Thursday, 24 March 2011

Generation Jones - a question of courage

In the latest issue of The Economist, the Lexington column ponders whether President Obama has, at any point in his presidency so far, demonstrated real political courage.

After weighing the evidence, Lexington concludes:

[Obama] made hope and audacity his running mates, so he should answer for their defection. With the exception of health reform the big fights—on global warming, immigration and the deficit—have been put on hold and many of the smaller ones ducked . . .

. . . Maybe Mr Obama will find the same raw courage [as some of his predecessors] when at last he thinks it warranted. All one can say is that it has not happened yet.

I was persuaded, even if the article led me to another uncomfortable conclusion. Obama’s lack of ideological clarity or, to put it more kindly, his propensity to synthesise all sides of an issue, might stem from to a lack of political courage. Other political leaders from Generation Jones - my generation - display similar characteristics [click here and here]. Might they too be lacking in courage?

The evidence isn’t encouraging. Last year, the then Australian prime minister, Kevin Rudd (born 1957), flip-flopped on whether to bring in an emissions trading scheme, despite the fact that fighting climate change was meant to central to his government’s mission. His personal popularity sagged badly, providing the ALP caucus with an excuse to dump Rudd and bring in Julia Gillard.

In New Zealand, prime minister John Key (born 1961) is a popular and charismatic politician, but is so cautious that he has been dubbed “smile and wave” by his Labour opponents. On the other end of the political spectrum, Sir Roger Douglas has repeatedly criticised Key’s government for its “cowardice” and reluctance to take “tough decisions”.

Here in London, Lexington’s question about courage could just as fairly be asked about Mayor Boris Johnson (born 1964).

The baby boomers’ willingness to push boundaries and achieve greater personal, social and, later, economic freedom surely stemmed from the prosperous economic times in which they were raised. The more difficult economic environment of their formative years (the mid/late 1970s and early 1980s) and the ambiguous and uncertain spirit of the age could have caused members of Generation Jones to be less politically confident than their forebears.

But Lexington and I may both be rushing to judgment. The Economist article was written before the international coalition, which of course includes the US, imposed a no-fly ban on Libya – otherwise known as going to war. The Obama administration’s action on Libya has been criticised by some of the president’s political opponents [click here, and here]. The response from the American public has been somewhat ambivalent and they want no further military involvement in Libya. Lexington’s opinion of the president’s backbone may yet have to be revised upwards.

Julia Gillard (born 1961) is a member of Generation Jones, just like Rudd. She is now bringing in a carbon tax, after ruling it out during last year’s federal election campaign, and her Labor government’s poll ratings have collapsed as a result. Courageous, or what?

As for Key, he has promised to sell off some important government assets if his National-led government is returned at the November general election. He’s taking a big risk. Public anger at a large-scale privatisation programme helped to sink the fourth Labour government (1984-90). So far, however, Key’s proposals haven’t fired Kiwis up in the same way.

The leaders from Generation Jones may still be able to take pride in their political courage. But they - or at the least, the leaders from my side of the political fence - could have to claim that mantle in electoral defeat.

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