There has been much international admiration for the leadership style of the Prime Minister in the wake of the Christchurch Mosque killings, but very little attempt so far to place it in any sort of context.
Much of the political discourse of the last 30 years or so has been a reaction to the dramatic political, economic and social changes in Western democracies in the early 1980s. The realisation in Britain by the late 1970s that the post-war economic and social consensus was no longer working, with living standards falling, and government services and national prestige declining, paved the way for the radical economic and social conservatism of Margaret Thatcher, and the so-called Thatcherite revolution.
Similarly, in the United States, the cumulative failings of Roosevelt’s New Deal, Kennedy’s New Frontier and Johnson’s Great Society, coupled with the loss of international credibility after the loss in Vietnam, and the Iranian Revolution led to the election of Ronald Reagan and the advent of Reaganomics.
In New Zealand, Rogernomics was the local recognition that Savage’s dream of the cradle to the grave welfare state was over, and could no longer be afforded in a society bedevilled by poor terms of trade, rising unemployment, high inflation, massive international debt, and falling living standards.
While the neo-liberal economic and social reforms in the Western democracies seemed to be paying a dividend in the early years, they started to come under severe criticism in the lead up to and aftermath of the 1987 Sharemarket Crash, as causing unnecessary social dislocation and inequity. Although market-led social and economic principles still continue to underpin most governments, including our own, the puff had well and truly run out of the ideological dogma by the early 1990s.
Just before the 1987 Crash, the Princeton liberal economist Alan Blinder published “Hard Heads, Soft Hearts” in which he promoted an economic policy that combined hard-headed respect for economic efficiency with soft-hearted concern for those he described as society’s underdogs. A similar theme was picked up in 1992 by Osborne and Gaebler, in their groundbreaking book, “Reinventing Government”, describing how public sector institutions across America were transforming the bureaucratic models they had inherited from the past and, thereby, creating more flexible, creative, and entrepreneurial systems and organisations, and that this showed how state and federal governments could break out of the straightjackets of the past and become more responsive to the needs of people once again. “Putting People First”, the campaign manifesto of Bill Clinton and Al Gore in 1992 drew heavily on the work of both Blinder, and Osborne and Gaebler. In office, Clinton gave practical recognition to it by establishing the National Partnership for Reinventing Government in early 1993 under Gore’s leadership.
Similar thinking was underway in Britain too, through the development of third way economics – a bridge between the dogma of the left and the right.
It was not a new concept, originally having been advocated by the future Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in the late 1930s, and promoted again by German economists of both the left and the right in the 1950s, but it gained its latest prominence when raised by Czech writers during the 1968 Prague Spring.
The Whitlam Government in Australia moved some way in this direction when in office when it rejected democratic socialism in favour of social democracy and the Hawke and Keating Governments of the 1980s and 1990s were arguably also very much in the Third Way mould. But it is with Tony Blair and New Labour that the Third Way will be most associated, with his description of it as “a modernised social democracy, passionate in its commitment to social justice.”
Third Way type government has muddled along in most Western countries ever since. Its original proponents have long since left the political stage, but no substantive new way of thinking about government has yet emerged.
The Clark and Key Governments followed broadly the same pragmatic mantra, even if Clark now claims that her reformist zeal was constrained by the exigencies of politics of the time. The English Government’s dalliance with social investment ideas offered the prospect of a new way, but that was snuffed out when that government was ousted after only a few months.
Liberalism had threatened a brief revival in Britain after 2010 but that was also short-lived, and there are questions today about how liberalism can get in tune again with societies that are becoming more polarised, and consequently less tolerant.
The election of Trudeau in Canada in 2015 briefly held out some hope, but was actually less a defining step than a return to the status quo after nine years of Conservative rule. Similarly with Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche! movement. This centrist alternative sprung out of the French Socialist Party but the difficulties Macron has faced since coming to office suggest it may struggle to endure.
The defining political event of the last couple of decades has been the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States in 2016. Whatever one thinks of his policies, his performance and his ethics, there is little doubt that he has shaken up the American political establishment unlike any other leader of modern times. In America, and elsewhere, politicians are now measured, invariably favourably, by the dubious standards Trump has brought to public office.
The rise of the anti-Trump
And here is where our Prime Minister shines, and becomes relevant. She is the anti-Trump in so many ways – female, not male; young not old; humble not arrogant; hard-working not lazy, warm not aloof; compassionate not disdainful; inclusive not divisive; a genuine person who is a unifier, not a narcissistic, egotist divider.
It is easy to see how she attracts the attention and admiration of the world in circumstances like Christchurch and its aftermath, given the absolute contrast she provides to Donald Trump.
At the same time, however, it is still a long stretch to suggest that she represents a substantive new thread in political discourse. She almost certainly does not, and nothing she has said or done to date suggests any great philosophical depth, or makes clear what she actually stands for beyond kindness. But that may not matter all that much.
After the search for new ideas of the last three decades, and their less than stellar outcomes, it is arguable that people are feeling more left out, and their interests more overlooked in our political settlement than ever before.
So we may well be entering a period where what matters most to people is compassion and empathy, and an identity with leaders who reflect that. In that regard, the Prime Minister’s perceived warmth and concern for the suffering meets the mood of the time. That is what gives her relevance, which is really all that matters. And while that perception remains, she will continue to prosper.
The bigger, yet to be answered question, though, is whether and how she will seek to use the opportunity that will provide her to effect significant change. That will provide the ultimate insight into the context in which she is operating.