In the past year-and-a-half, Australia, New Zealand and the United States elected new governments in place of leaders who had been in office for some time. Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd was the first of the trio, being sworn into office on December 3, 2007. New Zealand prime minister John Key took office on November 19, 2008, while US president Barack Obama was sworn in on January 20, 2009. All replaced longstanding leaders of the opposing political force after many years in government.
Rudd defeated John Howard, who’d been prime minister since 1996 as head of a conservative Liberal–National Party coalition. Key took over from Helen Clark, who’d served since December 1999 as head of a Labour minority government in New Zealand, and Obama came on the heels of Republican president George W Bush.
Part of the reason for the electoral losses of all three was that they’d become divisive. Howard’s brand of conservative politics earned high marks for economic management but offended many over issues such as immigration, the war in Iraq and the environment. Clark’s government came under fire for its left-wing social agenda, toward women and family in particular, while Bush suffered from the inconclusive war in Iraq. While he was ineligible for re-election, his unpopularity was a burden too great for John McCain, the Republican candidate.
Eventually, all three governments became tainted by their attempts to put a positive spin on their various failures.
Voters switched camps.
But it wasn’t merely the failings of the incumbents that cost their parties a hold on power. All three new leaders were able to project a fresh image, which came across as both idealistic and pragmatic, and each gave the impression of integrity and honesty.
Rudd created a personable media persona, based on his appearances on a morning TV program. Even Rudd’s fumbles, such as the revelation that he’d visited a strip club in New York, merely served to make him look more human.
Besides, he took such incidents on the chin, and made little attempt to worm his way out of them. Admitting to a mistake came as something of a breath of fresh air in politics, where denial of error and the maximum of positive spin seems to be otherwise normative. It all added up to credibility for Rudd.
Key offered a reassuring image after the “nanny state” of Clark’s government.
His financial expertise after making his millions in the foreign exchange market was welcome as the world economy crashed, and many hoped for moderate centrist social legislation after the more radical changes introduced by Clark.
But most dramatic of all was Obama, who overcame many obstacles on his road to the White House. A black man, with the Islamicsounding name, little political experience and up against some of the best-connected and bank-rolled politicians in the US, he swept all opposition aside and won convincing victories for both the Democratic nomination and the White House itself.
A probable key to Obama’s success has been his gift for inspirational language. His rhetoric is based on a shrewd mix of a realistic assessment of current issues and hope projected for the future. His willingness to name the problems facing America rather than use spin to make things look better has given him a reputation for honesty, and his extraordinary ability to inspire hope for the future has made him appear both a realist and a visionary. His campaign funding was underpinned by unprecedented financial support from the grassroots, as compared with massive funding by the big end of town.
Even outside the US, he proved to be an enormously popular presidential candidate, with his Kenyan family connections and Indonesian childhood suggesting he knew something of the outside world.
All three leaders share in the quality of calling for unity through diversity, rather than conquering by dividing, as their predecessors appeared to do.
Such centrist politics are making the old political brandings of left wing and right wing somewhat out of date, as each has taken positions on both sides of left and right, according to their own sense of what was appropriate.
Of course, not everyone rejoices at the election of the new men.
Some in Australia fear the return of union-dominated industrial issues and the double-digit inflation that stalked recent past Labor governments, while some New Zealanders worry over the return to conservative economic policies and the abandonment of progress in creating social equity. In America, race fears have emerged over the election of a black president.
It is, of course, far too early to pass judgment on their success in office, but cynical history predicts that eventually their hard-won reputations as honest and visionary leaders will likely come unstuck in the harsh glare of 21st-century politics. In the meantime, let us consider what their achievements to date suggest to the broader community.
While human pride often leads us to attempt to conceal our faults, even when they are painfully transparent, these politicians have recognised the advantage that truth can have. Truthtelling creates trust, and trust translates into effective working relationships with family, friends and workmates.
Furthermore, between hope and fear, unity and division, and generosity and greed, hope is the more inspiring sentiment, unity the more enduring force, and generosity the most healing energy, even though the others offer quicker results. As short-term expedients, halftruths, fear and division can achieve an end but they are guaranteed to backfire eventually, causing more damage than the initial problems they sought to avoid.
One can be almost sure that political leaders will fall from their lofty perches and have their all-too-human flaws exposed by a ruthless media to an audience that loves nothing more than having heroes reduced to our own condition.
But the truly great qualities of the human spirit, especially as exemplified by Jesus Christ—though not always very well by His followers—endure.
Christianity’s ideal is to tap into the power of God to realise in each of us those same inspiring qualities of hope and honesty that have been the mark of our best citizens.