Games of chance in the corridors of power
Andrew Leigh is one of the stars of Labor’s frontbench. He doesn’t have a union background — he’s been an economics professor and an associate to former High Court judge Michael Kirby — and he’s not aligned with any faction. But after six years in parliament he’s the opposition’s assistant Treasury spokesman.
Now, like several of his colleagues, he’s written a book, and what a cracker it is. The Luck of Politics is Leigh’s take on how chance and strange events can change the course of history. Deploying both hard data and political anecdote, he mounts a persuasive argument that while leadership and policy count, a bit of bad luck can derail even the most powerful politicians. Sometimes the fate of the nation is as random as a throw of the dice.
Leigh defines luck as “events the individual concerned does not control or predict’’. He of- fers coin tossing as an example: “When you toss a coin in the air, the side that lands face up is determined by how hard you throw it, the wind conditions and what surface it lands on … The person tossing the coin cannot control or predict the outcome.”
And what luck some of our politicians have had. Leigh examines how preselection and internal ballots, so often matters of confident prediction, can throw up results no one imagined. Scott Morrison, the new Treasurer, prevailed in preselection after a disputed ballot. Julia Gillard, the first female prime minister, was very nearly “Senator Gillard” in 1996 but missed out. One Nation senator-elect Heather Hill found out she was a British national as she was about to take her seat.
And then there’s that luckiest — and unluckiest — of prime ministers, Gough Whitlam, who missed out on a local council seat and a spot in state parliament before ending up in Canberra. As he once mused: “I could have been lord mayor of Sydney, premier of NSW or even president of the Sutherland Shire. Alas, the fates were against me.’’
Leigh’s data crunching shows how the circumstances of birth can make the journey to parliament tougher. Women have a 0.33 per cent disadvantage in elections (an improvement on the 10 per cent when they were first eligible to run in 1903). People with Asian names suffer a 1.5 per cent penalty in elections; Muslim candidates fare worse at 2.3 per cent. As for indi- genous candidates, Leigh points out there’s not enough data to tell, which says it all.
He thinks we dwell too much on failure. He takes Robert Menzies and John Howard, two men whose careers came crashing down before they rose to power, as examples of how bad luck can be fleeting. He also offers his own counterfactual history, the what-ifs and the mighthave-beens. What if Whitlam had survived in 1975, only to be followed in the 1980s by Andrew Peacock and Howard with a maximally Thatcherite agenda? What if Menzies had replaced Churchill as British PM? Such speculations underline Leigh’s central thesis.
“If you omit luck from your view of politics, you’ll be too quick to revere the winners and revile the losers,’’ he writes. “Putting chance back in the picture allows for a more balanced perspective on politics, and a reminder of the myriad ways that luck shapes all our lives.”
This is a fun book, and an optimistic one: Leigh wants to reassure us a lot of things come right in the end. It’s through appreciating luck and the lack of it, he reckons, that we can understand failure and suffering, and rise above it.
is a freelance journalist.