Jon Johannsson: Where to now will be challenge after settling in

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Jon Johansson believe we are watching an unusual prime ministership take shape. Photo / NZ Listener
Jon Johansson believe we are watching an unusual prime ministership take shape. Photo / NZ Listener

Two premises underlie John Key's leadership. First, in a generational sense he is a transitional Prime Minister - at the nexus between baby boomers and rising Gen Xers - leading during a now-prolonged 25-year consolidation phase of our politics. Second, a future-oriented preparatory leadership is the style most appropriate to his historical context.

Key and his Government's stratospheric poll ratings thus don't loom large in my analysis of his leadership performance. After the psychological pall of Labour's last term was lifted it was predictable Key would prove popular. His openness and affable personality presented such a welcome relief after his besieged and emotionally austere opponent was vanquished that it was expected voters would suspend disbelief for an extended period.

It further helped him that Phil Goff inherited the most problematic and, in all likelihood, hopeless of leadership challenges; how to revitalise a set of ideas that had lost, through attrition, all sense of purpose and energy.

I therefore resolved, after election night, to ignore all polling until November 2010, well after the Government delivered its second budget, a decision further reinforced after National's first Budget deferred taking any hard choices. In my estimation the rubber will hit the road mid-to-late next year for Key and his Government.

To Key's leadership performance then. I believe we are watching an unusual prime ministership take shape. Key's skillset is vastly different from what we've seen before. We'd possibly have to go all the way back to the entrepreneurial Julius Vogel in the 1870s to find an apt comparison. Vogel put in vital and much-needed infrastructure to connect New Zealanders with each other and then with the rest of the world. Vogel's legacy is a hugely significant one in our politics. If Key could affect a 21st century equivalent - meaning nothing short of major structural transformation to better position New Zealand during its transition to an information-age economy - his future legacy would be assured.

Key's skillset was born for coalition politics and, for me, his standout leadership achievement so far has been his conscious decision to turn away from the maladaptive Treaty and race posturing of his National Party predecessor and forge an altogether more adaptive relationship with Maoridom and its corporates' vehicle, the Maori Party.

Our country is the better for it as the central question before us during the coming decades - what is the role and location of the Treaty of Waitangi in 21st century New Zealand - can only be answered in a spirit of mutual respect and mutual compromise. Key has so far, notwithstanding mis-steps such as the World Cup broadcasting fiasco, played the lead role in fostering such a relationship.

Key has also grasped that our politics is going through a non-ideological phase, which explains why much of the criticism of his Government's performance has come from ideologues on either side of the spectrum. His acceptance of much of Labour's policy inheritance reinforces this judgment. Keeping its promises, which National has largely done, thereby establishing long-term trust with the electorate, has given Key the prerequisite platform needed for greater freedom of action in the future.

Key's major weakness is also a function of his professional socialisation. In politics one cannot lead a cohesive government with decentralised decision-making and control structures. The myriad examples of political mismanagement that have characterised National's first year in office will continue for as long as this structural flaw is not adequately addressed. He should take no pride in his Government's ongoing abuse of urgency in Parliament.

But to return to where I began, Key's larger context; his political vision has been quite parsimonious in my view. There is no overarching narrative that tells us where Key intends taking us or what policy mix will best maximise our future progress and choices.

Transforming education (surely the best incubator for our future economic prosperity), leading our democracy (think: the electoral referendum, the Treaty, republicanism), and how to best protect water, our most valuable strategic resource, are being managed, not led, in an entirely ad-hoc fashion.

In fact, the three 'Rs' announcement is so mediocre it barely constitutes an education policy, let alone being elevated as one of the six crucial policies to enhance our economic performance Bill English recently cited.

The most crucial issue facing New Zealanders in 2011 will be the electoral referendum, and Key must ensure the four electoral system options offered represent a fair balance. Key should think creatively about how the real elephant in the room of this debate - the option of modifying MMP - can somehow be accommodated.

Next year will present a far tougher challenge for Key. He should feel satisfied celebrating the anniversary of the easiest phase of his leadership. Trust has been established. Political capital has accrued. Widespread goodwill exists. How he anticipates and responds to his next set of challenges will better inform us about his leadership potential.

Victoria University lecturer Dr Jon Johansson specialises in political leadership and is currently Fulbright's Visiting Scholar at Georgetown, Washington DC.

- NZ Herald

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