Jess Berentson-Shaw is thoroughly enjoying watching the Minister for Transport do something few people in politics have been able to do for a while: lead us into changes that will make a big difference to the wellbeing of our planet and our communities

In this second-term Labour Government, transformation is not something anyone really talks about anymore. However, transformation is happening, and Michael Wood appears to be the person who is going to do it. 

Pedalling uphill without electric-assist

Wood has clearly been taking his time to figure out the landscape of transport. Like a duck gliding on water there must have been a lot of furious paddling underneath the surface, because in the last few weeks and months there has been some serious talk and action.

It’s not just the announcement of the riding and walking bridge over the Waitemata Harbour, the directive to Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency to investigate opening a lane on the bridge for people on bikes, walking, scootering, or the various announcements that this Government will now not be sinking resources into specific road building projects that will bake in carbon emissions and poor health for the community for decades to come.

It’s also the clearly articulated message that stopping the release of rampant carbon into our air requires more of him and our leaders than they have done so far and that opposition to change will not be a significant impediment to doing the right thing in transport.

What do you think? Click here to comment.

I don’t imagine that this is particularly easy for Wood. It has taken a long time for anyone in power to really get moving on this journey, which is a pretty good metric that challenging the status quo is hard when you want to collaborate and make it stick.

It’s not just about wanting it to happen, you need to keep your values front and centre, have the right amount of power at the right time, good relationships, as well as being confident in the evidence in the face of a very loud opposition to change.

And on this issue it is only going to get louder as experts like Dr Kirsty Wild show us. I suspect it has been as much about convincing those who want to keep the status quo in his own party as anything – transport mode shift is not simply a party political issue, it’s about values, identity and emotions. 

Proving people in government can bring about big change for collective wellbeing down the (widened) path

While I deeply believe in the possibility of the Government to shape people’s lives in positive ways based on shared collective values, sometimes I feel very fatalistic about how people in the Government act, their ability to do what needs to be done for our kids and their kids.

It’s a pretty common feeling for most people. And it is not just people outside the Government who feel this.

Policy-makers inside it often feel the same sense of fatalism, which stops them from proposing the big changes we need (status quo bias is rampant inside governments).

Seeing Wood step into this work, to adhere to his values, to listen to and then follow evidence for improving our collective wellbeing, and be damn clear about it publicly, reminds me, reminds us all, that the Government can and does work for us.

People in there will rise to the challenge in complex spaces (because this is complex work) under the right conditions. And see that they can do so much more.  

Good leadership needs a peloton 

I have no interest in building on the hero narrative. That is not a model of leadership that we need for the challenges going forward. 

Stopping our climate warming, really giving all kids the opportunity to shine and thrive no matter what community they come from, reorienting our economy towards taking care of our environment: these are big long-term projects. They require so much of our leaders – to collaborate, to change the balance of power, to be brave, and sometimes loud but only after being quiet and humble with the people who need them most.

No person in politics who makes an impact gets there without a huge number of people supporting them personally and professionally: partners, kids, parents, friends, their community, advocates, experts, colleagues.

Wood seems the type of politician to know that it is a strength to rely on these people, and to acknowledge you need them. He appears thoughtful, deeply interested and engaged on many issues.

Interestingly, he doesn’t seem to need to fall back on any of the unhelpful masculine stereotypes too many politicians rely upon when a hard job needs doing. Perhaps this is the new model of leadership we need to come to the fore.

There are political leaders who, looking at the crises we face now and in the future, will think near the end of their time, “I could have done more, pushed harder, and further for our kids”. I suspect Wood doesn’t want to be one of those leaders. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens next.

Leave a comment