Top of the Greasy Pole
The record of political leadership in New Zealand is not inspiring. Out of 37 Premiers and Prime Ministers since 1854 only two could be called outstanding, rather than merely memorable.
There have been several sound administrators and the odd volatile visionary but only two leaders ‑ Richard John Seddon and Michael Joseph Savage ‑ in whom vision fused with lasting achievement and who seemed to express in their persons the soul of the nation at that point in history. The rest have ranged from the erratic to the autocratic and sometimes both at once; most have struggled to stamp their personalities on their parties, let alone the nation at large.
Maybe we shouldn’t get too downhearted about that ‑ maybe, in fact, two out of 37 is a respectable ratio as democracies go (name two dynamic and dazzling Canadian Prime Ministers). Maybe we should take heart from the fact that charismatic leaders don’t exactly appear to be thick on the ground in other western nations either.
But the feeling remains that not only are we poorly served by our leaders but that the quality of them has actually declined in recent years. (Certainly their shelf life seems to be getting shorter.) A prime reason for this is probably that the best and the brightest ‑ the potential leaders in any community ‑ are no longer attracted to politics. In all walks of life, one finds talented people who might once have gone into Parliament and risen to the top; but these days that is the last thing they would contemplate. They’d rather do something more fulfilling, like scrubcutting.
This is the hidden price of the degradation of politics in the past 20 years: that it has deterred the very people who should be coming forward to make something better of it again.
There are other factors, of course, not least of which is the power of the mass media ‑ a power unknown 100 or even 50 years ago ‑ to create and crucify the reputations of politicians. Thanks to that, the chief requirement of aspirants for high office these days is not so much a noble brow as a hide the size of a rhino’s.
It may even be that the combination of circumstances that permitted the rise of a Seddon or Savage will never occur again, in other words, that this is no age for heroes and that anyone trying to express in their person the soul of the nation shouldn’t be let out of the grounds after sunset. So long, Superman; come in, Clark Kent.
Still, there are reasons for hope that quality leadership will yet emerge again. MMP, for a start: because leaders won’t have to be all things to all people any more, it may be that blandness will no longer be at a premium. We may yet see in our time the emergence of leaders more prepared to be upfront and open about their intentions and less afraid of offending Mr and Ms Average.
Already, Labour has moved to replace a broad-brush leader with one a little more sharply defined, the very fact that that leader is a woman is cause for hope alone. (On that basis, the smart money should be on Jenny Shipley to replace Jim Bolger before too long.) Minor parties, too, are moving closer to centre stage in the new political climate and minor parties have always had more interesting leaders than major ones. The public are currently discovering Jim Anderton. He was always there; it was just that the old electoral system had no way of training the spotlight on him.
Second, the discrediting of doctrinaire approaches to government, whether from left or right, may produce a less arrogant class of leader, that is, politicians who won’t feel they have to lecture us on our shortcomings as a people. One of the worst problems of recent years has been the widening gap between the masses milling about in the market (you and me) and a priestly élite of politicians who alone had access to the sacred runes of Treasury. Hopefully, talking at, past or down to will no longer be the basic mode of communications between government and people.
Third, there’s a chance, albeit a faint one, that the new climate will place less emphasis, and therefore less pressure, on leaders as such and more emphasis on teamwork and a wider spread of talent (look out for those MMP lists).
A crucial maturity is required from the media here. There will always be leaders, but maybe we can start moving away from the lunatic focus on leaders as gods with superhuman powers of control and confidence. Then maybe more human, natural qualities can emerge and leadership can be redefined in terms not of the leader’s personality but of the relationship between leader and led.
For all the above reasons Neale McMillan’s book seems a bit more like a museum piece than the author might have had cause to expect when it was published a couple of months ago. The cover photo, for instance, includes Mike Moore looking blissfully unaware that he is soon to be stuffed and mounted.
But this undemanding study of the work habits, political styles and personal tastes of the last six Prime Ministers from Sir Wallace Rowling to Jim Bolger does have the virtue of drawing heavily on the words of the leaders themselves, as interviewed ‑ not in rhetorical mode (though the present incumbent finds it hard to let his guard slip) but reflecting on their own strengths, weaknesses and idiosyncrasies.
The result is a book that humanises ‑ at least to some extent ‑ these roosters who ruled the barnyard in their various ways. It gets them off their perches and keeps the crowing down to a minimum. It is also rich in anecdotes drawn from 30 years experience in the parliamentary press gallery and contains one particularly interesting section in which McMillan asks each leader to mark his own scorecard.
Regrets, they’ve had a few: David Lange, for instance, ‘rates his greatest failure as not accepting [Sir] Roger Douglas’s resignation earlier’. Point noted. More interestingly, Rowling wishes now that he had called an early election on taking over the reins after Norman Kirk’s death; Sir Robert Muldoon, on the other hand, says that calling an early election was the silliest thing he ever did. So why did he do it? McMillan supplies the answer elsewhere when he dryly observes of Muldoon that ‘it would be a distortion to say he was sober on the night he announced the 1984 snap election’.
The book also reinforces what an odd pair Lange and Sir Geoffrey Palmer were ‑ quite out of the run of our usual types of leader. That may explain something about the extraordinary upheaval the nation went through during their terms in office. Neither had to plod or claw his way to the top, neither had great economic nous, neither could be called plain-spoken, neither remotely fitted McMillan’s definition of the characteristic New Zealand Prime Minister as unpretentious and approachable … ‘a good kiwi joker’; and both jumped from the job rather than be pushed.
They were both also enormous fun for the media, though not always for reasons complimentary to themselves. Predictably, perhaps, in 1990 we reverted to a leader who plods and possibly Labour now has one with claws. Whether Lange and Palmer were prototypes of a new kind of leadership or just an aberrant strain remains to be seen.
So much for leaders. In the spirit of new-age/ MMP/ we’re-all-in-this-together consensus, it’s only fair to conclude by wondering whether our leaders are only epitomes of us all. What if it’s true, as is sometimes said, that we get the leaders we deserve?
McMillan appears to share this view when he says that Prime Ministers are expected to ’embody the characteristics of the nation’. Does this mean, then, that when Muldoon was Prime Minister we were all, in a sense, Muldoons? And, later, all Langes at heart? And what are we now – three-and-a-half million Bolgers, with bits of Clark, Peters and Anderton mixed up in there?
These are dark matters. They suggest that all criticism of leaders should to a large extent be self-criticism. Voter, heal thyself. Even more troubling is the thought that people whose formative years were the fifties are almost certainly two parts Sid Holland, one part Walter Nash.
Denis Welch is a journalist with The Listener, in which, until late 1992 when he stood for parliament for the Alliance in the Wellington Central by-election, he wrote a political column.