Generating different leaders

Colin James for the Royal Society’s Kotuitui publication but not published when I refused to indemnify it against all conceivable legal and other challenges

Jon Johansson is a passionate man. He says so in the first sentence of The Politics of Possibility: “I love my country.” It’s an uncommon way for an academic to begin. His reason: “The first principle of any nation is its geography”. And this country is a village where, he says, politics is intimate and politicians accessible.
So Johansson sets out to describe our particular political topography and political flora and fauna. He mixes journalism into his academic inquiry: a Victoria University academic, Johansson relishes being a commentator in the old electronic media and in the evolving online version — and is a campaigning commentator, with some strong views (notably on the future republic) which he airs as an “instinctual centrist” with Aristotelian principles.

His focus is leadership, which he teaches and has written about extensively, including a study of two Prime Ministers he called “titans” in the title: Sir Robert Muldoon and David Lange. Actually, David Lange never bestrode his cabinet. He was the rhetorical device through which the 1980s radical reformers spoke: commanding before an audience but unable to organise to win cabinet votes or to handle confrontation and conflict. Sir Robert bestrode his cabinet with fear as his whip but was unable to adjust to, and so lead the cabinet or the country through, great global and national change.

In Possibility Johansson focuses on the two most recent Prime Ministers: Helen Clark and John Key. Clark had just left office when he wrote; Key had just taken office.

Johansson protests, correctly, that it is too soon to judge either definitively. Instead he devotes a journalistic chapter to each: some biography, some psychology, the formative political influences, their paths to the top and management styles. He draws out the contrast between the farm girl brought up valuing fairness who went social democratic at university and climbed through Labour’s roughhouse ranks and the orphan who lived in a state house for bit, but with a determined and achieving mother, made a fortune in investment banking and in his early 40s helicoptered in to his party, a seat and the leadership.

At age 10 neither could confidently have been predicted to choose the party each eventually led; different nudges at critical points might have sent each the other way. That says something not just about the individuals but also about our flexible politics and changing society. Key’s predecessor, Don Brash, came from a social-liberal background which would logically have steered him into Labour middle-class idealism but his PhD research hooked him into economic libertarianism. Key’s deputy, Bill English, is from a deeply National family in deeply National territory but under his leadership National crashed.

There is an argument that, outside of crises, government in mature democracies has become managerial. The “social cleavage” between workers and bosses, professions and trade, farmers and the town proletariat broke down from the 1960s onward. That attenuated party affiliation, encouraged new parties and eventually legitimised a new electoral system. National was logically better placed to benefit, having a wider recruitment base. But Labour learnt managerial politics and under Clark pitched to the unattached centre.

Johansson captures this aspect of Clark’s powerful prime ministership and also (though he doesn’t put it in these terms) the enduring link with Labour’s roots in her “social engineering” on behalf of the weak and disadvantaged which, when accumulated over three terms, loosened Labour’s conservative wage-worker support. He captures, too, Key’s non-ideological politics: Key the risk-taking currency trader is, in government, the manager: a “transactional” rather than “transformational” leader and therefore pragmatic rather than visionary (though it is too early yet to typecast him).

More important, Johansson sets the two leaderships — and some earlier ones — in three wider contexts.

He examines political cycles and the way in which leadership alters during the cycle, drawing on international analysis to identify three phases: preparation, achievement and consolidation. On this somewhat awkward framework he places Clark’s prime ministership as consolidation (after the 1980s-90s upheaval) and Key’s as preparation (for the next curve in the political cycle).

That leads Johnansson, via a scan of our history, identity and culture (alias customs and values) — not least the emergence of biculturalism — to test the applicability of theories of generational change.

Given that Clark was of the baby-boom generation, which gave us sexual freedom and economic libertarianism — and, I have argued, cut our link with Britain (besides reasserting Maori mana and culture) — and that the next Labour-led government will be dominated by so-called generation-Xers, that suggests 2008 was a dividing line and we are now headed towards governments that will reflect X-generation values.

Key and English are the same age as Johnansson and he locates himself at the tail end of the baby-boom. On that analysis Key’s leadership is transitional: starkly different from the sudden, wrenching change in 1984 when Lange led Clark’s generation into power.

Johansson draws on international experience and research to tease out the generational currents and cross-currents in this transition — and to question whether generational analysis is useful (yes, but with care and qualifications). This is the book’s most valuable contribution to what clearly is, for Johansson, a work in progress.

* Jon Johansson, The Politics of Possibility: Leadership in Changing Times (Dunmore 2009), ISBN 978-1-87739-9466, $40