Good Leaders and True optimists Keep Going: Dr Steve Thomas MP
"The good leaders and the true optimists keep going despite the best attempts to impede their good intentions. I'm still here, and I'm still making it work."
That's what Steve Thomas told me during our conversation on optimism and leadership.
Western Australian MP The Honourable Dr Steve Thomas MLC B.V.Sc is the Leader of the Opposition in the Legislative Council; Deputy Leader of the Western Australian Liberal Party; and the Shadow Minister for Energy; Treasury; and, Industrial Relations.
Victor Perton: Steve, what makes you optimistic?
Steve Thomas: "The thing that makes me most optimistic is going out in the world and succeeding, whether in work or in other areas. And despite all the negativity in the world, to be able to succeed and demonstrate that success is possible.
"That's the driving force for optimism for everybody.
"It's a tough world, and I've got my share of horror stories from the early years.
"I ran a business for 17 years. Being able to succeed and demonstrate that to people is the absolute pinnacle of giving you a push forward and a step up. I can't emphasize that enough. Don't wait for people to go out there and give you something.
"Going and building a future builds self-resilience, and it builds in you an internal sense of self-worth. So that can lead to a sense of optimism that you can make things better. And that is critical.
"Everybody I've met that's highly optimistic is always able to say, "Well, these are the things I've done so far in life. I might not have achieved everything." They still plan to travel the world or fix the world. We plan to make the world a better place, particularly in politics.
"Half the people who get into politics, my current game, get in there to fix and improve the world. Then what happens is the political system and the bureaucratic system slowly beat it out of them till they fall out of politics eventually, very disillusioned at what they haven't been able to achieve and very angry about the whole process.
"The good leaders and the true optimists keep going despite the best attempts to impede their good intentions. I'm still here, and I'm still making it work.
"One of the secrets to this game is making sure that you have an appreciation for small victories, not big ones."
Victor Perton: Optimism is a state of mind, not the state of the world, and you nailed that. Politics is a challenging game. You've been in and out and elected, reelected. What keeps you optimistic while working in Parliament?
Steve Thomas: Two things keep me optimistic in Parliament.
"First, I have an inner self-belief because I started a business from scratch. I built a business. I sold it, and it was successful. In other parts of life, in terms of other bits of leadership, I was able to be successful, which gave me a good start.
"Then the second part of it is, particularly in politics, if you can focus on making the world a better place for a small number of people. So what are your most significant victories? I've spent a lot of time in opposition, Victor, and I don't get to change the world in those circumstances. I don't bring in legislation that alters a million people's lives, but I get to help people still, and I have victories. I'm in there because I'm good at battling the bureaucracy, and occasionally, we have wins.
"And some of my wins are pretty simple, getting a set of traffic lights or a lollipop person on the street.
"I remember getting extra assistance in a school for a highly autistic child, all of those things that make somebody's life significantly better.
"Now, if you can go through politics and have a whole pile of those and be happy with that, then that's the basis, and that's the start. That's where you need to be.
"Suppose you are lucky enough to be one of those few politicians that get to change the world, fix the taxation system, fix the public service, and fix the delivery of service to the community: In that case, you are one of the very rare lucky people. But if just trying to make the world a better place is enough to drive you, then that's a really good starting point."
Victor Perton: So tell us, what's your optimism for the Western Australian Liberal party and parliamentary Liberal party?
Steve Thomas: "I think Australians are inherently conservative, not necessarily right-wing, and ultimately, they tend to be in a mindset where they'll give you a go if you can demonstrate a degree of credibility.
"I've been around long enough to see the Labor Party and Liberal Party cycle through periods of opposition and government.
"People will listen if you can deliver a message that shows you are present and credible.
"But I say this all the time, Victor; politics is tough but relatively simple.
"The role generally, particularly in opposition, is to be present.
"You have to be in the debates, in the arguments, and present in the community so they can reach out and talk to you. You also have to be credible.
"This old saying is generally true: oppositions don't win government. Governments lose government. But if you're not a credible opposition, you can't step up and take it when the government starts to look shaky.
