There’s an expression I like: “Hard times create strong leaders, strong leaders create good times, good times create weak leaders, weak leaders create hard times.”
It’s about the rise-and-fall cycle of societies – a rhythm that has defined human history. The optimist in me looks at the unprecedented growth and peace of the past 70 years and thinks that maybe we’ve broken the cycle. That the stability and progress I, my parents and grandparents have enjoyed might be the norm now.
As a father to a two-year old, I desperately want to believe that. But that’s a fantasy. The truth is that we are heading for hard times.
It can be hard to see from our little island in the South Pacific. Harder still when we’re focused on the day-to-day needs of work, family and community. But the guardrails that enabled and protected decades of global prosperity are starting to fail.
Our climate is becoming more extreme. The United States-led order of free trade and peace is fracturing. Potentially destabilising technologies like Artificial Intelligence are advancing exponentially. Disinformation and alternative truth are dividing us. Cheap energy is ending.
You don’t need to be an economist or climate scientist to feel these threats. The signals are all there. There are the daily news articles we usually ignore – like the population crash of Antarctic penguins due to ice loss or the breaking of yet another global heat record.
Closer to home we feel it in the ever-rising cost of food, petrol, building materials or farm inputs. It’s in the unprecedented storms of this winter and the occupation of Parliament.
This is not a popular perspective. But honestly, Chris, I’m done pretending that everything is okay. And I think more and more New Zealanders are starting to feel the same way. We’re not extremists or preppers, and we’re not looking for people to blame. We just see the stability and opportunities that were afforded to us being lost for our kids.
We want a leader – you – to talk openly and honestly about the hard times ahead and call for the transformative changes we need to safeguard our future.
But all I’m seeing from you and the other Chris are marginal policies that tutu at the edges of our core systems. The environmental and economic foundations our lives are built on are starting to falter, and all you guys are talking about are tax tweaks and GST-free veges!
That’s why the minor parties are performing so well this year. They are calling for system change at a time when many are losing faith in the business-as-usual model you two represent.
Let’s look at one acute example. Eighteen months ago a ship wedged itself in the Suez canal and the global economy ground to a halt. A few degrees astern and the global system we depend on for healthcare, transport, food production and everything in between, stopped. To meet this existential risk (made worse by the invasion of Ukraine), we have the newly signed, bipartisan Improving Fuel Resilience Bill – mandating just 28-days’ worth of fuel reserves.
The harder times ahead will demand a different type of leadership.
In good times, it’s fine not to rock the boat and ignore calls for deep reform. But that’s not where we find ourselves – at least not for much longer.
Harder times need leaders who are prepared to stake their political careers on doing the impossible. They shepherd people through the uncertainty and pain that genuinely transformative effort inevitably creates. They tell us why our sacrifices will be worth it – that one day our kids will thank us for it.
History is littered with examples of strong leaders who were offered an easy path, but chose a great struggle instead. Kate Sheppard, Sir Āpirana Ngata, Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk to name a few.
Despite the reality that hard times lie ahead, I remain convinced that human beings, and Kiwis in particular, are awesome. Once we stop ignoring our problems and get stuck in, there’s few things we can’t do. In the spirit of solutions, here’s a few system-change policies that would win my vote:
A genuine food security strategy that addresses access (25% of Kiwis sometimes go hungry) and health (we’re the third most obese country on the planet), onshores input production and drives local food & farming economies. A government-guaranteed job in nature-based climate adaptation projects. An energy security strategy that insulates us from global shocks through renewable electrification, rail and public transit investments. A coastal shipping network. Re-localisation of manufacturing for critical goods. A national citizen service programme to train our young people for the hard times ahead.
Good luck, Chris. I hope you can be the leader we need.