Jon argues that 2008 is rife for preparatory leadership, but wonders whether National's small-target political strategy has blunted Jon Key's ability to deliver it.

In last week’s post I talked about our big change periods and the longer periods of consolidation between them. Today I want to explore more closely the cycles of our politics since 1984, because even within overarching periods of consolidation there are more subtle movements taking place within our politics. To show this I’ll borrow from a framework originally conceived by American historian Arthur Schlesinger.

Schlesinger saw two alternating phases in American politics, periods of achievement and periods of consolidation. Presidential Scholar Erwin Hargrove later adapted this framework by adding a third wheel to Schlesinger’s theory, periods of preparation. According to Hargrove there were presidents who prepared the way for reform, presidents who achieved reforms, and presidents who then consolidated the achievements of their predecessor.

A very neat pattern emerged. Kennedy was a president of preparation, achievement (both positive and negative) characterised LBJ’s presidency (think: Great Society, Civil Rights and Vietnam), and Nixon consolidated these earlier efforts. He never unpicked Johnson’s Great Society programmes, and he managed the end-game of Vietnam, albeit in a monstrously ill-tempered fashion. The preparation phase began anew, and awkwardly, with Carter’s failed presidency. Achievements ensued with Reagan, while George H.W. Bush consolidated Reagan’s gains, albeit not well enough to secure a second term.

Clinton was another president of preparation, frustratingly so for Bubba, and luckily for Hargrove he published before George W. Bush’s presidency. Hargrove would surely not have viewed Bush as a president of achievement. The best that can be said is that Bush’s achievements are entirely negative and all rooted in the various misperceptions of threat, hubris, and other motivations that led to Iraq.

Turning to New Zealand, and beginning in 1984, we could characterise the Fourth Labour Government and Bolger’s first term as three consecutive periods of achievement (for both good and ill). Bolger’s second term, however, stands out as a rare oasis of preparatory leadership in our domestic setting. Bolger handled our lead up to major electoral system change with a calm equanimity even as politicians deserted left, right and centre to form new parties.

National’s third term could only be characterised as consolidation, and that’s being charitable about the post-Bolger coalition of malcontents and bovver boys who brought down the dreadful curtain on National’s last term in power.

It gets tricky once we come to Clark’s Labour-led governments from 1999. On one hand they consolidated the post-Rogernomics and Ruthanasia reforms, mediating the worst inequalities that resulted from them, but Clark never overturned any of the significant planks of her post-Revolution policy inheritance.

A further three terms of consolidation also sits comfortably with those analyses which posit that we have been experiencing a concerted period of drift and that the electorate is clamouring for a new phase, if not upheaval, in our politics.

On the other hand Clark might reasonably argue that ’99 began a new cycle of preparation and her governments have then ‘achieved’ during their past two terms in areas of social policy and the economy. But given the lack of any overarching, let alone compelling, purpose having been articulated by the Prime Minister, wavering voters have either taken Labour’s achievements for granted or they have come to view them as a failed response, so we still default back to drift.

This last term has been particularly brutal, with the prolonged fuss over the Auditor-General’s idiosyncratic findings over spending preferences at the last election, the unseemly and ignominious fall of Don Brash in 2006, and the bitter intensity around the Electoral Finance Act late last year. Each points to a wasted, partisan-soaked three years.

I’m drawn to Clark’s time in power as a period of consolidation, although its progressive social policy reforms, Cullen’s prudent management of public debt, and development of a solid national savings platform represent the standout achievements of Labour’s later years in power.

What then of 2008?

Clark is promising more effective consolidation than her opponents, cloaked in the language of experience, competence and trust. Key is also promising consolidation if one judges him on just how much of the significant policy inheritance he has signed up to. His change rhetoric is more in tune with the restlessness out there in the electorate, but his economic vision spelled out last week was neither visionary nor linked to any larger re-casting of our politics or its direction.

I believe Key’s great opportunity is to establish his leadership as a preparatory one. His early rhetoric on becoming leader was drenched in its re-framing potential. But once the political strategy became one of presenting as small a target as possible, while offering pocket-book inducements, he lost his thrust and focus.

As a transitional leader Key could paint a rhetorical canvass for us of what New Zealand in 2020 might look like. If he did, it would constitute authentic preparatory leadership. Our dramatically changing demographics, the opportunities (and challenges) for our economy, and leading a vital democratic discourse, all cloaked in a fresh post-Rogernomics language, would provide him with a compelling narrative about where our country is headed and what we need to do to get there.

Such a reframing would do us all a favour. We could debate our future instead of deciding another election via our tax calculators or by the degree of animus we feel towards the incumbents. Fear of failure, precipitated by nine years in the wilderness, has stilted John Key’s innately ambitious and forward-looking outlook.

National’s conservative political strategy may win it this election, but it will leave it desperately exposed heading into 2011, when it will prove a much bigger target. Now is the time to prepare the path forward. Boldness and conviction, not timidity, would better serve the demands of the zeitgeist. But a question remains: If not from John Key, where will such leadership emerge?

Comments (7)

by Steve Barnes on October 13, 2008
Steve Barnes

It's interesting that New Zealand experiences such disjointed political cycles. The fact that we are so achievement-phobic suggests to me that there is some crucial element missing from our political leadership. Do you think that our leaders' fears of actually achieving may be linked to the much-discussed Tall Poppy Syndrome?

Or could it just be that Hargrove's cycles simply don't fit within our type of polity? It seems that post-Trudeau Canada has been in a more-or-less constant Consolidation pattern, and it appears that Whitlam was the last Achievement PM in Australia. Have we just not found an adequate way to describe cycles within our polities?

by Dr Jon Johansson on October 13, 2008
Dr Jon Johansson

Hi Steve -

In answer to your first observation, no, I believe it is more the scar tissue from 8 years of upheaval between '84-92. It's harder for the successors of the revolution to 'achieve' around the ridges of contempt that welled up as a response to arrogance leadership.

Hargrove's cycles don't quite fit, I agree, but they serve as an useful metaphor for political change. In our context they also shed light on the purpose of my column, the absence of any preparatory leadership (Bolger excepted) when compared to the U.S., and the opportunity Key has if he could shift his mindset from the chains of small-target political strategy.

I've always thought that the small-target strategy was the only one which could leave Key and National exposed. The jury is still out on whether it has but those two late polls last week definately represented a disturbance in the strategy team's force. 

I also agree with your last comment, although not too many view politics in this fashion it must be said, not when it's easier to focus on shallow marketing and sports reporting of the 'game.' 

by Miki Szikszai on October 13, 2008
Miki Szikszai

I like the analysis.

I have been referring to this, somewhat provincially, as Key (or any other leader in NZ at this point) needing to take the long view. It's a view that is sadly missing right now and is probably the real reason people are jumping ship to Oz etc

by Dr Jon Johansson on October 14, 2008
Dr Jon Johansson

Miki - Cheers. One thing that offering a broader view would afford Key is to shift some of the focus off the current economic travails rather than make his and National's response to it entirely dominate his campaign. Taking a longer view is a nice way of putting it.   

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