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Marc My Words: Leadership is knowing when to lead

Marc My Words… 24 November 2006

Political comment
Marc Alexander

Leadership is knowing when to lead, and when to let others lead

And so it finally happened. Don Brash resigned gracefully with humility and dignity from the leadership he held for three years. He leaves the position having doubled support for National, increased its membership and, more importantly, ahead of Labour in the polls. The remarkable thing is that he took the high road by fighting Labour's economic lolly-scramble approach to vote buying with ideas that empowered the public, solidifying the centre right, and giving New Zealand a genuine political alternative. The contrast with the centre left could not be more stark.

It didn't start out that way though.

The Labour elite, fed on an ideological diet of bureaucracy and insulated from the realities of life, thought it was going to be easy with Don Brash as their adversary. They conferred upon him the nickname 'Moga-Don' until his first Orewa speech. That threw the socialists into an unanticipated hissy-fit. Suddenly Don wasn't so unproblematic to deal with. Helen Clark, with twenty years of political know-how and her equally experienced side-kick Michael Cullen suddenly looked less than omnipotent. All their accumulated knowledge of the political game didn't mean squat against the real world pragmatism and down to earth honesty of the Brash leadership.

Of course Don wasn't alone. Gerry Brownlee has been the perfect backing for Brash; having all the gladiatorial guile and strategic skills needed to joust with the government lackeys on a day to day basis. Hopefully his contribution will be reviewed positively when they re-tender the Deputy's position next Monday.

When alls said and done, Don Brash: the man Cullen considered temperamentally unsuited to politics, came within a whisker of beating a government enjoying (and squandering) the best of economic times. Says a lot for both Don Brash and, in a negative way, for Cullen/Clark.

But the real fun begins now.

Despite the wisecracks, the champagne corks won't be popping too loudly on the ninth floor of the beehive. Regardless of the 'I-told-you-so' smirks from Labour, Brash's resignation will no doubt alarm them. As opponents they will now wade into unchartered territory fighting a new foe they will not fully appreciate. Because if tenderfoot Brash could do so much electoral damage to Labour in such a relatively short time, just imagine what his successor will achieve? And, let's face it, National is spoilt for choice.

John Key has all the elements to be a great Prime Minister. Immensely likeable he also has a good story to tell. His life is every bit as aspirational as he would want his potential leadership to be. His success is the very antithesis of Labour's interventions of mediocrity. Nevertheless while he may be the obvious heir apparent, the depth of talent amongst the National lineup is formidable.

Bill English has been extremely effective in his Education portfolio. He has prodded, probed, and laid bare the governments mismanagement of a crucial public policy concern. Similarly Simon Power has been successful in highlighting Labour's long-standing negligence on law and order issues. Then there's Nick Smith grabbing and leading the environment debate ahead of the Prime Minister's sudden and convenient interest. His released document on environmentalism shows not only a thorough understanding of the issues but showcases intelligent commonsense solutions. Compared to the Minister of Conservation Chris Carters' fumbling and bumbling, it is light years ahead.

And has there been a better, more incisive critic of our moribund health system than Tony Ryall? He's had Minister Pete Hodgeson in a tizzy indistinguishable from an epileptic fit over the current health care crisis.

On and on it goes…

We could easily do a stock take of the raw abilities in the National Caucus just as we conversely might struggle to do the same for Labour. They've got Phil Goff, then um…Mallard? Maharey? The bald guy with a penchant for tennis balls but no time for an S & M club? It's hard to know where to look after Clark and Cullen ride off into their respective retirement homes. And that can't be far away. Neither will want to return to Parliament as a backbencher in opposition.

On the other hand the new kids in National look, for the most part, pretty sharp. Chris Finlayson impresses…so does Tim Groser, Kate Wilkinson and a bunch of others. What's important is that it was Don Brash that forged the team that has the definite look of a government in waiting. Under Don National regained its enthusiasm, found its sense of purpose and started becoming the opposition we desperately needed. And really, there's been much to oppose.

Whoever the next leader of National will be, his (or her) success will be built on the considerable accomplishments of what Don Brash has achieved. Labour supporters will naturally be cynical but I bet they will also be quietly anxious. The new leader of National will be the next Prime Minister. Deep down Helen Clark knows it. And she will not be amused.

Of course the other upside to all this is that National's Shrek, Brian Connell, will finally be able to get a haircut. Snip snip!


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