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Memo from Machiavelli

The father of political science would see through Gillard and Rudd in an instant

3 March 2012

11:00 AM

3 March 2012

11:00 AM

In The Spectator Australia’s 18 February edition, Mark Latham observed that ‘in the modern Labor party, no one serves revenge cold. It is consumed… straight off the hot plate.’ Recent events confirm Latham’s insight. It was, of course, the foundational theorist of modern statecraft, Niccolò Machiavelli, who first considered that, in politics, revenge was a dish best taken cold. His advice on the politics of leadership, The Prince (1513), subsequently influenced statesmen and political advisers from Francis Bacon to former Clinton spin doctor Dick Morris, whose The New Prince (1999) updated Machiavelli for the modern age of political presentation.

In the context of the present Labor government’s decision to press the self-destruct button, it is perhaps salutary to consider how Machiavelli might have advised the Labor leadership in order to avoid its current plight.

First, Machiavelli would have observed that a new Prince, or Princess in Julia’s case, had, on assuming office, to secure the political foundations and remove those who might do injury: ‘Foundations must be laid well, otherwise it follows of necessity [s]he will go to ruin’. In particular, political necessity demands the elimination of previous leaders. Ideally, following the policy of Cesare Borgia, the hero of The Prince, competitors would be invited to stay at the Lodge, shown to their rooms, and there quietly strangled.

This was probably not an option for Julia, but in Rudd’s case Machiavelli would have advised political exclusion rather than appointment to the post of Minister at the Department of Foreign Affairs: ‘He who believes that new benefits will cause great personages to forget old injuries is deceived.’ Committing this error led to Borgia’s ‘ultimate ruin’ and, it would seem, Julia’s too. Moreover, if a prince employs one who thinks ‘more of his own interests than of yours and seeking inwardly his own profit rather than yours, such a man will never make a good minister, nor will you ever be able to trust him’.

Given the obscure circumstances under which Gillard attained office, it would also have been wise, in Machiavelli’s opinion, to get all your aggression in early, while the people and those around you were still impressed by your rise to power. Politicians who experience ‘little trouble in rising have much in keeping atop’, Machiavelli observed. The ‘usurper’, therefore, ‘ought to examine closely into all those injuries which it is necessary for him to inflict and to do them all at one stroke so as not to have to repeat them daily’. This Julia failed to do. She preferred to be loved rather than feared. But ‘love is preserved by the link of obligation which owing to the baseness of men is broken at every opportunity for their advantage’. It is fear among your followers that induces respect and authority, as ‘fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails’. Most of your party, Machiavelli would contend, are ‘ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous and, so long as you are successful, are yours utterly’. But they have ‘less scruple in offending when they don’t fear you’.

Most tellingly, the Gillard government failed to act prudently. Certainly Julia and her closest advisers would accept Machiavelli’s view that it is politically expedient not to ‘keep faith when such observance may be turned against you and when the reasons that cause you to pledge it exist no longer. If men were entirely good this precept would not hold, but because they are bad and will not keep faith with you, you too are not bound to observe it with them’. Gillard would also recognise that a new leader, especially one whose ‘authority is uncertain’ cannot observe ‘all those things for which men are esteemed, being often forced, in order to maintain the state, to act contrary to fidelity, friendship, humanity and religion’. Where Gillard failed, however, was in not knowing how to ‘disguise this characteristic and be a great dissembler and pretender’. ‘Everyone should see what you appear to be’ but few should ‘really know what you are’. The masses ‘are always taken by what a thing seems to be and by what comes of it’.

Ultimately, one is judged ‘by the result’. The prudent ruler’s judgments, therefore, ‘should be irrevocable and should maintain … such a reputation that no one can hope either to deceive him or get round him … he who is highly esteemed is not easily conspired against’. Conspiracies, like those that have undermined both Rudd and Gillard, occur only when the leader is despised or hated, ‘for the difficulties that confront a conspirator are infinite’.

Conspiracies arise then in extremis when a leader is floundering. This is a consequence both of irresolution (who is the real Julia?) and a failure to adapt policies to the times. ‘Irresolute leaders, to avoid present dangers, generally follow a neutral path and are generally ruined,’ while ‘he whose actions do not accord with the times will not be successful.’ Prudent government, then, ‘consists in knowing how to distinguish the character of troubles and for choice to take the lesser evil’. In this context, Labor’s tin-eared pursuit of resources and carbon taxes in a global economic downturn was both irresolute and ignored the spirit of the times, with devastating
political consequences.

Finally, Machiavelli would have noted that Julia failed to confront potential threats when the times were propitious. A wise ruler foresees future difficulties and plans for them. If she who leads cannot ‘recognise evils’ until they are upon her, she ‘is truly not wise’. In the mutable realm of politics, contingencies must be anticipated. ‘All prudent princes’ ought to prepare not only for present troubles, ‘but also future ones, for which they must prepare with every energy, because when foreseen it is easy to remedy them; but if you wait until they approach, the medicine is no longer in time because the malady has become incurable’. Thus to postpone a confrontation in the hope that it will go away is always a mistake. For time brings ‘with it good as well as evil, and evil as well as good’. In Julia’s case it brought a revived Rudd, who has dissembled himself brilliantly as the true leader betrayed by faceless men.

Unfortunately, without the backing of his party, he would appear to Machiavelli like the prophet unarmed, Savanarola, who although briefly popular in quattrocento Florence, ended up being burned at the stake. Rudd’s prospective political immolation, Machiavelli might observe, would merely be a foretaste of his party’s ultimate fate.
David Martin Jones is associate professor of political science at the University of Queensland in Brisbane. 

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