Overcoming the cult of personality

Let me give you a hypothetical scenario. You are considering changing banks. For whatever reason you aren’t happy with your current one, and want to shop around for an alternative home for your funds. What do you do? Probably talk to people you know about who they bank with and whether they have had a good experience. You research things like interest rates and home loan deals to see who is going to give your buck the best bang. Maybe you think about the reputation of the bank – both for customer service and for being a responsible corporate citizen. And probably you give some thought to foreign ownership and whether you are bothered by that. These are all valid and reasonable things to consider. One thing though which I would suggest people hardly ever consider is – who is the CEO of the Bank and do I think they are a decent bloke? I would challenge that maybe only 10% of banking shoppers take that into account, if that.

So, why am I talking about banking? Well, I am not really. My real burning issue of the day is politics, and how kiwis consider who to vote for in a general election. But, when you think about it, choosing where to put your money and choosing where to put your vote aren’t such different decisions. You will generally choose the organisation that will give you what you want, aligns to your values and that you have heard positive things about. And it should be a similar process when choosing a government. We should be thinking about which party will give us the policies we want, aligns to the values we have and will do the least damage to others. However, I would suggest that in recent years NZ voters have been swayed by the cult of personality – they are focusing too much on who the PM will be if they vote for that party, and far too little on what that will mean for the policies that get implemented.

I am not saying that leadership of a country is unimportant. Far from it. I have blogged before about the importance of inspiring leadership, both in government and in media. If it was up to me then sure – I would rather have a Jed Bartlet (if he wasn’t fictional) or a Barack Obama (minus the Prism nightmare) than a John Key or a David Shearer. But at the end of the day, in a New Zealand context especially – policies have to be more important. Sure you don’t want a complete and utter fool as Prime Minister but, and it is a big but, even with a fool in power you can still get things done. The Prime Minister doesn’t have nearly the same level of power or profile as a US President. We don’t even vote for them specifically like the American’s do. We vote for their PARTY. Which means we are voting for their policies and for the rest of their people who will represent us in parliament. And, as any good leader will tell you, great leadership is about surrounding yourself with talented people who will get things done no matter what.

I have had a number of conversations with people recently about next year’s election and the thing that constantly gets thrown in my face – as a leftward leaning individual – is that there is no one in the Labour or Green parties who is capable of leading our country. And, it seems, this is sufficient basis to vote for National alone. At least we know this Joh Key bloke and he has done a decent job so far. So better the devil you know then some ineffectual numpties we don’t (not my words…don’t get me started on John Key having done a decent job so far…or Russell Normal being an ineffectual numpty, which I don’t think he is). But the most worrying part of these conversations is that policy hardly ever comes up. If I say what about the environment or asset sales or the GCSB I get met with a shrug and a ‘they just don’t have a better leader, sorry’. No, I am the one who is sorry, because that is just not good enough.

We are voting into power a party who will, for the most part, control how our health system, education system, tax system and welfare system work for at least the next 4 years. Not to mention the small matter of how we deal with complex issues like climate change, economic reform and race relations. And some people seem willing to trust this to a guy who ‘seems like a decent bloke’, without having a proper understanding of what this ‘decent bloke’s’ party will see as their mandate if they get voted in again. I cannot stress enough – you are voting for the party and their policies, not just the geezer you want to see opening new buildings and attending trade summits.

I know there will be a great many of you saying ‘we know all this and of course we are voting on the basis of policies’. And good on you. It isn’t you I am worried about. But I worry that you are starting to make up the minority. So I challenge everyone to think carefully about who they will vote for next year. To research the policies and give solid thought to what effect those policies will have on you and on your kids*. You want your kids to grow up in a New Zealand not dissimilar to the one you grew up in, right? So think about who you think will deliver that. Sure, I am as frustrated as the rest of you that we don’t have anyone of Helen Clark’s calibre in parliament at all now – but I urge you to put that aside and focus on the big issues. At the end of the day, if we can survive 7 years with a Prime Minister who has caused national and international embarrassment on multiple occasions and who has the personality of a wet fish, then I am pretty sure we can cope with someone who is a slightly underwhelming leader.

But, while I cannot stress the above point enough, this does remind me of an insight provided by my 6 year old niece Lola recently. The family were having a discussion about how politics worked in other countries and how there were dictators and military regimes and civil wars. And how, at the end of the day, New Zealanders are pretty lucky, since we get to vote for who leads us in an entirely democratic fashion. Lola’s response to all of this? ‘Yeah, not every country has a donkey’. 🙂

* just some food for thought, in a politically savvy example of a West Wing ‘take out the trash day’, National announced their revised carbon emissions target on Friday – in the midst of the GSCB scandal, bloodshed in Egypt and a big quake in Welly (ok, maybe the last one was just coincidence…). As a result, the change – a massive reduction from 10-20% to 5% by 2020 (yes, I did say 5%) – recieved hardly any media coverage and didn’t even get a full story in the news – just a passing ‘National announced today…and the opposition think its a terrible idea’. No freaking kidding its a terrible idea – and completely out of step with what Barack Obama recently announced for the US and what scientists are urging as a minimum target to have any valid effect. So, just some food for thought. This message was sponsored by no one 😉


4 thoughts on “Overcoming the cult of personality

  1. My main concern about the early decision people seem to have made writing off the chances of the Opposition in next year’s election, is that it’s based on wonky maths. Media reporting is fixated on a two-horse race between National and Labour, and rightly points out that National is way ahead of Labour in all the polls. But that completely ignores the current balance of left-of-centre voting, in which the Greens have won over some of Labour’s left-leaning voters to become a much stronger third party than we’ve had since NZ First in 1996. If you look at the tracker poll below, certainly National is 13 points ahead of Labour, but actually National is only 2.5 points ahead of Labour + Greens. And that’s despite all the negative media reporting on the Opposition’s activities and the plenty of soft news stories granted to the Government. The race is far closer than people think, and that’s influencing their willingness to vote against National. Even if David Shearer picks up his performance a little, he could well be Prime Minister next year. Of course this may depend on whether Winston Peters wants to stick the knife into National for its campaigning against him in 2011, or can put up with playing second fiddle to the Greens in a broad left coalition.


    • Thanks for that Ethan. And that aligns with conversations I have had with relatively politically informed people at work and in other places who are all predicting a change of government next year. While that is heartening, the conversations I am having with Joe Bloggs voters are not so much 😉

      • At this stage I still think National are favourites for a third term. But it’s far closer than the prevailing press gallery mood suggests. This might lead to an increased likelihood of a snap election next year if the Government thinks it can catch Labour ill-prepared.

  2. Pingback: 100th Blog Episode! And an announcement… | andstufflikethis

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