As Winston Churchill defined it, a successful politician is someone with the ability to foretell what’s going to happen tomorrow, next week, next month and next year – along with the ability to explain afterwards why it didn’t happen. To extend Churchill’s apt prescription, an influential politician is one with a higher than average chance of making sure it does happen – or, just as potently, someone with the ability, when it doesn’t happen, to successfully change the subject.
If it were just about making things happen, political influence would be confined to the prime minister and his or her most trusted lieutenants. And there’s no doubt John Key, Finance Minister Bill English and senior ministers Steven Joyce, Gerry Brownlee, Tony Ryall and Nick Smith are the movers and shakers in the most direct sense. They generally get what they want in terms of policy.
But more than that, they have a degree of influence over areas other than their own portfolios. This reach is automatic for the PM and finance minister, whoever they are. But for the rest, influence is generally down to a combination of personality and ability.
Joyce, known as the Minister for Everything, super-sized all the spheres he wanted to have control over into the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. But it doesn’t stop there. When things go awry in the Ministry for Primary Industries, he doesn’t exactly need to kick the fence down, as evidenced by his superintending of the Fonterra whey scare. His general and undisputed job is “making the boat go faster” – scaring up economic growth, whatever it takes. This gives him droit de seigneur over the Government’s big-picture thinking, but it’s probably his insistence on micro-managing many aspects of his realm that makes him so influential. His effectiveness is another question. Irascibility and paying too much attention to the wrong details sometimes negate his efforts. He’s often heard to complain officials are too keen to tell him why things can’t happen.
As is embodied by Gerry Brownlee, an ability to shrug off being unpopular can also be a driver of influence. Often likened to the bulldozers he champions in his home city of Christchurch, Brownlee has a lack of patience and tact that has backhandedly proved an asset in getting things decided in the city’s post-quake rebuild. His influence has not extended to getting the action to follow the decisions in a timely fashion, however, as the region is still waiting for the massive building boom to begin in earnest. It seems that like the quakes themselves, the Earthquake Commission and the insurance companies are impervious to political influence.
Perhaps the most impressive runner-up here is Smith. Since a spell on the backbench after he mishandled a friend’s enquiries about an Accident Compensation matter, he has achieved considerable torque as Housing Minister, in a manner that has made him Local Government Minister as well in all but name. In partnership with English, he has devised a series of measures aimed at reducing councils’ ability to prevent, delay or restrict the sites for new housing. His latest resource consent amendment has run into opposition from National’s coalition props, but it is likely they can be mollified. It wouldn’t do to underestimate Smith’s unfinished agenda for local government reform.
A newcomer in the influence stakes is Communications and Information Technology Minister Amy Adams. Decisions in this complex portfolio are intrinsically controversial, but she has been trusted to take the heat. That she has been the Government’s chief schmoozer at the America’s Cup underlines her growing status. Similarly, Energy and Labour Minister Simon Bridges is gaining heft, having dialled back his goofy, phoning-it-in demeanour after being given two of the most polarising, politically charged portfolios. Despite his name being on the “future leader” treadmill, he hasn’t shrunk from confrontation.
But there’s another form of influence, distinguished by what might be termed ambient menace. Its motto is “Made you look!” Justice Minister Judith Collins, besides being undeniably iron-willed in her own portfolio, is a politician no one, colleague or opponent, dare take their eyes off for long. Distrusted by many colleagues, she is nonetheless generally respected, at least in so far as she can be both fearless and sly in besting her enemies. To the dismay of doubters, she has made successes of all her portfolios to date, and is a serious leadership contender for the post-Key era.
In the same category – which he pretty much pioneered – is Winston Peters. In his latest parliamentary iteration he has drastically reduced his scandalmongery and his pugilism with the media, having acknowledged he has overindulged in negative politics in the past. Ambitious newbies should watch and learn. He makes it look easy to keep the attention of a reliable share of voterdom’s insecure elderly social conservatives and those disgruntled with both right- and left-wing leaderships. He may well be at the top of his game right now, and the eternal potential for his party to hold the balance of power makes his every utterance of deep meaning to friends and foes alike.
On the agenda-setting side of influence, however, it’s hard to go past Labour’s David Cunliffe. Over the past 18 months, he has reset the agenda of the entire left in this country to one topic: David Cunliffe. Like Judith Collins, he is distrusted by most caucus colleagues, but he has parlayed for himself a messianic level of support in the Labour Party and the wider left community. His every utterance is being micro-analysed, for poll trends suggest he could easily be our next prime minister.
However, the other two recent Labour leadership contenders retain a more than astrological pull on left-wing policy-building. Robertson is still seen as a future leader and is the first Generation-X MP to contest the leadership. However impeccably he behaves, no one is in any doubt he is snapping at Cunliffe’s heels. He has a steely agenda of trad-left fiscal and social policies and may well be the lead in Cunliffe’s pencil if there’s any attempt by the new leader to dilute the pledges made on the campaign.
Shane Jones, though coming a distant third, has carved himself out a valuable role as the party’s home-truth-teller. His campaign message, that Labour members were thinking only of themselves rather than the wider voting public, has struck a chord across party lines.
But when it comes to Gen-X influence, the Greens are in the pole position. Co-leader Russel Norman’s dogmatic, pugilistic style is not everyone’s cup of tea, but he’s at the forefront of every important economic and fiscal debate.
Behind the scenes, however, the two major parties suffer from a lack of influence. You could call it the H II Deficit, in honour of Helen Clark’s famous mini-me, Heather Simpson. Neither party has anyone approaching Simpson in terms of strategic enforcement of discipline or shrewd plotting of strategy. Neither party has a president or general manager of any consequence. Both have suffered entirely avoidable media relations problems, and Labour has famously struggled to get the requisite talent in the leader’s office.
Key’s office has had considerably less to test it, but there is demonstrably no H II-grade figure to co-ordinate and trouble-shoot to avoid shenanigans like those over the GCSB report leak.
But the standout influencer, for the feat of creating influence from its direst opposite, has to be the Labour Party rank and file. Delegates seized back control of the party with last year’s fiercely contested leadership election rule changes. The democratisation of this process is a bold experiment, forced through despite the guarantee of deepening already bitter factionalisation. But if the party has emerged more divided than ever, it is at least bigger in membership and in much better morale.
Churchill also said the best argument against democracy was a five-minute conversation with the average voter. But Labour’s membership’s power take-back goes to show that, for better or for worse, the most influential person in politics can still be the humble voter.