Sir Bob Jones

Commentary on issues of the day from the property tycoon, author and former politician

Bob Jones: The politics of charisma

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A politics professor friend told me recently of her astonishment at finding that all of her women friends say they won't vote Labour this year because they don't like David Cunliffe's face, writes Jones. Photo / APN
A politics professor friend told me recently of her astonishment at finding that all of her women friends say they won't vote Labour this year because they don't like David Cunliffe's face, writes Jones. Photo / APN

Before the 2002 election, I bet a parliamentary press gallery journalist that Act would receive at least 7 per cent of the party vote. It did, in the process gaining nine MPs, and amazingly the journo created an all-time first in journalism history by voluntarily paying up.

My confidence lay in my belief that Act's libertarian philosophy has a natural support base of at least 15 per cent of voters, although turning that into votes is another matter. Minority parties thrive if the mainstream centrist party ideologically closest to them is wallowing, and 2002 was a very bad year for National.

Similarly, Labour's floundering in recent years has increased support for the Greens, which will fade should Labour finally gain momentum.

The assumption that agreeing philosophically is sufficient reason for someone to vote for you is naive, as voters have views on many subjects. Probably half the electorate believe there are too many MPs and our laws should not show a pro-Maori bias, but start a party solely on one of those propositions and you will be disappointed.

A major difficulty for small parties is that when an MP strays, the party is punished, but not so with a mainstream party. The media had a field day at the hitherto-unknown Aaron Gilmore's expense but that never affected National's support. Had, improbably, Gilmore been an Act or Green MP, the party would have suffered, as has occurred too often with Act.

Given today's diminished public interest in politics, there is, in lieu, an increased focus on the leader. Critically, he or she must be likeable.

John Key epitomises this. He's an easy-going natural smiler, which is a rare attribute, and National would be swamped in this year's election if he wasn't there. Winston has been in Parliament since the Boer War ended, but survives on that x-factor. There's a million-dollar prize if anyone can provide a coherent philosophic raison d'etre for his party, or even name any of his ever-changing MPs, but the fact is people like him. Even most MPs do. Why? Because, like Key, he's a natural smiler; indeed, he's better than that, having the rare ability to laugh at himself.

Appearance is particularly a factor with some women voters. A politics professor friend told me recently of her astonishment at finding that - literally without exception - all of her women friends, including many life-long lefties, say they won't vote Labour this year because they don't like David Cunliffe's face.

The same thing happened when Stephen Franks jumped Act's ship to contest a winnable seat for National. He lost heavily. A National Party activist told me its subsequent surveys showed a collapse in female support because they didn't like Stephen's face.

This, of course, is absurd but, nevertheless, a reality now that politics has been reduced to glib impressions. But it goes beyond likeability. Everyone liked David Shearer, even the Nats, as reflected by Key's plainly sincere tribute to him when he lost the Labour leadership. But Shearer's intelligence and decency made it impossible for him to debase himself by acting the necessary stone-throwing Opposition leader role.

Which brings me to Act's collapse, beginning with Rodney Hide's leadership. No one could have worked harder, but the more he tried, the more he failed to click. When he transformed himself from a short tubby man to a fighting-fit, weight-lifting, ocean-swimming athlete, far from coming across as manly, rumours flew that he must be homosexual.

When he tried appealing to women voters by participating in Dancing With The Stars, he not only looked ludicrous but lost women in droves by committing the ultimate sin of dropping his partner. The successful leader x-factor simply cannot be contrived. You've either got it or not.

Rodney lost me when he declared that Act's role was to keep National in office, which it most certainly shouldn't be. But the final blow came with Don Brash's coup. Maintaining a career-long record of getting things wrong, Don inserted John Banks in the safe Epsom seat, which Act had by then descended to. This was ludicrous. John's no more a libertarian than he's a Zoroastrian; indeed, given his Christian beliefs, he has got a damn sight more in common with Zoroastrianism, from which Christian tenets were nicked 700 years later.

Banks is an avowed social conservative - a legitimate political position but diametrically opposed to Act's liberalism. Additionally, the boxing adage "they never come back" applies to politics and has been a consistent failing with Act candidate selection.

Now the party's resurrected, with fresh faces and leadership, all with impressive credentials. There's definitely grounds for optimism, particularly with younger voters whose conventional leftism is history. As never before, the young hold liberal values, endorse the market economy, are anti-collectivist and anti-big government. Act can rise again, not as a prop to National but as an effective influence upholding those values.

- NZ Herald

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