The Key to Modern Democratic Leadership

By John Boswell, Lecturer in Politics at the University of Southampton.


 

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key’s announcement of his resignation at the beginning of this week has been met with surprise. An historically popular third-term leader is leaving politics on a high. The reaction over this side of the world has been one of bewildered admiration. How is this possible? What was he doing so right? What is this magical secret to success in contemporary democratic leadership? As a kiwi who has followed things closely from afar, and as a card-carrying deliberative democrat—committed more to the procedural fairness of democratic contestation than to substantive policy outcomes—this fawning is a little hard to take. A very effective leader Key has been, but the descriptor democratic is not one that fits. Specifically, three main strategies that have underpinned his National-led governments have been corrosive to established democratic conventions and practices:

1. Procedure is for wimps

Right from the outset the Key government were ‘relaxed’ about established conventions simply because they had the numbers in the House (despite NZ having a proportional system, the make-up of Parliament throughout has included tiny and mostly compliant coalition partners and supporters). An egregious example was the use of urgency in Parliament. New and manifestly un-urgent Bills in the early days especially were passed under urgency, curtailing debate and contestation, and preventing opportunity for Member’s Bills to be heard. The rituals of scrutiny and opposition were painted as nasty politicking, getting in the way of the government’s rightful mandate.

2. Governments get to control the communications environment

A change championed in particular by National’s media guru, chief strategist and all-round fixer Steven Joyce (the so-called Minister for Everything) has been to turn government agencies into cogs in an impressive political communications machine. Joyce’s own (admittedly large) Ministry, for instance, employs over 50 communications staff. That’s as many media experts as most newsrooms in the country.  These communications specialists—largely poached in fact from rapidly emptying newsrooms—seem to be employed chiefly for the purpose of not communicating, of stalling and misdirecting. I myself was rather miffed to be on the receiving end of one such run-around on a recent research trip back to NZ.  My experiences were by and large confirmed by the academics and media people I spoke to: from Key himself refusing to front for Morning Report or Campbell Live (the most critical interview rituals in NZ), to mundane operational agencies neglecting to engage with people like me, a culture of shutting-up-shop reigns.

3. The advantage of being in government is one to be used politically

The most fundamental and disturbing change has been the one uncovered by investigative journalist Nicky Hager in his book Dirty Politics: an investigation that links the PM’s office to a right-wing attack blogger. This is the below-the-line, dirty, Nixon-esque abuse of the powers and privileges of office to hurt rivals. The most notable tactic has been using Official Information Act requests to coordinate attacks on political rivals (by tipping of this blogger and then processing his requests at lightning speed) and stall genuine requests. Key has denied the former but actually openly admitted the latter.

Readers will be quick to point out that none of this is unique to the NZ context, recalling the playbooks of John Howard, Alistair Campbell, Karl Rove and beyond (after all, NZ is famously 20 years late to the party on everything). The dark arts have always been part and parcel of democratic politics. But a key part of the story here has been the context that has allowed these strategies to breed so much success, in particular the precipitous decline in media coverage of politics in NZ. There are now (according to my sources) more government communications people than journalists. What’s indisputable is that they are more experienced operators who can, in the words of one informant, ‘run rings around the cadets’. This is important because the fourth estate is in trouble everywhere, certainly in spirit even if it survives in body. NZ, with its small, deregulated, almost entirely private media market, represents the extreme edge of a broader and seemingly inexorable trend.

So what might be picked up and taken from the kiwi experience to the current travails of Brexit etc? Key’s government has of course not been populist in the mould of Farage or Trump—indeed Key has annoyed critics on the right for being far too committed to preserving the status quo. Instead I fear he has set the mould for something much less extreme but potentially more enduring, what might be called a popularist leader: a pleasantly bland PM that people (not me, you might have picked) want to have a beer with —one at home in the All Blacks changing room, bantering with shock jocks, posing for selfies—whose views on anything controversial are deliberately obscured, and whose governments’ actions afford little chance of scrutiny and are geared toward damaging enemies and furthering a personal political brand.

I, for one, much prefer it over here where people still hate their politicians.

