills all won elections and were not given the opportunity to lead their parties to the next election.  This phenomenon crosses both state and party lines, and is intensifying.  Elected leaders enjoy a very short honeymoon and then have little on which to stake their claim to ongoing legitimacy as leader.


The ostensible reason for moving against elected leaders is ongoing poor performance as measured by public opinion polls.  The Westminster system of government allows the political parties to choose their leader, and therefore the leader of government, so there is nothing in the rules to prevent parties moving against their leader between elections.  Traditionally elected Australian leaders have maintained the legitimacy bestowed upon them at elections and led their parties through a full term of government, but it seems this convention is being trashed Australia wide.  Poor polling is interpreted as a collapse in support for the leader, and by extension, in their legitimate claim to ongoing leadership.

The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, has had to contest two internal leadership challenges in the last twelve months.  On the same day as the most recent leadership “spill”, the opposition leader attempted to call a motion of no-confidence in the Prime Minister (and her government), and now promises to do the same in the next sitting of Parliament.  It has been an oft-repeated line from the leader of the opposition, that this Prime Minister has no legitimate claim to ongoing leadership, and from the events of last week it seems that some members of her own party share that view.

In a democratic system of government, it is the people who are sovereign.  Abraham Lincoln famously described democratic government as rule “of the people, by the people and for the people”.  Taken to its logical conclusion, it’s not so hard to see how democracy has a problem with leadership itself.  Leadership becomes a direct threat to the right of the people to rule themselves.

Begrudgingly we elect leaders, but with rules to ensure they remain accountable to the authority and judgement of the people, exercised at election time.  The legitimacy of their leadership is held in trust between elections provided they don’t breech the faith of the public.  It is this “faith” that is the issue now held in contention.

Opposition leader Abbott has been lethal in prosecuting this argument against Prime Minister Gillard.  He has claimed that the way she came to the leadership, the way she formed minority government and the way she changed her mind on the carbon tax all represent a breech of faith with the electorate and totally undermines her claim to leadership and government.  He has called for a “people’s revolt”. 

Others too have undermined their elected leaders with claims that poor polling shows the people have “turned” on their leader, that the leader no longer enjoys the support of the people, therefore they no longer have legitimacy in that role.  A loss of popular support based on polls is interpreted as a breech of faith with the electorate.

This interpretation exposes a structural flaw in democratic leadership: that illegitimacy is always irrefutable because in society we have so many competing ideals.  No democratic leader can claim legitimacy by simply deferring judgement to the wisdom of the people, because such wisdom is never settled.  Our leaders govern not merely as delegates of the public, but as our representatives, consented at elections to govern in the national interest.  What indeed is in the national interest is the heart of the democratic contest. 

That contest is now being fought not just on an election cycle but every fortnight with the publication of Newspoll.  The most solid claim to legitimacy in modern public life is popularity in the polls.  When the polls turn, the leader must watch their back.  Would be leadership contenders are exploiting this structural flaw in democratic legitimacy: that all people don’t always agree with everything the leader says and does, all the time.  Does this mean that their leadership is illegitimate? Well, that depends on whom you ask.

Dr Nash is a consultant physician and Chair of Global Ideas Forum, a non-profit working to create pathways to action on global health inequalities.