In two articles in the Weekend Sydney Morning Herald, journalist Peter Hartcher profiled Arthur Sinodinos – who recently resigned as John Howard’s chief of staff —and related the Sinodinos view on why Howard has been able to remain Prime Minister of Australia for so long.
It seems clear that Howard and Sinodinos, who is described as Howard’s “closest confidant and most important lieutenant”, needed each other for their considerable success. Such relationships are very common. Milovan Djilas described how Josef Stalin and Vyacheslav Molotov “ideally complemented one another” with Molotov’s “relativism” offsetting Stalin’s “dogmatism”. Mao and Zhou Enlai is another example of such a relationship, as is that of Adolf Hitler and Hermann Goering until the invasion of Russia.
Howard himself said that Sinodinos “suited my temperament and we had remarkably similar views about policy”; with Tony Abbott adding the perspective that the Sinodinos was “calm, articulate, measured, thoughtful”, which suggests a Molotov-type “relativism”.
In the Howard-Sinodinos relationship, Howard felt no sense of threat from the highly competent Sinodinos who “could make me laugh”. Falih Rifki Atay described the relationship between Kemal Ataturk and Ismet Inonu (who actually succeeded Ataturk): “Aside from not feeling any personal competition towards Ataturk …he was a hard-working, serious administration man. He was an intellectual who believed in Ataturk.” Ditto, it would appear, Sinodinos.
Sinodinos, despite his talents, appears to have needed Howard as master to achieve the success that he has. Falih Rifki Atay wrote that Inonu “had a definite need for Ataturk’s authority (in spite of topping his class at the Ottoman’s elite military school), while Djilas wrote that Molotov was essentially “impotent without Stalin’s leadership”.
But what of the reasons for Howard’s success? As already noted, Sinodinos himself was important in this. One of Paul Keating’s advisers noted that Howard “got a good team and he kept it”. Like Napoleon Bonaparte, Howard seems to have chosen reasonably well and then had an aversion to “new faces”.
According to Hartcher, “there are six core lessons of success distilled from extended conversations with Sinodinos … but above all is the fundamental disposition of the Prime Minister”. “People say that Howard moved Australia to the right,” Sinodinos said. “But that’s a misunderstanding. The Howard Government succeeded because he expressed the innate conservatism of the Australian people.”
In fact, all societies are essentially conservative and longing for stability. Despite the wars that they eventually brought, it was this “conservatism” that delivered Hitler, Benito Mussolini and Napoleon votes in elections.
The first “core lesson”, according to Hartcher, is that Sinodinos says that Howard approaches every day as if it could be his last. “We always took the view that you always act as if you’re in opposition and your back’s to the wall – and you fight accordingly. From day one he never took being in power for granted.”
Successful dictators operate in the same cautious way. Albert Speer wrote: “To the imagination of the outsider Hitler was a keen, quick, brutally governing dictator. It is difficult to believe that in reality he edged along hesitantly, almost fearfully. But that was the case.”
The second “core lesson”? According to Sinodinos, it had been central to Howard’s success to “put some skin in the game”. “Rather than avoid difficult and unpopular reforms, Howard tackles them head-on, and is always at his best when he has a cause to fight for. It always brought out the best in him – in terms of his fighting skills, his advocacy skills, it really brought out the passion in him. And when he’s out there on the hustings fighting for what he believes in, the public responds very well.”
This word “passion” is so important, and along with such words as focus, self-belief and will-power explains the success of even dictators. Djilas wrote of Stalin’s “passionate” and “convincing” approach to an issue; General Caulaincourt wrote that Napoleon “put passion into everything” which gave him an “enormous advantage over his adversaries”. The loyal-to-the end Joachim von Ribbentrop recalled the effect: “Hitler made a considerable impression on me. … His statements always had something final and definite about them, and appeared to come from his innermost self.”
The third “core lesson”, according to Hartcher, is the intensity of Howard’s day-to-day preoccupation with “filling the vacuum”, dominating the media and the political airspace. “Because if you leave a vacuum it will be filled by others – keep the initiative”, says Sinodinos.
The essential strategy here is simple: be seen to be “The Man” hard at work for the benefit of the each member of the electorate – ie the source of power! No-one else must be seen as capable of doing this; and the best way of achieving this is to stop then being seen at all. As his brother, Joseph, wrote, Napoleon “want the need for his existence to be so direly felt, and as such a great boon, that anybody would recoil at any other possibility. If anybody could say that all was well with the country if Bonaparte dies, that things would still be well, then my brother would no longer feel safe.”
The fourth “core lesson” is an emphasis on unity and discipline. Although people like Howard and successful dictators adopt a divide and rule approach, division is their prerogative – and no-ones else’s. What is presented to the world is unity. For dissenters who want out, or are wanted out, there are various options including diplomatic postings and illness.
In 1943 Count Ciano, Italy’s Foreign Minister – who was also Mussolini’s son-in-law – was sacked but got the convenient local job of ambassador to the Holy See. As Dino Grandi explained: “In order to liquidate Ciano and Buffarini (Minister of the Interior) all the Ministers were dismissed as a wrapping round the removal of the two elements he wanted to get rid of.” Hitler was a fan of the “sick leave” option. Just before the end in 1945, Hitler forced Goering to resign all his powers and stripped him of his “rights of succession”. Goering was out on the pretense of a “severe heart attack”, the intent of which was, according to Speer, “to preserve the German people’s faith in the internal unity of the top leadership”.
The fifth “core lesson” is Howard’s care never to appear arrogant or complacent – “not to be seen to cock a snook at the electorate. They want you to earn their vote.”
This is potentially tricky PR, even for dictators. On the one hand, people want “A Man” to take care of issues and relieve them of having to think. Speer described himself as “like millions of others” in this regard in the early 1930s. On the other hand, people do not want to feel that they are being dictated too. This is where pretense comes into play. According Sergo Beria, Stalin was a “born actor”, and Mao’s doctor wrote that he was a “marvellous” actor. So as to not appear arrogant, Hitler, according to Speer, “always attempted to persuade” and often gave his orders as “an opinion only”. Even the brutal Stalin did not want to be seen “to cock the snoot” at those he depended upon for power. “He never gave direct orders”, wrote one of his lieutenants, “so you had to make your own conclusions”. He would just say: “Do as you wish.”
And finally, according to Hartcher and Sinodinos, Howard had developed a “sophisticated radar system” for sensing looming political problems. It included conventional mechanisms such as polling, but also a priority on seeking out people with gripes. “He hates cheer squads.”
All people in power, including all successful dictators, benefit from the axiom, “If only the Tsar knew!” Yet, there are limits, and successful dictators are always on the look-out for a potential political problems – they know the danger of “cheer squads”! As First Consul, Napoleon told Joseph Fouche, his Minister of Police: “I wish to be informed about everything in the greatest detail and to work with you personally at least once, even twice a day when necessary”. Baron Fain, Napoleon’s third secretary, gave an additional example of Napoleon’s “polling” – he regularly “looked over the lists kept at the palace gates”. “Each morning the Grand Marshal made up a bulletin indicating the names of people from the outside who had presented themselves the previous day, and the names of the people inside whom they had asked for. This provided (Napoleon with) an idea of the habits and relationships that the principle inhabitants of the palace had with the people of the city.”