"We have to be credible.
"Those are the two things that drive politics if we can deliver that.
"It's not easy because not only do you have to be credible, you have to do the background work. You have to do the research. So it takes work: There's a lot of work involved, and then you have to be able to deliver the message.
"So find what the important message is, the issues that impact people, and be able to deliver it in a way that the media will pick it up, and that's not easy.
"The media has changed significantly in the 20 years I've been involved.
"It's gone from very much a let's educate the public on both ends of an argument and let them decide to a much more 24-hour media cycle-driven sensationalist model where modern media tends to tell you how to think rather than give you the information and let you think.
"For someone like me who's absolutely dedicated to having a more educated, more involved public in politics, that's anathema. That's a problem.
"I want to see politicians working on talking to the people and informing the people how all these things work.
"I don't like how politics has been dumbed down, but I'll admit that we, the political groups and parties, have been a part of that decline: That's not good for the long-term governance of the country or the state."
Victor Perton: Can I take you on a zoom out? What makes you optimistic about Western Australia and the world?
Steve Thomas: "Oh, well, in terms of Western Australia, not trying to belittle anybody in the Eastern states, but my goodness, if you want to be anywhere in the world, whether it's during or after COVID or not, you want to be in Western Australia.
"We are a massive state by area. We have enormous resources. We have a small, slowly growing population that gets to take advantage of that.
"We're a third of the country in terms of geographical area. We're 10% of the population. We generate a lot of wealth, mainly through the mining sector, agriculture and others. That wealth generated is distributed to a reasonably small number of people.
"Now, everybody in the Eastern states gets a chance to get their cut because they can invest in our companies. So if you have superannuation, I can guarantee that you have some shares in mining companies that make good money out of Western Australia.
"In terms of the economy, this is the state to be in. But, like everywhere, we need more workers, so we must build on that.
"We have a bit of a boom-bust cycle, so I still want to see us be able to convert the mining booms into a more stable economy as we advance.
"That's one of my grand visions for the future, to see other industries step up a bit as mining fluctuates as it is always going to do.
"I came here as a young man. I've been here 30-something years. This is the state where you can do what I did, arrive with three suitcases and a couple of hundred dollars in cash. Then, a couple of years later, I start a business, build a business, grow, get involved in leadership, and ultimately, as I am, become the opposition leader in the Upper House and the Shadow Treasurer.
"This state is open for people to make their mark in the world.
"Look, it's incredibly hard not to be hugely optimistic about the state of Western Australia.
"Debt levels are low. The government's making a fortune in tax revenue. So in terms of the state of Western Australia, it's very hard not to be very optimistic about the future over here.
"In terms of the world, it's a slightly different picture because there are far more headwinds in the world. There are geopolitical issues. There are more severe financial issues. There are a lot of countries that look a little lost at the moment.
"I have a driving belief in human nature that human nature's very good at ultimately finding a way.
"Take critical issues, for example, like climate change.
"I'm confident that human abilities and collaboration will deliver the technology to make a significant fix.
"It may take another 30 or 40 years, but I'm optimistic we'll get there.
"The best of human nature means they'll always leave the world in a better place.
"The secret is not to get bogged down in the worst of human nature, the cultural identities, and the repression that occurs in various areas.
"I think part of that is that if you don't get bogged down in that, you're less likely to get caught up in the minority can of cultures that don't make any more sense.
"You've got totalitarian states at one end, and that's terrible. So too, you've got people bogged down in conspiracy theories.
"There's so much optimism in the middle if you can find it and find good people."
Victor Perton: You sound almost like Zelenskyy, the president of Ukraine who Fareed Zakaria interviewed. Zakaria asked, "How can you stay optimistic in the face of such evil?" Zelenskyy said, "Because I believe in people. I believe in my people, and I believe in the people of the world."
You've nailed that faith in human nature.
I interviewed Bill George, the head of leadership at Harvard, and asked, "what makes you optimistic?" He said, "being surrounded by positive people. What a blessing."
