Saturday, June 14, 2008

Visionaries and managers


I am not an historian and I am not a political scientist. But it seems to me that if you look at previous New Zealand prime ministers, at least in my lifetime, they fall into two broad categories: managers and visionaries.

Take Keith Holyoake, for example. He was the epitome of the good political manager, keeping his cabinet and caucus in line and astutely feeling the pulse of the electorate.

He didn’t take big political risks and he rarely did more than he had to. His handling of New Zealand’s involvement in the Vietnam War was a classic example of his cautious, pragmatic style.

He felt he had to make some commitment in order to keep on side with New Zealand’s allies, but was clearly uncomfortable sending troops to a messy war and certainly wasn’t inclined to follow the gung-ho approach of Australian prime minister Harold Holt, who famously coined the phrase “All the way with LBJ” (US president Lyndon Baines Johnson). So he did as little as he thought he could get away with.

Holyoake’s was not a flamboyant or inspirational style of leadership and he didn’t command particular affection from the public. In fact he was often satirised, rather unfairly, as aloof and pompous. But it was a winning style that kept him in power for 12 generally stable, prosperous years.

Jim Bolger was another manager. His seven years in power will be remembered as much as anything for the horse trading with New Zealand First that led to the first coalition government of the MMP era. The point of being in politics, Bolger pointed out, was to stay in power – even if it meant making Winston Peters, his erstwhile bitter adversary, deputy PM and Minister of Finance. Historian Ian F Grant wrote of him: “Flexibility and opportunism, rather than a fixed philosophic viewpoint, were to be his watchwords”.

Robert Muldoon was a manager too – a controlling and compulsive one whose interventionist, bullying style of micro-managing destabilised and divided New Zealand socially as well economically. The extent of Muldoon’s vision, such as it was, was demonstrated by his famous statement that he wished to leave New Zealand no worse than he found it.

So who were our visionary prime ministers, and how does one define them? I would describe a visionary leader as one who inspires us with a new sense of what New Zealand could and should be, and who has the charisma to persuade us to embrace that vision. Visionary leaders give their country a sense of energy, pride and ambition.

In my lifetime the two obvious visionary prime ministers have both been Labour leaders: Norman Kirk and David Lange. This is probably no coincidence, since an idealistic, reforming party like Labour is more likely to produce visionaries than one rooted in stolid, conservative pragmatism, such as the Nats.

The trouble is that, in politics as in business, visionaries tend to be lousy managers. A natural orator, “Big Norm” Kirk inspired New Zealanders with a radical vision of New Zealand as an independently minded, bold little South Pacific state that would decide its own place in the world rather than meekly tag along with its bigger allies Britain, America and Australia. But he had a very limited grasp of economics and he didn’t like delegating – some say because he didn’t trust his colleagues. As a result he took too much of the burden of government on himself and burned himself out in the process, dying in office.

Lange, like Kirk, was a charismatic speaker – though much more witty – and had a wonderfully sharp, insightful mind. He energised people with his stirring oratory and his defiantly independent line in world affairs. But like Kirk he was at heart a loner, with little appetite for the mechanics of government and even less for policy detail. He failed to control his quarrelsome cabinet (some say he simply lost interest) and as a result his government unravelled.

So what are we to make of Helen Clark? Is she at heart a visionary, or a manager?

Let’s deal with the second part of that question first. It’s my view, as an observer placed well outside the Wellington political scene (and therefore in the best possible position to judge), that Clark is a political manager nonpareil. Through three terms in government she has not only exerted tight control over her Labour colleagues – a big challenge in itself – but has also adroitly kept onside with the hotch-potch of alliances on which the survival of her government depends. Even when the wheels have threatened to fall off, she has generally managed to appear serenely calm and composed in public.

Could she, then, also be a visionary? It’s possible to be both. Some historians would say that wartime Labour prime minister Peter Fraser managed it. But while we sometimes see glimpses of a visionary Clark, mainly in her desire to position New Zealand in the vanguard of world action on issues such as climate change, a vital requisite of the visionary prime minister is the ability to articulate that vision to the nation. In that respect, Clark has been less successful than some of her Labour predecessors. In the eyes of the voters she is essentially seen as a capable and pragmatic manager – a “safe pair of hands”, to use one of rugby’s highest compliments.

And how about John Key, who is asking us to make him our leader for at least the next three years? Visionary or manager? Frankly we don’t know whether he’s either, neither or both. If he has a vision, he hasn’t communicated it. And his managerial skill is yet to be tested under fire, since he’s had a very easy run thus far. The demands of government, if National wins the election, will very quickly expose any weaknesses – by which time, unfortunately, it will be rather too late for us to do anything about it.

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