Leading a Nation

Notes for a chapter in a book Leadership and Political Change (June 2004)

Keywords: Political Economy & History;

My book, The Nationbuilders, described a particular phase in New Zealand’s economic and political history, between 1932 when Gordon Coates became Minister of Finance and the election of the Labour Government in 1984. It describes a group of (mainly) men embarking upon a strategy of developing an independent nation with its own economy and culture but engaging with the rest of the world. I told the story through their biographies, but it could have been told other ways, through historical sequence or policy themes for instance, or with more biographies, had there been the space.

The nationbuilding strategy came out of the distancing of colonial New Zealand from imperial Britain, instanced by everyone of the nationbuilders having grown up in New Zealand (and they all died there), together with the impact of the two world wars and, crucially, the Great Depression.

At the suggestion of the publisher’s reader, the book also reviewed some politicians who predated the Nationbuilders (many of whom were not politicians, the shift indicating the increasing decentralisation of national leadership). The earlier ones were nationbuilders too, but they had a different conception of nation: each generation has its own. Indeed the book divides its Nationbuilders into two periods (separated by the artists) with discernable differences between them.

The generation which immediately followed 1984 was more colonially imitative than nationally independent, but there seems to be a new nationbuilding phase evolving from the late 1990s. The book argued that it cannot be a replication of the earlier one, not least because the country’s leadership is no longer dominated by white males, who (mainly) assumed a homogeneous society largely like themselves. (Additionally, the intrusiveness of public scrutiny of the national leadership – the impact of television – has markedly changes the relationship between the leadership and the people.)

Do the earlier nationbuilders have much to teach any new ones? First, luck is important, as always. Second, the earlier Nationbuilders could be said to be authentic New Zealanders, generally reflecting the experience on the population (white males anyway) in their earlier years, generally respecting them in a way that the following colonials did not. Third, whether they came from the left or the right, the successful Nationbuilders were moderately progressive, addressing the nation’s problems in a practical rather than ideological ways. (The failure was Rob Muldoon, who tried to repress social change.) A fourth key feature was their willingness to surround themselves with able people. This is true for Coates (and Keith Holyoake had there been room for another politician), but the best example is Peter Fraser, who harnessed a galaxy of the talented, not all of whom agreed with his politics.

While these characteristics may remain eternal in a democracy, each generation has to apply them anew, in the context of their nationbuilding vision. Compared with their predecessors, today’s putative nationbuilders face the complications of a much more diversified society, greater public scrutiny and cynicism, together with pressures from globalisation challenging the very notion of nationhood.