Channel 4, Fat and the Facts

By Dr John Boswell, Politics & International Relations

Watching Supersize vs Superskinny, Channel 4’s latest venture into the ever-popular fat voyeur genre, I was struck by one thing in particular. Unlike the casual viewer, it wasn’t the enormous quantities of food that participants consumed (or actually in this case were forced to watch their ‘superskinny’ counterpart struggle down), nor the gratuitous footage of even bigger Americans in undignified situations, nor even the perma-tan and blonde highlights of the creepy Dr. Christian. Instead, having spent much of the last 4 years analysing the way political actors make sense of and argue about obesity, what stood out for me was the constant stream of facts and figures that viewers were bombarded with. From Perspex containers filled with kilograms of sugar and fat (a ‘shock’ technique filched from Jamie Oliver) to the sober clinical assessments delivered by the good doctor,  the show seemed to be jam packed with references to scientific claims on obesity and its impact on health.

This observation aligned neatly with what I had found in my research—a seemingly universal fetish for ‘the evidence’ whenever the issue of obesity comes up. Indeed, every policy actor I have come into contact with in both the UK and Australia, whether in public or private, seems to share this obsession. The evidence of my own gathered over this time shows that these actors typically litter their comments on the subject with facts and statistics, make extensive and deferential reference to ‘the evidence’ in general, and speak of the need for (or at least of the faint hope for) policymaking around this issue to be ‘evidence-based’. Now, to be clear, these actors disagree vehemently about the nature of obesity as a problem and about how public policymakers ought to react: for some, the obese are lazy oafs sponging off the NHS; for others, they are helpless victims of an ‘obesogenic’ environment poisoned by the wicked food industry; and for others still, they are objects of a moral panic inflamed by special research and pharmaceutical interests. Yet all share an obsession for the evidence, such that these conflicting accounts are all avowedly ‘evidence-based’. So how does that work?

An elegant explanation is that evidence is just a discursive resource that actors can draw on; that the fierce debate over the ‘obesity epidemic’ and its implications for public policy are just another case of science falling victim to politicisation. What I argue in this article (or view for free here), recently published as part of a special issue for Policy Sciences on ‘Evidence and Meaning’, is not that this is explanation is entirely wrong – I absolutely concur that ‘the evidence’ is not some innocent, neutral object beyond the dirty reality of politics and policymaking—but that it is overly simplistic. The debate over obesity is not a case of fixed coalitions drawing on scientific evidence solely for the purpose of reinforcing their preconceptions. It is a complex, dynamic one in which apparent ‘allies’ frequently and often openly contradict each other with respect to ‘the evidence’.

In light of this rather more optimistic stance, I ponder what this might mean in democratic terms. I acknowledge, of course, that the primacy of ‘the evidence’ has some drawbacks in this regard. While all the actors engaged in this debate (including and perhaps especially public health experts) also draw extensively on alternative forms of knowledge—common sense, professional experience, personal anecdote, etc—these claims are always enfolded within or made subordinate to claims about the evidence. This has pretty obvious exclusionary implications. But, on the other hand, the common refrain to the evidence has two key benefits. The first is that the currency given to evidence keeps all actors on board, even when they do not feel they are getting their way. They have faith that ‘the truth will out’; that the evidence proving their case will mount and become so compelling that policymakers will have no choice but to pursue their preferred course of action. The second benefit is that by committing to justifying their claims with reference to ‘the evidence’, all actors across this debate are submitting their accounts to a common standard of assessment. By demanding so publicly and vociferously that policymaking on obesity be ‘evidence-based’, they run the risk of being ‘hoisted with their own petard’ if their own use and interpretation of the facts is not seen to add up.

Which leads me back to the sums being done at Channel 4. If the show’s researchers are so concerned about facts and figures, then perhaps I should point them to the growing evidence that Dr. Christian’s methods of shock and humiliation do appalling damage to self-esteem and (as a result) are almost always counter-productive for weight loss and health in the long term. But something tells me the channel may be about as committed to improving public health in Supersize vs Superskinny as it is to advancing social welfare through Benefits Street.