It sounds like you, too, have made excellent choices there.
Thinking about that, you're a leader in politics. You were born in Snowy River country - born in Mansfield. You moved to Western Australia, which in anyone's terms in the world, is a frontier country.
Who have been the leaders and the bosses, the positive people, men and women who've inspired you?
Steve Thomas: "There are two ends to this, Victor, the good and the bad.
"I've had some good bosses, particularly a couple of guys. When I was at the University of Queensland many years ago, I worked to put myself through. I worked at a place called the Council Club (free plug). I was just a general dogsbody, barman, pickup, whatever else; I had some excellent bosses there, Neil and Dennis, and they taught me a lot about business because they had a very mobile staff like staff would come and go, so it was excellent to pick up some good tips on how to work with people and encourage them along the way. So that was great.
"The bad bosses, more than the good ones, probably influenced me more. I've seen terrible examples of how to run a business.
"My first full-time job involved terrible bosses. So that's why when I set up, 18 months after that, my own business, then all of the things that you see other people do very badly, you get determined not to do.
"Now it's a bit like parents, Victor. Smart people look at their parents and think, "They weren't terrible. They weren't perfect. I'm going to take the really good bits that they did, and I'm going to leave behind the bits that I thought weren't very good."
"Understanding bosses are very similar.
"Unfortunately, in Australia, we don't often have a great leadership culture. So you have to work to find the optimists and the good bosses.
"When you find them, that's fantastic, but you can also learn from the bad ones.
"When I started the business back in 1991, my first business, I was determined to do all the things my boss previously didn't do, treat staff with respect, and treat clients well. Be firm, but be friendly and positive as a part of the process.
"I learned a lot from a whole pile of bad bosses.
"The same applies to politics. I've had some good leaders, but I've also had some terrible leaders.
"The things you learn from the terrible leaders are even more important than the ones you learn from the good ones.
"So as long as you cannot be bitter and twisted about it, as long as you can take it and learn from it and go, "I'm not going to do that, therefore I'm going to do these things in a different way."
"That was absolutely critical for my development.
"Now, whether it was in business, early leadership, volunteer, or politics, learn how not to do it badly. So it's just one of those wonderful tools that you can get."
Victor Perton: What does the modern Liberal party stand for?
Menzies wrote, "we took the name “Liberal” because we were determined to be a progressive party, willing to make experiments, in no sense reactionary but believing in the individual, his rights, and his enterprise, and rejecting the Socialist panacea."
In my favourite book on liberalism, Hobhouse wrote, "The heart of Liberalism is the understanding that progress is not a matter of mechanical contrivance, but of the liberation of living spiritual energy."
What's 2020's liberalism to you?
Steve Thomas: "That is an excellent question.
"I wish every Liberal should sit down and think about this because I go to meetings, and sometimes people ask an MP "what does it mean to be a Liberal?"
"There's nothing worse than watching a Liberal MP, in particular, not being able to answer it.
"Perhaps it's a little bit different for everybody, so I'm going to run you through, Victor, what I believe being a Liberal is, and I think we often forget. I think we've forgotten what being a Liberal actually stands for.
"I'm a bit arch-conservative in economics, but that arch-conservatism is not actually what the Liberal party stands for.
"You've got to look at all of politics, your side, their side.
"I have some good friends in the Labor Party because one of the secrets of politics is to find good people wherever they are.
"You don't have to agree with them to respect them.
"My personal belief on the sides of politics, left-wing versus right-wing, is as simple as this. If you are right-wing, you believe in individual reward.
"If you gamble on starting a business, then you should reap the majority of the rewards of that. Likewise, if you invest in something and attempt to do something, you should be recognized and rewarded for that.
"If you're out on the left wing all the way out to communism, you believe in communal reward. So if somebody like me goes out and starts a business, the rewards of that business should be shared equally with everybody in the community.
"I think one of the basics of liberalism and conservative politics is individual reward, and at the same time, it's also individual responsibility.
"Now, if you're out in the left wing, you believe in communal responsibility. Everybody's at fault.
