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Talking chief politics

  • November 11th, 2008

Helen Clark’s deification by her party should be studied carefully by other New Zealand politicians. I think it was the calculated result of a conscious and very successful strategy to make her great, and not just  the natural outcome of superior leadership skills.

Most of us probably think that true leaders must continually earn their authority, by being seen to take responsibility in the toughest times, being seen to lead when there is trouble, and and being seen solving it.

Clark’s strategy appeared to me to be quite different. She certainly ensured that trouble was faced, but someone else was almost always the public face of the problem, at least until it was clear how it was going to be dealt with. Only then did she emerge to put it to bed.

I think that was a sensible strategy. It meant that she was continually associated in the public mind with success. She rarely got drawn into strife at the messy stage where the outcome and the resolution were unclear. She could nearly always look commanding. Over time public (and media) perceptions of omnicompetence werre continually reinforced.

The strategy was beneficial even to those who took the fall for her (or their collective) misjudgments. They all benefitted from her continually burnished reputation of success and competence. The strength of her rarely sullied reputation for decisive management meant she could come to their rescue, and often squelch issues that would have been running sores in lesser hands.

I’m reminded of the Samoan division of  authority between a titular and a talking chief. See JAC Gray’s Amerika Samoa for more then the dictionary definition of the term. There is  a happy coincidence of peoples’ desire to feel that they are led by superhumans, with the leader’s interest in being seen that way. To achieve that the ruler must ration his or her appearances, and preferably be almost always the bearer of good news.

Thus we get the common belief that a ruler in "interesting times" is basically sound, but wickedly advised. Revolutions commonly started to get rid of courtiers while the revolutionaries professed or even held a love for the sovereign.

I saw the Clark strategy slip a few times, most notably in the initial reaction to the Court of Appeal’s foreshore and seabed decision. Fresh from her success in slapping down the Waitangi Tribunal’s silly report on the Taranaki claim to oil and gas, she took over from Margaret Wilson after 5 days of dithering following the Court decision. The attempt to use the same reasoning ("not in the interests of New Zealand") had a calamitous result. Her obvious fumbling in Parliament that day fuelled the storm, as Parliament and Maoridom sensed the weakness of her position when compared with so much earlier rhetoric on Treaty issues.

Michael Cullen took over the next day and the PM was scarcely seen on the issue again for months, while Cullen stoically endured the calumny. In my opinion, given where they started from he did a great job, but it would have been much easier for him if he had not been landed defending the indefensible from the initial fumbling. The "interests of New Zealand" would have been defensible, but not from a leader and a party that had previously panned that as an insufficient and illegitimate counter to treaty claims.


  • mike mckee
  • November 11th, 2008
  • 9:55 am

good summation.
smart operators even if I didn’t like their politics.

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