Comment

Beware, nice guys finish last

This week’s round of meetings by Jacinda Ardern and Winston Peters with foreign governments will establish whether they are prepared to stand up for the things they say matter, or are more preoccupied with getting positive coverage in the international media, says Peter Dunne.

There is a famous American baseball phrase from the great 1940s rivalry between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants that “nice guys finish last”.

It has frequently been expropriated to explain the public preference for strong, dominant and often otherwise repugnant characters as political leaders over milder figures, more like themselves. While Donald Trump is the most obvious current example, he may soon be joined by Boris Johnson, should he succeed in his bid to become the new British Prime Minister.

As an aside, it has to be said much of the criticism directed at the likes of Trump and Johnson (and our own Muldoon in days past) misses the point that each of them are playing a deliberate role. The last way any of them would have ever wished to have been described was as a “nice guy”. Grudging respect for their bullying domination is the mark of success they seek. Anything else is failure.

In that respect, the generation of modern political leaders like Jacinda Ardern, Emmanuel Macron, and Justin Trudeau stand apart, as potentially defying the prevailing logic and thereby rewriting the narrative about the keys to political leadership success.

While there has been tremendous goodwill towards all of them since Trudeau became Prime Minister of Canada in 2015, the jury is still out on whether they represent a genuine break from the past, or they are a temporary short-term phenomenon.

Already there has been a swing back to more traditional right wing parties in recent elections in Europe, with Greece being the latest example where populist reformist Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was voted out last week, because he had failed in office to live up to his previous anti-austerity rhetoric.

Canada’s Federal election this coming October will provide a further indication. Polls there this week show a virtual dead-heat between the major parties, meaning that a second term for Trudeau is by no means assured. Various current polls in France show disapproval rates for Macron of between 64 percent and 69 percent, suggesting the lustre and attraction of his En Marche movement is over.

Things are somewhat different in New Zealand where Jacinda Ardern continues to dominate the political scene and the polls, although support for her Government is somewhat more finely balanced, meaning it is still premature to make a definitive conclusion.

Generally speaking, the kindness and warmth mantra the Prime Minister has made her brand has stamped the image of her whole Government and has been well received by New Zealanders. However, it will be tested this week during the Prime Minister’s visit to Australia, and her Deputy’s visit to the United States. There are testing issues in both these key relationships which need to be addressed, but the perception is that tough discussions are being put to one side.

A slightly dysfunctional family

New Zealand and Australia like to describe themselves as “family” able to have those frank discussions families can have together, but this Government’s record suggests this family relationship so far is one where things are “best kept quiet”.

Whether the Foreign Minister was being disingenuous or just plain timid will be revealed when the two Prime Ministers meet later this week.

Contrast the strong rhetoric before the election about the treatment of refugees on Manus Island, the deportation of New Zealanders without family support here, or the general treatment of New Zealanders living in Australia.

With the exception of the abortive approach on Manus Island (met with a firm, thanks, but no thanks response), there has been silence on the other issues of concern.

Indeed, in justifying not raising these issues with his Australian counterpart in a recent meeting, our Foreign Minister seemed to imply that it would have been churlish to have done so.

Whether the Foreign Minister was being disingenuous or just plain timid will be revealed when the two Prime Ministers meet later this week.

A failure by our Prime Minister to raise and pursue these issues determinedly with the Australian Prime Minister will heighten concerns that in the interests of general camaraderie and not wishing to give offence, New Zealand has given up raising issues of principle that matter to it. It would be hardly the way close and functional families behave.

Meet the US head-on or opt for all smiles?

While Jacinda Ardern is in Canberra, the Deputy Prime Minister will be in Washington, meeting the Secretary of State, the National Security Adviser, and other senior Administration officials.

There are no less important issues on the table in that relationship too. There will be interest in progress on the economic relationship, including a Free Trade Agreement and the implications of tense relations between the White House and Beijing for New Zealand’s own relationship with China (given the increasing American insistence that its friends back it, rather than China, on things like the Huawei role in national telecommunications infrastructure developments).

Will Winston Peters take these issues head-on in the United States, or will be it be a repetition of his meeting with the President of Turkey where he did not mention the President’s critical comments in the wake of the Christchurch mosque shootings, or last week’s meeting with the Australian Foreign Minister, where he was once again all smiles, but no substance?

[Ardern] was imbued through those events with a level of respect and moral authority that, within reason, she should not feel bashful about exploiting in the national interest on the international stage.

Courting warm and friendly relationships with the countries of importance to New Zealand of course makes good sense. It is easy to do so if our approach is to be to never say or do anything to upset them, but it means we will be taken for granted in international relations, and therefore count for nothing, the international “nice guys” with little influence accordingly.

This week’s round of meetings will establish whether the New Zealand Government is prepared to stand up for the things it says matter to it, or is more preoccupied with positive coverage in the international media.

Can Ardern buck the trend?

Jacinda Ardern has the huge advantage of the positive image built up on the national and international stages in the wake of the Christchurch tragedies earlier this year.

Unlike Macron or Trudeau, or any other world leader, she was imbued through those events with a level of respect and moral authority that, within reason, she should not feel bashful about exploiting in the national interest on the international stage.

The continued promotion of international human rights and nations’ rights to self-determination is an obvious one in respect of the current United States’ approach to international relations, and the continuing poor treatment of New Zealanders in difficulty in Australia is ready made for the Prime Minister to make a stand upon.   

Whether she is prepared to do so may well determine if she will go the way of Trudeau and Macron, and the “nice guys” will continue to finish last, or, that she is set to succeed in a way none of her contemporaries seem likely to.

Either way, this week will tell the story. 

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