Is this leadership?

A book review for the NZ Herald Perspectives book page 21 April 2006

Political Leadership in New Zealand

Edited by Raymond Miller and Michael Mintrom

Auckland University Press, 262pp, ISBN 1-86940-358-4

[This is the full version. The Herald published a severely truncated version.]

Do you agree that “political leaders are created, maintained and brought down by the media”? Or do you think you might have a say? And that intrinsic abilities and values might be ingredients, too?

The assertion of media almighty-ness comes, appropriately, from a former television journalist, Margie Comrie. She wrote a doctorate on Television New Zealand’s restructuring and now teaches journalism at Massey University.

The quotation above is her opening sentence in a chapter in Auckland University Professor Raymond Miller’s new co-edited book on political leadership. The wag-the-dog brigade will cheer but those who run or closely observe politics are not likely to. The real story is more complex and subtle.

The other chapters in this miscellany make that clear. They cover a wide range of topics from a wide range of perspectives and employ a wide range of approaches, including some from outside the political studies discipline.

For example, former Victoria University law dean Matthew Palmer (the son of Sir Geoffrey and a formidable intellect) depicts a government leadership failure over the foreshore and seabed but is vague on the alternative(s) and doesn’t explain how the government would have survived the 2005 election if it had not moved swiftly to fence off and fence in iwi and hapu claims.

Manying Ip, who teaches Asian studies at Auckland University, finds political leadership in Asian communities outside, rather than inside, Parliament and says it is complicated by differences between local-born and immigrant “cohorts” — all three current Asian MPs are immigrants.

Jacqui True, a lecturer in Miller’s department, writes on “globalisation and the knowledge economy” and touches on the government’s vaunted “growth and innovation framework”, which was supposed to have, but has not noticeably, steered us into a high-wage-high-innovation, niche-based economy. (Government parsimony on science hasn’t helped.)

There are also chapters on foreign policy and regional development.

Closer to the political spinal chord is the august Ranginui Walker’s “Maori conceptions of leadership and self-determination”. But he writes more about iwi responses to the inescapability of living in a non-Maori polity than leadership within iwi and hapu — Ngai Tahu elect leaders but Tuwharetoa keeps leadership in the te Heuheu whanau.

Other more directly political topics are populist leadership (by retired Professor Barry Gustafson, biographer of populist supremo Sir Robert Muldoon), leadership of minor parties (by Miller himself) and cabinet leadership (by Victoria University’s Elizabeth McLeay, the authority on the cabinet) — and the leadership of Helen Clark and Don Brash.

Ah, at last, you may think, the book gets to the nub. Moreover, co-author John Henderson of Canterbury University wrote a seminal analysis of Muldoon and Labour rival Sir Wallace Rowling in 1980 and was head of the Prime Minister’s Department under David Lange.

Henderson and co-author Seishi Gomibuchi use “operational code analysis”, combining the leaders’ philosophical and operational beliefs (as told by Clark and Brash themselves and by commentators) to describe and predict their objectives and conduct in office.

This is interesting, though fireside followers of politics will learn little they haven’t deduced for themselves. And it underplays upbringing and psyche, experience, management of MPs, officials and lobbyists, marketing skills (or not), “one-of-us-ness” and interaction with the populace — not to mention the stories told about the players by their actions (for example, Clark’s toughness on those she feels let down by and Brash’s naive or disingenuous acceptance of help from the Exclusive Brethren).

Political leadership is more complex and elusive than this chapter allows. And, as Miller and co-editor Michael Mintrom point out in their valuable introductory chapter, its components, objectives and constituencies are very different from business leadership — which is partly why business often sees politics through a narrow and unhelpful lens.

Moreover, miscellany fragments. The same incompleteness marked an edition of the Political Science journal (December 2004) devoted to leadership edited by Victoria University’s Jon Johansson.

Johansson produced last year a detailed book-length study of Muldoon and Lange, those “two titans”, as the title put it, who straddled the generational earthquake which shook this country to the core in the 1980s.

Actually, if Muldoon was titanic, one must spell it with a capital T: he piloted the country into an economic iceberg. And Lange’s titanism had more to do with his appetite than his command of the cabinet, caucus and country. His forte was whimsical or high-flown rhetoric.

But “Two Titans” had what the two miscellanies lack: a systematic analysis within a coherent analytical framework. There are analytical frameworks in some of the chapters, some valuable but all necessarily abbreviated — in effect, also a miscellany.

Johansson has already had a lick at Brash, notably in a tough parsing of the one-law-for-all Orewa speech in his Political Science leadership issue. Perhaps next he could do us a full-length study of the conservative farm girl Clark turned lefty turned conservative again and the christian socialist manse boy Brash turned economic libertarian right wing missionary.

That would be a study of leadership in a business-as-usual period by contrast with the wild Muldoon-Lange years. So it would be more useful to those who, like me, struggle to comprehend what constitutes leadership. It might give us the rudiments of a New Zealand analytical model.

If not Johansson, then the affable, productive Miller. Miller is a serious student of politics as it is done. He maintains extensive contacts with politicians and has many in to talk to his classes, including major party leaders. He is the guru on small parties.

And when Miller does a full-length study, as with his Party Politics in New Zealand last year, he is readable, authoritative and blends theory and practical observation.

There is nevertheless in his latest miscellany much of value for the student and even the casual observer — especially if read with Henderson’s Muldoon-Rowling study and Johansson’s book and leadership edition of Political Science.