"I think that's the fundamental difference between the right wing and left wing, and therefore it's the real difference between the Liberal party and all the other parties.
"We talk about Menzies' "forgotten people" speech. Menzies focused on aspirational people.
"I often use the word 'aspirational' because optimism and positivity come partly from aspiration.
"Because if you have no aspirations, you won't achieve anything, and you're probably not very happy with yourself.
"Aspirational people are the group of people that we should talk to that naturally fit within the Liberal Party philosophy.
"Menzies had his forgotten people. They were the aspirational people. The people that wanted to buy a home, start a business or rise up the chain in terms of their employment. They wanted to get ahead, and Menzies spoke to them and for them.
"Now, jump forward a couple of decades. The next great leader, John Howard, probably. Remember, the secret to his success was "Howard's battlers."
"Howard's battlers weren't the people who were unemployed or unemployable. Some of them were unemployed, but as unemployed, they were still aspirational. They wanted to get into the workforce. It wasn't the group of people that naturally appealed to the Labor party.
"Howard's battlers were the aspirational group, the people that wanted to get ahead, start a business, rise up the chain, start a family, own a home. That aspirational group was the same whether it was Menzies or Howard. But we've gotten that in this new version of politics.
"I want to see the Liberal party go back to appealing to aspirational people who believe in individual responsibility and individual reward. That's the group of people that we have yet to speak to them. We have yet to reach out to them. We've tried to be all things to all people.
"We've changed the way politics works, but I want to see us reach out to aspirational people because, like me, they're optimists. They're the people that will take the country forward.
"They're the people that want to get ahead, and it's that group we have to reach out to. We need to do a better job with that. Now the other thing I say is that people in their lifetime shift through the political spectrum a bit.
"I firmly believe in the old adage "that you don't have a heart if you're not a little bit left-wing when you are young. And if you're not a little bit right-wing when you're older, you don't have a brain."
"The balance and the compromise are critical.
"My daughters are a prime example. I've got four daughters between 18 and 28, starting slightly left-wing. They're ideological. That's probably rubbed off a bit, and that's okay.
"We need to be able to talk as a Liberal party to the young people interested in things like climate change and saving the planet.
"We need to be able to have a conversation with them.
"We won't always agree, but we've been terrible at talking to that group of people.
"Unfortunately, the Liberal party's been very good at saying, "you're just wrong. You don't know what you're talking about."
"We haven't talked to them about what matters to them.
"That's not to say that we'll suddenly swing a whole pile of 18 to 30-year-old votes our way, but I'll tell you what: Somewhere around 30, most people with ambition are starting to move into that next stage of life. They're looking at long-term relationships, children, raising a family, starting a business, running a business, or climbing up the work ladder, and they're absolutely looking at home ownership. They become aspirational.
"If we can talk to them in the early years and say, "When you are ready to become aspirational, you come and talk to us," then all of this doom and gloom about everybody's abandoning the Liberal party will become nonsense because that group is still there.
"Human nature still applies. So that group will come to us if we can demonstrate that that's still what we stand for. Probably for the last 20 years or so, we haven't done that or done it very poorly. So that's the group that we need to look at."
Victor Perton: I asked Richard Alston, a minister in the Howard government and was president of the Victorian Liberal party when Dick Hamer was premier, how did the Liberal Party lose its national leadership for conservation and the environment. What do you reckon, Steve?
Steve Thomas: "You're absolutely right. In Western Australia, we've had a few outstanding leaders, probably none more so than Sir Charles Court.
"I knew Charles. He was an excellent fellow, probably one of the first great environmentalists.
One of his great advisors in environmental circles was Harry Butler, who went on to more national fame than Sir Charles did. They did great things.
"The first significant expansion of the reserve system in Western Australia was done under a Liberal government under Sir Charles Court. Sir Charles Court was an environmentalist who also believed in development.
"I can tell you because I've also used him as an advisor. He's passed away now. They're both gone, but Harry Butler was also a great advisor and believer in the potential to develop and preserve simultaneously. So you can do that, and Liberal governments have done that in the past. We're just dreadful at talking about it.
