An outbreak of political niceness

Our leaders have shown recently that, when they really try hard, they can be quite pleasant. Long may it continue

Politics can be a rancourous business. During Helen Clark’s tenure, her opponents made it especially so. As Colin James noted in a recent Herald column, the venom of the Clark-haters (‘the witch is dead’) was striking in its intensity and viciousness. But as we embark upon a summer break from things political, it is pleasing to note the emergence of some fundamental pleasantness and decency among our senior politicians.

The first sign was that final leaders' debate on TVNZ. Helen was on some fantastic stuff. Whatevever it was, we should all have it at Christmas. She smiled and was polite. She paid Key compliments, which he returned, and he also made some of his own compliments of her. It was a fundamentally decent affair.

It is to John Key’s credit that he’s never had any truck with the nonsense that many on the right of politics feel towards Clark. Since his win, he has made plain his admiration for her performance as Prime Minister, particularly on the international stage. He makes no secret of the advice he has sought from her, as he embarks on his own career. He has treated her with the respect her record warrants. His acknowledgement of her as Parliament was sworn in was a genuinely decent touch.

Credit also goes to Clark. It’s not so natural for her, as she’s an intensely competitive political animal, but her election night concession was gracious and dignified. Her opponents over the years likened her to Muldoon, but the contrast between their respective responses to election defeats could not have been starker, both in the handover of power at the government level and the party level.

She has willingly assisted Key with hints on how to handle some of the issues and personalities he will encounter outside New Zealand. She is keeping her own counsel, and has limited herself to a couple of interviews on foreign policy, and an exceedingly apolitical appearance on Close Up’s end-of-year programme. (Though she does have limits. The suggestion that she might serve as an ambassador for Key’s government would be, I think, a step too far.)

Key does well because he is able to marry pleasantness with ability. He scores well on the American is-this-politician-someone-you-could-have-a beer-with? test. While Clark’s persona is more austere and Presbyterian, her post-election conduct is showing New Zealanders another side of her. While she’s unlikely to do a haka in the Viaduct Basin or Octagon on a Friday night, most would regard her as a fascinating person to have a natter with over a drink.

For a small country, we are fortunate in the quality of our political leaders. Anyone who observed Clark closely overseas saw just how assured and capable she was in comparison to many of her counterparts. (To accusations of bias, I would add that I similarly admired John Howard, while seldom (never, actually) agreeing with his policies.) Key won’t be in the same class as Clark in international fora, but then few are. Geo-politics is her gig. His is finance.

Phil Goff is another quality leader. He will present a stiff challenge once Key’s honeymoon starts to ebb – as all political honeymoons do – sometime next year. Goff is fundamentally pleasant – he passes the beer-drink test – and has a ready and engaging smile which can soften the rigour with which he can approach his work. National knows that over the past nine years they never bested him on an issue or in debate. He demonstrates a formidable grasp of issues in a manner similar to Clark, and like her has years of interest in and study of foreign policy to draw upon.

All in all, we have a bit to be thankful for. While the economy tanks, at least we’re not goverened by some of the limited individuals who hold power elsewhere. Perhaps over Christmas we can ask for such niceness in our politicians to continue, for test hundreds to become commonplace in the Black Caps top order, and for someone to paint Mike Hosking a picture so he can stop asking for one.