• Leadership for A New Crisis

    When Anne Tolley disclaimed responsibility last week for misleading Parliament, blaming her department instead, those with long memories might conclude that we have come a long way from Crichel Down.

    Crichel Down was a tract of land that had been compulsorily acquired for the war effort by the British government, on condition that it was returned to the owners when the war was over. After the war, the government broke that promise by retaining the land and leasing it to new tenants. The Minister, Sir Thomas Dugdale, who was personally unaware of the error, resigned when it was discovered because he believed that was required by the doctrine of Ministerial responsibility.

    Modern governments seem to recognise no such doctrine. Public servants enjoy so little esteem, so it seems, that they are cheerfully thrown to the wolves when Ministers are asked to take responsibility for mistakes made by their departments.

    It isn’t just the former Education Minister who rejects any responsibility for misleading Parliament. The Prime Minister, too, seems remarkably insouciant. His attitude suggests that, whereas it was the Prime Ministerial smile that was the leitmotiv of his first three years, it will be the Prime Ministerial shrug that characterises his second term.

    We will see less of the affability he showed while basking in the public approval of his first term, and much more of the somewhat grumpy dismissiveness and impatience that we saw during the election campaign when he came under pressure. The task of an effective opposition, under its new leadership, will be to ensure that there are many more such moments.

    David Shearer made a good start in appointing his new front bench. He struck a good balance of old and new, and made effective use of the considerable talent available.

    He now has to show what he himself is made of. He won the leadership with the claim that he represents a fresh start, but freshness alone is a rapidly wasting asset and is not enough by itself.

    He also has a claim (though it should be made by others rather than himself) that he can match, if not out-do, John Key in the niceness stakes. Indeed, he could re-define niceness to mean more than just a ready smile and a glib answer but rather a genuine concern for all our fellow-citizens, including the most vulnerable and disadvantaged. His own personal record of humanitarian service helps to give substance to that claim.

    But what he now has to show is that he has the stuff of which leaders are made. Re-connecting with voters, and listening to what they say and want, is commendable, but leadership is about leading and not just following. We are entitled to expect from our potential leaders a view, if not a vision, as to where the country – and even the world – are or should be heading.

    So far, our political leaders have shown no real grasp of the dangers we now face. We cannot expect a John Key government – content as it is to just go along for the ride – to face up to the challenges that confront us. Yet it is now clear that business – or politics – as usual will not cut it.

    The last time we faced comparable risks was in the non-nuclear world of the 1930s. World leaders then failed abysmally to deal with the Great Depression. The consequent economic strains were not only disastrous for millions of people, but produced an international climate which led directly to the Second World War.

    The risks this time are even greater. Today’s leaders, particularly of what we used to call the West, are repeating the mistakes of the 1930s; it is now virtually certain that the euro-zone’s crisis will drive us into renewed and prolonged recession. This time, though, in a nuclear world, a major international conflict would not have a happy ending – and our self-inflicted economic wounds would in any case leave us in a state of permanent weakness.

    We desperately need leaders who can see wider and further than politicians usually do. We need to recognise that the world has changed, that the extreme “free-market” global capitalism that has prevailed for three decades has shown itself to be fundamentally flawed, economically and socially, and now threatens to impoverish and enfeeble us. We need to understand that others, less burdened by this same ideology, are doing much better than we are.

    New Zealand, it may be thought, is no more than an observer of this unfolding tragedy. But that is not quite true. We are one of the most credible and at the same time most exposed proponents of Western values and the Western way of life. We have both an interest and a duty to propose the changes that are needed to avoid their destruction.

    In the 1930s, our leaders led the world in striking out in a new direction to lead us out of recession. For David Shearer, winning the next election is of course a top priority. But winning elections is not enough. We need far-sighted leadership that will set the country on the right course.

    Bryan Gould

    21 December 2011

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