Here’s a trick question I’ve taken to ask some party insiders.
“Who is your political hero?”
Typically, a response on the conservative side would include, in the UK, Margaret Thatcher for her strength and consistent ideology. In Australia, John Howard will typically be nominated for his political perseverance and near-death experience with tax reform. In the US, folk will say Ronald Reagan for ability to, in his own words “(appeal) to (our) best hopes, not (our) worst fears. To (our) confidence rather than (our) doubts.”
John Key would be named in NZ for this “everyman” quality and his ability to take Kiwis with him on the road to reform – standing out as an economically conservative politician campaigning for centrist causes.
On the left you will get, in the UK, Tony Blair who radically reformed a Labour party that was unelectable for a generation and helping it appeal to a very broad base.
In Australia, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating are noted for transforming Australia into an open economy; in NZ, Helen Clark for her tactical cunning and pragmatism – knowing how to most efficiently deal with situations as they arose.
But all these responses focus on the most politically successful, and yes, long-lived political icons in the room.
Notwithstanding that there are other leaders who’ve been less politically successful in the eyes of the party faithful but have reformed their parties and its political direction, like John Smith of the British Labour Party or Harold Holt of the Liberal Party in Australia. Both of whom had careers cut short by untimely deaths.
Then there are those architects of economic reforms who never saw the top job, like Peter Costello. Kevin Rudd now may be regarded as an unstable wrecker by much of the ALP today, but he was a hero just nine years ago when he led the party back from 11 years in opposition.
Even Gough Whitlam, although safely sitting in the icon category as a reformer, was only in power for three very tumultuous years.
But as politics becomes a strange mix of West Wing entertainment and spectator sport there is too much focus on icons. So I tell folk the real heroes can be found elsewhere.
But to me a conservative hero is the man or woman, a Phil or Jenny. They’ve built a family, they work hard, build small businesses, pay their taxes, volunteer at the school canteen or little league and obey the law. If they are party members, they are the ones who are door knocking, copping abuse as they hand out how-to vote cards.
They are the ones who fight at the front in the wars instigated by political leaders, defend the strong immigration policies of the party, rightly argue for smaller, less intrusive government around the barbecue, and properly expect more value for their hard-earned taxpayer dollars, more return in terms of value for money, and rightly, those on welfare to recognise their contributions by doing everything possible to get off it.
A true hero of the left is surely not the senior unionist come political leader. It is the Linda or Glen; the nurse or health services worker who joined the union to stand up for better conditions in our hospitals, who stands out in the cold on a picket line for hours on end away from their loved ones, not just turn up for 5 minutes with a microphone for a media photo op.
They are the ones who negotiate at the workplace for practical safety improvements, not just tweet about it, and these real heroes grind away on the boring detail for a better pay deal, often whilst dealing with the fallout from the CEO who just gave himself a million dollar bonus. They are the ones volunteering for the party and the unions throughout the election campaign till polling day, a tool that has made left-wing political campaigning so effective in recent years.
Both conservative and left wing heroes also often work in traditionally working class turned aspirational jobs, like mining and trades.
Voters are increasingly wanting their contribution to our nation recognised, which can be witnessed in the way they play with opinion polls in the lead up to votes resulting in what are broadly labelled “shock results” like the Brexit win or Trump nomination.
But the consistent theme among these supposed “shock results” is that people are listening to politicians who treat their concerns and life goals as paramount; and are less concerned with grand political narrative or a political peer’s deification.
Like in sport, the star players are only there because of the support of millions of mums, dads and kids who travel for miles to watch the game, stop the family routine to watch their club on TV and generally support their clubs with the own sweat, passion and ticket money.
I say let’s do more to recognise the everyday “political heroes” for their contributions, not just the icons.
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