• A Tale of Two Elections

    AS 2020 draws to a close, two very different countries, in different hemispheres and time zones, are holding elections that are of great importance, not only for their own futures but for the future of the world as well.

    The USA and New Zealand differ greatly in physical and economic size and importance, but their two election campaigns inevitably share a number of features; both are dominated by the coronavirus pandemic and its economic consequences, and both campaigns are characterised by debates and disagreements about – among other things – climate change, racism and leadership styles.

    But, the two countries are at opposite ends of the scale in the way that these issues are, and have been, dealt with. In the USA, the pandemic continues to rage and to cost lives, and the economic cost of the virus continues to weigh heavily; in New Zealand, the virus has been brought under control and the focus is now on economic recovery.

    In New Zealand, the competing parties and politicians have arrived at a broad consensus on the threat posed by climate change and they vie with each other as to which has the best plan for remedial action; but in the USA, that issue, despite bushfires and hurricanes, has been downplayed. And similarly, while manifestations of racism are deplored in New Zealand and seen as calling for action, one of the candidates for high office in the USA is accused (with some justice) of fanning the flames of racial prejudice.

    It is when we consider the role and responsibilities of leadership, however, that the contrast is at its most stark. The American election’s focus on electing a president necessarily means that the leadership qualities offered by the individual presidential candidates are at the heart of the debate. This is not to say that New Zealand’s parliamentary system of government means that the nature and style of leadership is not also a vitally important consideration.

    The questions about leadership, however, have played very different roles in the two elections. In the USA, it is no exaggeration to say that the election is entirely about the personality of one of the candidates – and that is how that candidate wants it and sees it. For the American voter, there is really only one issue – is Donald Trump fit to be president?

    It is the candidate himself who makes that the issue. It is his insistence that he is uniquely qualified for the job that defines the election. He offers a leadership style – based on macho posturing and a fantasy image of himself as a superman – that divides people, that turns them against each other, that emphasises difference, that denies social responsibility, that lauds selfishness and privilege, and that is happy to trade on wild conspiracy theories.

    These are not unimportant factors. It is no exaggeration to say that the American failure to grapple successfully with the pandemic has owed much to Trump’s encouragement of confusion about the nature – even the very existence – of the virus, and the fact that he cannot be trusted to tell the truth.

    In New Zealand, we are offered a different concept of leadership. We have a leadership that brings us together, that tells us that we are one people, and that treats us as all in the same waka. We enjoy a leadership that demonstrates kindness, and empathy with those in need and despair, that is straight-talking and “tells it like it is”, that treats us as adults, and that recognises that there is much yet to be done if the challenges of climate change, child poverty and endemic racism are to be successfully confronted.

    We have benefited from a leadership that has united us in the battle against the coronavirus epidemic and that has made us feel good about ourselves. We only wish that we could feel as positive about the future faced by the Americans – because the whole world will pay the price if the Americans get it wrong. Sadly, we cannot pass on our understanding and experience of true leadership to our American friends.

    Some us get confused about the time difference between different parts of the USA and New Zealand. “Is it night time in America?” we ask. Let us hope that it isn’t.

    Bryan Gould
    14 October 2020