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Why political leaders in NZ fail to inspire us

Nov 28th, 2011 | By | Category: Front Page Layout, Lead Story, Opinion

WHEN Prime Minister John Key delivered his victory speech at the Sky City Convention Centre in Auckland on Saturday night, it was a scene very similar to election night three years ago.

Although his victory speech this year came from Key as an incumbent, it differed very little in essence from the one he delivered in 2008 as a newly elected PM responsible for ending Labour’s nine-year run in power.

When Key won his first general election in 2008, his face said almost everything he didn’t.

His ear-to-ear grin suggested elation at the result, but speech-writer David Slack, former wordsmith for Jim Bolger and Geoffrey Palmer, says Key’s election night speech was one of the most ordinary pieces of rhetoric he’s ever heard.

“It sounded more like something you would hear at a rugby prize giving. He was talking about how it was a ‘great country… it’s got great food, great wine, and great scenery’,” says Slack (right).

This election night, Key thanked his party, his staff, and his family. He thanked his electorate for making him their MP.

As expected, there was talk of rising to challenges and creating a better future for all New Zealanders.

But when it came to articulating exactly what that better future would be like, Key stuck to the tried and true approach of all political victors – trust me, I’ve got this.

Although Slack says there are times when it would be good to see the lofty rhetoric typical of leaders in larger democracies, he argues the Kiwi reverence for the humble and the modest has a tempering effect on any desire the public might have to see a leader rise to the occasion on election night.

“Take the right moment and find the right words and you will give people a new sense of possibility,” he explains, but warns that Kiwi audiences will not respond well to leaders puffing themselves up.

“Our most notable heroes are people like Peter Blake and Edmund Hillary, people who weren’t grandiose or lofty, who are perhaps even a little taciturn, and that colours the way politicians speak here.”

Professor Stephen Levine of Victoria University (left) says this attitude is a product of the tall poppy syndrome.

“In New Zealand, we believe that leaders should be down to earth and not put on airs,” he says.

Levine is able to compare the attitude of New Zealand voters towards election night rhetoric with his experience as an America constituent during Robert Kennedy’s campaign for the New York senate seat.

He cites Kennedy’s 1964 campaign as an example of the fundamental difference between what New Zealand and American voters look for in a leader.

“Kennedy wasn’t a New Yorker, and neither was he relatable for most New Yorkers. He was so learned and idealistic, he painted a vision and appealed to us to be a part of it,” he says.

“Rather than resenting the fact that he quoted Pericles and spoke his own ‘Kennedy’ version of English, we accepted the distance between us and him like you suspend disbelief in a theatre.

Levine says Kennedy’s grandiosity was the very reason New Yorkers elected him.

“As New Yorkers, I think we all felt that we knew what we were like and we wanted somebody better than us to represent us in government.”

This is indeed a stark contrast to the attitude of New Zealand voters.

Levine and Slack agree part of the reason Key has been so popular with New Zealand voters is because they view him as the “guy next door”.

Slack says one of the more interesting things that John Key has said during this campaign was in Monday’s leader’s debate facilitated by John Campbell, where he was asked something like “What is the trait you most dislike in other people?”, and he said “arrogance”.

“That’s an interesting insight into the way Key practices politics.”

Labour leader Phil Goff’s concession speech showed slightly more passion than his opponents.

Although it followed the format expected of leaders in his position – gracious in defeat and constructive – he also took the opportunity to reiterate Labour’s commitment to its core values.

“Where a national-led government makes a decision that is consistent with our beliefs we will support it, but where it goes against what are our fundamental beliefs, and where they have no mandate for change, such as in the sale of our assets, we will fight and fight and fight again to stop that happening,” he said.

Although he portrayed a commitment to the platform on which he had campaigned, like Key, he avoided branching out beyond party or policy.

Levine says Phil Goff has failed to inspire throughout this election campaign because he has been chained to the party and incapable of presenting himself as an inspiring leader.

He says there have been moments in New Zealand’s political past when leaders have risen to an occasion and delivered a speech that transcended “the mire of typical campaign discourse”.

“Some of the speeches we have seen on election nights have been inspirational,” he says.

“When David Lange won in ’84, it was after nine years of Muldoon. There was a tangible feeling of liberation in the air and the mood was almost euphoric.

“People seemed to be full of hope, energy, good humour and enthusiasm.”

However, Levine believes most politicians avoid branching out into the unknown political territory of high rhetoric.

“How can we be inspired to recognise and rise to challenges if our leaders can’t rise to the occasion on election night and articulate a vision that we can rally around?”

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is I am a Whitireia Polytechnic journalism student. I have an academic background in politics and international relations, and worked as a policy analyst across government before deciding to pursue a career in journalism.
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