Level 2 arrived and I finally got my drink of water. On Thursday we had lunch with our friends Cleone and Peter at their house in Queenstown. And on Friday night, so exciting, we spent the night away from home! We got to have dinner and breakfast with our friends John and Diana and Nina (and Baxter the dog) in Hawea Flat, as well as chatting to their neighbours in the morning. Diana said the same thing, she had walked up Isthmus Peak in the morning with two friends. They talked the whole way up, not even noticing the 1000m climb and the drizzle, and she realised how much she had missed just catching up with people.
John, slightly more worryingly, recounted a COVID-fear occurrence where they ran over Mt Iron on Thursday and a walker raised her pointy walking pole to push them off the 1.5m wide track (rather than stepping away from the track herself if she was particularly concerned about their proximity). Fear is quite understandable, although the mounting evidence suggests that catching COVID-19 while exercising in the outdoors and passing people briefly is at the very unlikely end of the spectrum. However, a modicum of sense also needs to be included, particularly given the lack of actual risk.
In general, the mood this weekend was joyous and not at all like the end of a pointy walking pole. People were out cycling and walking on the trails, clearly catching up with people they hadn’t seen in a while, and everyone had a smile on their faces. Beautiful, blue sky weather in Wanaka and Queenstown helped too. I couldn’t help but think that, all over New Zealand, people are having their drink of water and feeling better for it.
The New Zealand government and Prime Minister, advised by scientists and medics, has led us to the water. I have been contemplating the meaning of ‘leadership’, particularly in relation to politicians. People’s like or dislike of political leaders is a very complex, but very important matter, given the resultant role of leaders in determining the entire government in democracies with a Prime Minister. My friend Simon thinks that Jacinda Ardern is ‘the devil incarnate’, although in some of his other views he is relatively left wing. My Swiss friend Peter thinks that Trump is simply great, as does his Italian friend Giorgio, and Simon says that he listens to what Trump says to glean the useful and interesting items that Trump says. I don’t adhere to a single party (in fact I find categorisation of people as left/right wing very irritating as it is anachronistic and simplistic), nor do I think any leader can be completely good or right all of the time. However I balk at the thought of Ardern being a ‘devil’, or Trump being someone likeable. Both, however, are undoubtedly successful if in rather different ways.
What does denote success in political leadership? I did a few web searches and found numerous articles regarding the qualities that a leader should have, but far less material regarding what parameters we might use to determine whether a leader is successful or not. Thinking about it, the simplest definition would seem to be that, for a leader to be successful, people have to follow, or ‘support’, them. In the case of a political leader this means that they need to be followed/supported both by their party members and by the populace who will elect the leader and their party. Being followed then requires a careful combination of behaving in a way that people find likeable, and achieving the goals that people want the leader to achieve. Although, of course, the leader is simply a front person, and the goals are actually achieved through the actions of many other people who the leader is co-ordinating and inspiring.
So we can judge a leader today, based on whether we like them and whether they appear to be achieving the goals we would wish them to achieve. Of course the role of a leader is not to achieve our own personal wishes, but some amalgam of the wishes of the country. Therefore the odds are that our own personal wishes are likely not to coincide identically with anything that ever happens, we need to be somewhat reasonable in our goal-achievement expectations.
And then we get the added degree of complexity as to whether a leader appears successful in retrospect. Did they achieve the goals of the country at the time (the nature of those goals well blurred by history)? Did they at least achieve something we think was worthwhile, coloured by the lens of today? And did they behave in a way according with our values, again highly coloured by the lens of today?
It would seem like there are almost an infinite number of ways that leaders can fail. The chances of being liked, achieving something important in your term and doing that in a way and at a scale that is recognised historically seem pretty infinitesimal! Which sums up, for me why our attitudes to our leaders are generally a lot more about gut reaction than analysis, because some of the required analysis is currently impossible and much of it is coloured by our personal biases and the biases of the time. In the same way that we have our friends, in whom we tolerate quirks for the sake of their upsides (as they do for us), we form a gut reaction regarding an inaccurate summation of leaders’ persona and actions. [By the way, it has been shown that there is a millisecond rate neural connection between the gut and the brain, discovered in 2018, so ‘gut reactions’ may have a lot more to do with the brain than we think!] Our gut reactions influence our statements about leaders and, increasingly in these times of social media, our statements combine in the media to create weight and force.
Is Jim Boult a successful leader? He has acted with decisiveness and speed in matters which include public transport (tick), support and compassion for unemployed migrants in Queenstown (tick) and supporting the district’s increased reliance and focus on tourism (cross). He is visible and enthusiastic (tick), but has also apparently colluded with parties regarding the Queenstown Airport Company proposed expansion in what seems underhanded and deliberately obscure to the public (cross).
Is Jacinda Ardern a successful leader? She, with her government, advisors and ‘team of 5 million’, has acted with decisiveness and speed in a pandemic to bring New Zealand to its current position in which we have had zero new cases reported on four of the last five days, got out of lockdown a good deal quicker than Wuhan City (tick). Ardern communicated in a way such that the majority of the population came along for the ride (tick). Simon thinks she is a devil because she raised the benefit while everyone was distracted early in lockdown, for the purpose of getting votes. That would be a truly devilish strategy to raise the benefit, crash the economy through a lockdown so lots more people go on the benefit, and then they vote for you because they feel grateful you raised the benefit they are now reliant on. A strategy worthy of the great Trump himself.
But back to Ardern, is the 2020 budget strategic enough? One might ask whose crystal ball will be sufficient for a strategic budget at this point, that must be why we have kept $20 billion in the kitty. Jury remains out. Was the public health system prepared for the pandemic? No (cross for her, together with John Key and Helen Clark). Has Kiwibuild been a failure? Yes (cross). Should the Covid-19 Public Health Response Act have been rushed through Parliament? (cross). Is Jacinda Ardern perfect? Resounding no, along with every other leader on the planet. But, for all her faults, has she delivered for New Zealand in this time and place in a way that it is hard to see anyone, or anywhere else, bettering? Fill in your own blank.