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Q + A: Paul Holmes interviews political scientist Jon Johansson

Published: 11:13AM Sunday August 02, 2009 Source: Q + A


PAUL Dr Jon Johansson is a political scientist who lectures at Victoria University, and he's a leadership specialist.  He's soon to take up a Fulbright Scholarship at Georgetown University in Washington DC.  His new book is called 'The Politics of Possibility' which examines amongst other things the leadership and achievements of Jim Bolger and Helen Clark, and has a good go at putting the finger on the present incumbent John Key, and the strengths he might already have displayed.  Dr Jon Johansson is with me, good morning.  What do you mean the Politics of Possibility, what does that title mean?

 Well there's really two elements to it, one is that if you look at the history of political change in this country, you know we've had very long periods of consolidation, a lot of tinkering and even you know long periods of inertia in our politics, and then there has been like in my view, based on my studies, sort of four real big transformations in our politics, and what it shows me is that in either reacting to external things like bad economic conditions or what have you, and with leadership that anticipates the possibilities of how politics can be transformed, you know our people are quite capable of swinging in behind and doing you know really transformational type politics.  I think the anti nuclear policy is the example of that.

PAUL You speak about the political cycles of course, the last big one began in 1984, has it ended?

JON I don't think it has, I still think we live in the age of Rogernomics, and I think the strongest piece of evidence that underpins that is the language, our political language.  If you look at how words like privatise is still considered you know highly charged and dangerous for politicians on the right.  John Key is expressly you know not going to look at it until - well not this term.  So you can see that that language is still very much the dominant language of Rogernomics, and shapes most of our debates.  I think the potential is absolutely there for John Key to lead a new cycle of politics, but yet you know there is not an overarching vision that tells us where we're heading or how it's different from where we've come.

PAUL We are still in there and there are still sharks in this particular pool?

JON Oh indeed.

PAUL Helen Clark, talking about Helen Clark, you talk about what Helen Clark learnt in what you call the most dysfunctional cabinet we've ever had, the cabinet between 1987 to 1990, what did she learn?

JON I think she understood there the absolute centrality of unity within the cabinet, within the caucus, and particularly in relationship with the Finance Minister.  I think also David Lange - I mean I don't necessarily think she learned all the right lessons because she sort of rejected using her voice more to talk to the country about where we were heading.

PAUL You quote David Lange I think, you said she sat back, she knew when to fight and when not to fight.  There was no way she was gonna be shot down in flames.

JON The analogy I used - she learned to wait, and you know she played a long game, and joined the Labour Party in 1971, if you think over that 37 year journey, the amount of energy that an individual has to invest, all those meetings and what have you, but she was very canny in sitting out storms.

PAUL The analogy you used was what, climbing Mt Cook in terms of getting to the top?

JON Yes very much, yes sometimes you have to dig in and sit out the storm, and then you just keep on going, and with Clark it was like a siege and you never stop, but just keep on going.

PAUL You might have the summit in sight but then the conditions suddenly become difficult and you retreat slightly.

JON  You bet, and I thought her discernment was really one of the standout qualities of Helen Clark as Prime Minister.

PAUL Discernment?

JON Yeah, just her ability to understand her context in 1999, you know on the back of 15 years of broken mandates, broken promises, and what have you, you know that pledge card in 99 that I think more than any other factor really gave her the platform for a long term administration.

PAUL You make the point that in that 87 to 90 cabinet she learnt the absolute centrality of cabinet and caucus unity.  In the end did that dictate things with her to such an extent that she failed to rejuvenate the party because she didn't want to ruffle anyone's feathers?

JON Yeah I think her natural caution there an preference for a unified caucus and reciprocal loyalty, actually undermined what needed to be done which was both a strategic review of where that government was heading after the 2005 election, or even before that election, and certainly in terms of the personnel, that process I think should have started a cycle earlier.

PAUL You say in the book that she learned from the Bolger government the very simple thing, that you cannot break promises.  So she learned that from the Bolger government, but you also - if I can just go off on a tangent just for a second - it's fair to say Jim Bolger never really connected too effectively with people, but you list the achievements of the Bolger government which were incredible.

JON Yeah, when we had the Bolger's years conference a couple of years ago, I was reflecting with Professor Margaret Clark, and one of the things we thought is actually how underrated the quality of that cabinet was, and I think it was because they lived in the shadow of the star power of the fourth Labour government, but there was some real depth and quality in Bolger's administration.

PAUL List them though, I mean he built Te Papa, we had the Treaty negotiations with Doug Graham's success in that.

JON Yeah, I actually think his premier leadership moment was really leading us into MMP, which was the major major change in our political system for well over a 100 years, and he did it with such equanimity, you know defectors were starting up new parties and Jim just sort of well that's what the public have asked for, this is what we have to expect.

PAUL Quick word before we move onto John Key, we can talk about Helen Clark's first big miscalculation which you believe was misinterpreting Orewa?

JON Yeah I think her reaction to Orewa was timid, and I think there was a political calculation made that we'll just let this effect work it's way out, and then we will try and win on different ground, but I thought that particular speech by Dr Brash required strong leadership response and she did not provide it.

PAUL Elizabeth 1, in what way for godsake is Helen Clark like Elizabeth 1?

JON Well over time, I mean in one sense I think there was an emotional austerity about her, and I think Clark absolutely exuded duty above over all personal and other considerations, and I think also there's that facet too that the people close to Helen Clark, you know one of your panellists here today would describe her as charming, witty and what have you and a lot of fun, and yet the public persona of Helen Clark became this formidable competent manager, and I also think she was quite capable of being a very ruthless queen.

