We are a pretty self-effacing lot as a nation. We do not stand on too much ceremony; we have an innate sense of equality and trying to see everyone gets a “fair go”; and the absolutely worst thing we can say about a person is that they are “up themselves”. Often we are seen as taciturn and perhaps a little dour, far more comfortable doing things, than talking about them. We pride ourselves on our practical, considered approach to issues – and our uncanny ability to develop solutions tailored to our needs, no matter the ridicule or criticism of others.
The people we look up to in all fields of endeavour – from our great-grandparents and grandparents who fought so stoically in two World Wars and other conflicts, through to sport and politics, the arts and sciences, and business and the outdoors today, all fit that mould. We are wary of the flashy extrovert, with the ever-present smile, the cocky, arrogant “don’t pull the wool over my eyes sunshine, I didn’t come down in the last shower” demeanour and the cheap, instant answer to everything. We generally despise them as fake – shallow, inveterate fraudsters and charlatans who, despite all their bravado, can be relied to always fail badly when the crunch comes, and then blame someone else. We far prefer the quiet, level-headed doer, who just gets on with the task at hand, and makes things work.
Sometimes we make the mistake of putting the New Zealanders we admire on pedestals as remarkable, and different to the rest of us. But, in doing so, we fail to recognise that the reason for their success lies often not in their difference, but rather in their quintessential New Zealand approach. John Mulgan came closest to capturing that essence in the seminal New Zealand novel, “Man Alone”, and it is probably no coincidence that the men and women we admire the most have always had more than an element of that in their make-up.
The word that underpins the New Zealand character is reliability – the archetypal safe pair of hands in a crisis. Peter Burling constantly demonstrated that in the recent stunning America’s Cup Series. Taciturn, almost to a fault, yet the symbol of reliability and dependability, and ultimately the winner. Until the explosion of the Barclay crisis the same thing could have been said of Prime Minister Bill English. While the lasting extent to which that may have been damaged by recent events is probably too premature to assess as yet, there is no doubt that the Prime Minister’s historic strengths have been his perceived dependability, and focus on performance ahead of superficiality.
The test of leadership comes with the ability to deal with crisis situations. Just a few weeks ago, Emirates Team New Zealand’s boat pitch-poled dramatically during the start of a challenger semi-final race. It was severely, almost fatally we now know, damaged and could have put paid to New Zealand’s efforts. Similarly, Barclay has become Bill English’s pitch-pole moment. Yet sheer guts, determination and hard work not only saw Team New Zealand back on the water in a day or two, but Burling and crew going on to win the challenger semi-finals and then the final, and ultimately the America’s Cup itself, without ever conceding the merest whiff of their dire predicament to their opponents. In political terms, Bill English now has to do likewise.
When the schooner America beat the best British yachts in the International Race off the Isle of Wight in 1851 to win what became known as the America’s Cup, Queen Victoria inquired about the fate of other yachts in the race, only to be informed “There is no second.” Those four words have endured in cup history ever since. They are also the words the Prime Minister needs to put front and centre now as he mounts his recovery from the Barclay affair.