Disbanding the cult of personality


John Preston has witnessed the tearing down of many a member of the Australian cult of personality, but he argues that these days we don’t need them. We have ourselves.


For those of us like me who still look at Victoria’s Secret emails with more hope than regret, I can remember a time, not too long ago when the cult of personality stood tall.

Everyone knew that Ita Buttrose was editing the Women’s Weekly. Bob Hawke was the President of the ACTU (and then Prime Minister of course). Kerry Packer was running Channel 9. Rene Rivkin was larger than life and had the share market on a string. Hugh Hefner commanded the Playboy empire.

Ask the person next to you who is the current the ACTU President or who runs Channel 9 now. They will almost certainly need to Google it. Ask a 13-year-old boy what Playboy magazine is. He will probably tell you that it has something to do with Minecraft.

While the cult of personality is not completely dead in Australia, I would say it lives in a retirement home and has dementia. It will not be long before the plug is pulled.

So what happened?

I think I’ve worked it out.

Most of the players above controlled something that was desired, or were at the forefront of something we were understanding, and felt strongly about. In 1974, Playboy was edgy and out there. When I looked at a back copy this weekend it could easily have been mistaken for a Freedom Furniture catalogue.

Bob Hawke spoke for workers who now speak for themselves in enterprise agreements, Ita Buttrose spoke for an emerging independence for women that is now mainstream, Hugh Hefner got overrun by the internet and no longer has a monopoly on pictures with women with no clothes on. Channel 9 is now one of a million ways that you can view content.

Rene Rivkin, if he were alive today, would just be another pundit. Money and investment now are so fragmented, you can trade it in your bathrobe, even in your bathtub.

In 2015, Australia has very few gates and hence, very few gatekeepers. In 1969, 250,000 people took an overseas trip. In 2014, that number was nearly 9 million. We don’t need to ponder what happens elsewhere, we can go find out ourselves and demand it when we get back home.

Everyone from your grandmother to your 10-year-old has a smartphone and can tell you the location of the nearest Starbucks or anything else for that matter. It’s not just the sacred cows that got slaughtered, the abattoir is available online.

Is this lamentable? Not at all.

If you are one of the few still trading on a rusted rump that’s sauntering toward the glue factory, you may find yourself in a retirement home or lining up a Centrelink sooner than you may like.  Your model has been discontinued.

Or it may just be that competition is good for the business of ideas, as it is for everything else. Perhaps, we grew tired of being hemmed in by the views of others.

In some cases, like Ita Buttrose, Paul Keating and Bob Hawke, the very ideas that they championed ended up loosening their grip or indeed, making themselves less relevant or even redundant in the process.

That’s the sign of a true leader.


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