PAUL John Key now, because you say some very interesting things about John Key, and the chapter that talks about John Key is titled 'First Time Lucky'.  Is John Key simply a lucky general or are them some very sound instincts there?

JON Well I think he's got a very very interesting skill set in our Prime Ministership given his predecessors, and that is that you know his professional socialisation in the currency markets, he is an absolutely, and clearly evidenced by his career, a highly skilled risk assessor.

PAUL You say that he matured of course on the trading floor, where what is absolutely true today is absolutely wrong tomorrow.  He's the ultimate pragmatist isn't he, but you also speak about bringing those gambling instincts into politics, and you think he's got very good political gambling instincts.

JON Yes so far, and I mean I think part of the context is that he since Key took over from Brash he's had a pretty much a tail wind, and the tide was coming in rather than going out, and so it'll be interesting to see how that skill set copes when he's into a head wind.

PAUL But you apply that to his announcement about Winston Peters before the last election, that was gutsy.

JON Well they would admit themselves that that was actually probably the most fatal thing to their prospects was the Prime Minister coming out so strongly, but there have been you know several others as well, the original decision to have Bill as Deputy rather than Gerry Brownlee.

PAUL Yes he understood he had to keep Bill close.

JON Ruling out Roger Douglas therefore sending a message that I'm not going to be an ideological cabinet.  You know there's been several moves along the way, and Section 59 was the pre-eminent one amongst them.

PAUL Now what did that do for him, his assisting the government with Section 59, the smacking legislation, you called what he did that day a masterstroke, why was it?

JON  Well he came in and essentially created that super parliamentary majority which meant that there was going to be certainty around the law, he gained all the kudos for acting in a bipartisan fashion, and all of the negativity of it still attached itself to Helen Clark, I mean it was just a supreme you know tactical victory for him.

PAUL And his polling with the women went up straight away.

JON Absolutely.  That's where National had been weak.  When Key came into the leadership I think that's when it was always likely they would defeat Labour.

PAUL To what extent does John Key represent a return to normalcy after Helen Clark and a social agenda that seemed to get ahead of the people and alienate people?

JON Yeah well I think John Key, not just John Key but also other members of his cabinet, they reflect more I think what New Zealand looks like, and so I think Key has what Colin James has always called a 'one of us-ness'  you know and so the verbal gaffs that might undo many a leader, actually he's like us, we all stumble and bumble at times and you know thank God we do.

PAUL Yes if he's the ultimate pragmatist, and what's wrong with that, but is there a vision, and if there isn't does it matter?

JON Well I think it does because I think the matters that are gonna press down on this country in the next 15 or 20 years actually require someone to be thinking long range, and you know the impediment for any leader to think long range in this country is of course our short three year election cycle, so they need runs on the board to get back in, but in terms of our education system, which I think is you know the best incubator for our long term economy, water is a strategic issue, and lots of issues around our democracy, I think this requires some forward planning.

PAUL  Who was our greatest Prime Minister?

JON Oh well you know King Dick is always going to come top of it, Seddon, but you know I've got a real soft spot for Vogel, because I think what Vogel did in the 80s when the colony was really foundering, you know made an enormous difference to the type of political system we ended up with.

PAUL Took a punt as well.

JON Yeah, well he had the entrepreneurial instinct.

PAUL Where do you put Helen Clark in the pantheon?

JON Well at the moment I would put her pretty close around five or six.  I see her very much like Holyoake, she was a pragmatic, competent manager, during generally prosperous times, and I think her context was more complicated than Holyoake's, given MMP and the dynamics.

PAUL Dr Jon Johansson the book is fascinating, it's called 'The Politics of Possibility'.



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  • daved said on 2012-11-04 @ 11:01 NZDT: Report abusive post

    Saddly enough we seem to be really living in another world not the real New Zealand. We are good at farming and the industries relating to this industry. We need to become the best in the word instead of focusing on 1.5 million people who live in Auckland and their housing problems. Be proud we are different to countries like China and America. Our inovation relating to farming and horicuture is sort by the world. We are inovative, clever and pioneers. Not apprieciate so we leave!!

  • 4awinner said on 2012-05-27 @ 09:47 NZDT: Report abusive post

    Retirement. Crazy raising the age! Why because this means more unemployment for the new generation. What is a better investment giving young people the dole or retiries a pension. Pension recievers do not ushally cost the country in crime and all the othe social woes that sucks this cuontry dry. BECAUSE young people NEED a job and future. We have 4 children in Australia all doing very well. The wages give them hope for the future which New Zealand could not but they still love this country.

  • Yady said on 2011-11-28 @ 09:41 NZDT: Report abusive post

    the country is full of complacent morons who love to complain but dont get of there arse to vote.... cant beleive where this country is headed, where just like the yanks, maybe worse because we think we are better than them....shame shame shame..... who can blame us for moving to aussie... the nz government is for the nz rich list, they dont care about the poor..... shame shame shame..... and the media should be held accountable.... they done this... i want to hear the tea tapes!

  • Yady said on 2011-11-28 @ 09:35 NZDT: Report abusive post

    those who didn't vote should be ashamed of themselves.... this country is full of moaning couch potatoes..... just what national needed... shame shame shame....

  • cheekychick said on 2011-11-27 @ 10:03 NZDT: Report abusive post

    Michelle Boag calling Winston names is disgusting and offensive Jan

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