"For some reason, there's a group in the Liberal party who want to believe that the word environmental is evil and that we need to be opposed to using it and talking about it in any way, shape or form.
"I have been to many Liberal meetings over many decades, Victor.
"Every leader that came over here in the last 20 years from the Federal Liberal Party always said in their annual speech, "Yes, climate change is important, and we need to do things about it. So here are some of the things we're doing."
"Funnily enough, the Liberal party and the Labor party took almost the same climate change and environment policies to the last election, but no one ever talked about the Liberal party one because we couldn't display this sort of discipline to get behind that message because of the group of people who are far more interested in just going, "Anything environmental is evil. All we believe about is economic growth."
"Sir Charles Court and I believe John Howard ultimately realized that you don't have economic growth without environmental preservation, and we have to be smart about it.
"Sir Charles Court instigated land clearing bans in places in Western Australia. Sir Charles Court was one of the first people back in the '60s and '70s to say, "We cannot just clear all the time. We have to have an environmental focus here, meaning in some areas land clearings are negative, not a positive," and he led the way with that."
"So there's this great history in the party of positive environmental outcomes if we could only talk about that instead of internal divisions based on whether climate change exists or not. I'm a climate change believer. It's critically important, Victor.
"I'll give you my brief version of why climate change is important.
"Climate change is significant because as the climate changes, for the first time, there are substantial impacts on human life.
"The climate has shifted before. Oceans have been a hundred meters higher and lower. Temperatures have been eight degrees higher and lower.
"It has shifted before, so why is it critically important now? It's for two reasons. For the first time, we are changing the speed of change at a point that makes it very difficult for the ecology to adapt. Second, ecologies do change: That's why the tundra was once a rainforest: The Sahara was once a rainforest.
"Those ecosystems will move, but you've got to give them time to adapt.
"The second most important reason is there are so many humans on the planet now. There's almost nowhere for environments to adapt to. So if a major forest needed to shift, there's a population that gets in the way. So that's why it's important. That's why we need to manage the process, and that's why we need to act."
Victor Perton: In Western Australia, you're well placed. You've got Twiggy Forrest and others working on green hydrogen. You've got a mining sector that needs a social license to operate everywhere from Western Australia to Rwanda and the Congo. So when you talk about sustainable enterprises beyond mining, you've got the mining industry leaders who may be leading the way.
Steve Thomas: "We have to make that transition in a really practical way that keeps the lights on for people, keeps the air conditioners on for people.
"You've got to be careful about being bogged down in the ideology. The problem is that the bits of the debate that get into the media and get covered are either the two extremes, either we're about to drown because the oceans are going up a hundred meters tomorrow, or it doesn't exist at all. So that's the bit that gets coverage in the debate.
"So we need to ensure we have sensible, practical responses as we transition, and it has to work. We can't be ideological. We absolutely have to be practical, and we will get there. I'm confident we'll get there. We won't get there in the timeframe currently proposed here in a massive change in the next seven or six years. We probably won't deliver that because it's not practical,
"If we look at carbon neutrality by 2050, I'm optimistic that Australia and Western Australia will be pretty damn close over that period.
"It's a good thing for the planet. I'm not convinced that the whole world will come with us, but our economy will adjust whether they do or not. Western Australia is right at the forefront of many of those things.
Victor Perton: Well, Steve, you are at the forefront of leadership thinking. There's just such a genuineness about you and that infectious optimism the Australian people are looking for. You've been utterly generous with your time. Is there anything I have not touched on that you would like to add?
Steve Thomas: "To the people of Australia, notably Western Australia, we're doing it very well here, and the future looks pretty good in Australia.
"That's not to say there aren't threats on the horizon, but if you start to think that the future looks okay, you can start to feel relaxed a little bit more and treat the people around you with more respect.
"It's not always sheep stations that we're playing for.
"Let's boost each other up rather than tear each other down. If we could get that as a part of the focus, that would be a significant step towards leading into an even better future for this country, which still is the best place in the world to live."