Last month, New Zealand prime minister John Key won a thumping election victory. His National party was not only returned for a third term: it increased both its share of votes and number of seats, blitzed the Labour opposition by two votes to one and, for the first time since New Zealand’s Mixed Member Proportional voting system started in 1996, one party won an absolute majority of seats.
Above all, this was Key’s victory. While National polled 48 per cent of the vote, final opinion polls indicated almost 70 per cent of New Zealanders preferred Key as prime minister, compared to just 17 for Labour leader David Cunliffe.
Few voters ever actually meet their leaders, and Key is a multi-millionaire currency trader and former merchant banker. But Key’s key is something that all leaders wish they have but few do – an ‘I’d love to have a beer with this bloke’ image. The B (for Beer)-Factor.
John Key is King of the Kiwis because of his very ordinariness. He clearly loves mixing it with all New Zealanders, whether happily posing for selfies on the campaign trail or comforting those devastated by the Christchurch earthquakes and the 2010 Pike River mining disaster.
Key instinctively knows what works with everyday Kiwis. That he started life in public housing and made his own fortune adds to his ‘one of us’ aura. His fondness for stubbies of Tui beer – New Zealand’s Victoria Bitter – has become legend. Above all, Key relishes taking the piss (or should that be the pus?) out of himself: witness the YouTube clip of his hammy catwalk modelling for the volunteer uniform of the 2011 Rugby World Cup. An Everyman leader.
In Australia, Bob Hawke was blessed with B-factor, even though he tee-totalled as prime minister, but Paul Keating, from Sydney’s Tooth’s KB-swilling western suburbs, didn’t. As his prime ministership and personality evolved through the Port Arthur shootings, the Tampa affair and the Bali bombings, John Howard gradually acquired B-Factor cred. But Howard’s wannabe successor, Peter Costello, could never escape the unfair impression that he would rather nibble on a crap canapé than mix it in a pub with his pot of VB. And let’s not get started on Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. Or, for that matter, Clive Palmer and Jacqui Lambie.
Key’s Aussie counterpart, Tony Abbott, did performance reviews of his ministers after their first year in office. Whatever was said in private, in public they’re all, er, bloody brilliant. ‘I think some are getting As and some are getting A pluses’, Abbott said when the story broke.
Presumably Tony focused on KPI’s like election promises kept and whether they’ve stayed gaffe-free (Joe, we’re talking about you mate). But he didn’t rate ministers in terms of their B-Factor, or lack thereof. Therefore, as a public service, I am running the B-Factor ruler over some of our leading Coalition and Labor frontbenchers.
Let’s start with Abbott himself. He has plenty of B-Factor potential: like Key he doesn’t take himself too seriously while highly self-aware. Leading a united team of strong egos not always justified by ability itself requires getting on with the political equivalent of pub bores. But unlike Key, Abbott’s public attempts at humour and self-deprecation, while genuine, too often appear laboured, and his buff physique and aggressive squared-off walk better suit a pub bouncer rather than a patron. Through emerging as a gutsy national leader on the world stage and standing up to home-grown terrorism, Abbott’s coming to be respected, but isn’t yet a natural beer buddy. B-Factor: 5/10, and likely to improve.
Labor leader Bill Shorten lacks B-Factor. Although he’s come up through the blokey union movement – and evidence to the Trade Union Royal Commission gives an insight into just how – Shorten’s wooden public persona shouts insincerity. His 2012 meat pie moment, berating the immigrant pie seller for expressing an opinion, counts against him – true beer buddies debate all comers. Having an opinion matters too: his farcical ‘I support whatever she said’ response to a Julia Gillard comment takes a lot of living down. B-Factor: 3.
Barnaby Joyce has B-Factor in spades. Never short of a quip, not afraid to mangle the language, and happiest out on the wombat trail, Barnaby shines as knowing his stuff while happily mixing it with everyone. B-Factor: 9. But George Brandis, someone who appears more comfortable in elitist legal and artistic circles and who, legend has it, once ordered a daiquiri in a country Queensland pub, rates a 5 (actually 2, with a chutzpah bonus for the daiquiri). Julie Bishop balances patrician sophistication, a common touch and her international success to give her a B-Factor of 8. Sadly, Peter Dutton is handicapped in the B-Factor stakes because it’s always awkward having a drink with a walloper, even a former one who’s actually a very nice bloke.
Joe Hockey? Notwithstanding his loudly-trumpeted immigrant backstory, one can’t help thinking Joe’s his own number 1 fan. And who’d want to argue Ford versus Holden with him after he asserted that poor people don’t drive? With that alone, Hockey’s B-Factor went straight down the sink.
Lucky for the Coalition, however, Labor’s front bench is a B-Factor wasteland. Deputy Tanya Plibersek, for one, looks like she washes her hands after every public contact. The only notable Labor figure with strong B-Factor is Anthony Albanese, whose roly-poly figure, ill-fitting suits, sense of never quite forgetting where he came from, and his old-fashioned Labor values actually seeming sincerely held make him popular with punters – as his winning the rank-and-file vote in Labor’s 2013 leadership election showed. Let’s give Albo a B-factor of 7.
Successful political leaders need plenty of intelligence, talent and guts. But to win and retain the hearts and minds of voters in egalitarian Australasian democracies, they need B-Factor. John Key has it, and is reaping dividends. Bob Hawke had it innately and John Howard gradually acquired it. But current Coalition and Labor leaders, with few exceptions, struggle in the B-Factor department. If Tony Abbott wants to be a long-term PM, more punters need to channel Slim Dusty and sing ‘I’d love to have a beer with Tony, ‘cos Tony’s me mate!’
You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10