Liam Hehir: Rise of the blank slate political leader

Liam Hehir: Rise of the blank slate political leader

Todd Muller has made a good start to his leadership, though it would obviously be pretty stupid to extrapolate too much from the first couple of days. Nevertheless, as a matter of speculation, it is interesting to think what success on his part might say about the preferences of the New Zealand electorate.

The two most successful politicians of the last decade have been John Key and Jacinda Ardern. Both of them suffered criticism for being blank slates onto which voters could project their desires for comfort and familiarity. Provided, of course, that “suffering” may not be the way to put it given that they both went on to enjoy immense popularity.

Fairly or not, the words “blank slate” have been used frequently to describe Muller, who was not well known before his rapid ascension to prominence. In terms of the National Party itself, he is almost the ne plus ultra party leader. As my friend Ben Thomas said on the news, it was almost as if he was grown in a lab for the role.

If Muller continues to perform well and enjoys sustained popularity as a result, that might be taken as a real indication that New Zealanders prefer reassuring and benign leaders to exciting and colourful ones. This would stand in contrast to developments in Britain and America where generic candidates have tended to suffer.

If so, should we really be all that surprised?

A few years back, when our left-wing friends were upset about why a popular upheaval against John Key wasn’t materialising, I wrote a piece in defence of sleepy hobbits. The point was that New Zealanders weren’t likely to rise up against the status quo when most of them felt that things were on the right track. Somewhat uniquely among our peers, New Zealanders were really quite optimistic about where the country was headed.

Now we don’t get a lot of public polling these days and the right direction or wrong direction doesn’t seem to be asked very often. However, the leaked UMR polling from earlier this month shows our overall optimism hasn’t dissipated. And while we need to be careful of these selectively leaked surveys, it is at least one imperfect data point that is consistent with what we might otherwise expect.

This would suggest that our preference for vagueness is simply a consequence of a good thing. The political system is stable and there is a high degree of trust in it. We recoil from more disruptive archetypes because they threaten the cohesion that most of us have come to like and appreciate.

The other thing that could be an influence is the risks now presented by social media. Giving your critics as small a target as possible is vital in an era where viral moments can give opinion makers licence to make a mountain out of a molehill. Coming into leadership with as generic as possible a track record means ceding less control to the muckrakers.

Providing that Muller is successful (a big assumption) and that he does not transform himself into Boris Johnson in the process (a safer one) it will be hard to argue against the idea a template has been set. Key by himself would have been an example, Key and Ardern would have been a coincidence and the two of them plus Muller would clearly constitute a trend.

We might then wonder just what it will take for colourful candidates to be able to succeed in New Zealand politics again.

Image: Unknown artist / Public domain

This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.