Speaker by Various Artists

55

The Audacity of Hype: John Key and the new National Socialism

by Finlay Mac

Without getting bogged down in the dubious claim that our net outflow of skilled young people is really of such epic proportions compared with similar countries, isn’t there something a little pat and unexamined in this key trope of Key’s campaign? Is the situation in New Zealand really so “tragic” that our best and brightest see no future here? Or does it suit a politician on the make to exaggerate an imagined negative to accentuate a perceived positive?

For starters, Key himself is an example of someone who found the path to success led overseas. In the very same interview in which he lamented the brain drain he described his own career trajectory from youthful OE in Australia to high-flying banking jobs in Singapore and London, albeit interspersed with stints back in New Zealand.

It’s not that this makes him a hypocrite, but it doesn’t seem to have occurred to Key (or it’s simply too inconvenient to consider) that being a stable and educated part of the vaunted global economy - something he clearly approves of - comes with all kinds of inevitable consequences and opportunities, of which he himself has been a beneficiary.

It’s a package deal - you can’t expose a country and its offspring to the wonders of the free market and expect them not to be tempted. You can’t prepare young people for the challenges of competing in the “global workplace” without expecting them to do just that.

Still, Key insists on describing the departure to Australia of so many people as an “exodus”. It suits him to paint the situation in such Biblical terms, because he is being positioned as a Prime Minister-in-waiting who will address the reasons so many New Zealanders apparently see no long term future here. I look forward to the day when he likens them to the Israelites escaping captivity in a latter-day Egypt - with the subtle implication that he might be just the modern Moses to lead them home, parting the Tasman’s waters in the process.

I guess that depends on how religious he is feeling that week.

Key’s ten commandments - were they to number that many - concern lifting New Zealand’s living standards, wages, productivity and educational levels to the point where we are once again competitive with our nearest neighbour. With fewer disincentives to living here, the argument goes, the more people won’t be tempted by the fruits of Australia’s Eden.

The irony is that he will have to continue - indeed accelerate - Labour’s policy of ameliorating the worst ideological excesses of the 1980s and 90s if he really wants to play catch up. Forget about personal tax cuts - sometimes touted as a short-term cure for the latest emigration figures - they are all but cosmetic given the real wage disparities involved. The challenge lies in dealing with a legacy of socio-economic vandalism.

From the mid 80s and on through the 90s the great experiment in price stability succeeded in creating a low inflation, low growth, low wage economy. The Reserve Bank fiddled around with “headline” and “underlying” inflation rates while ordinary wage-earners saw their stagnant incomes steadily eroded by the increasing cost of living. With unemployment so high at the time they had little bargaining power, and even less once the Employment Contracts Act was passed. You can’t moan about poor wages and conditions now without at least a passing reference to the years of deliberate government policies aimed at forcing wages down and trashing the collective bargaining power of workers.

Meanwhile in Australia, experiencing the same pressures to modernise but resisting the fundamentalist free market zealotry taking hold in New Zealand, a flexible mix of state-union accords and bargained compromise allowed the inevitable transition to happen with less pain and greater long-term economic strength. You can argue, as many do, that this is all ancient history. But that only goes to show how long it is taking us to recover.
Anyway, as Helen Clark and Michael Cullen learned early on in their first term, moving too quickly to rebuild the economic pillars of social democracy will be met with stiff and ruthless opposition by the financial and business elites - the same people who simultaneously lament the country’s lagging performance and loss of skilled workers to other countries.

It strikes me Key is all too ready to portray the problems as dire and dreadful, all the while avoiding any talk of solutions as radical as such terrible circumstances would seem to demand. Since Key has had to reposition National as a party of the centre right, rather than whatever it was when Brash was leader, he is essentially left with little ideological wiggle room. He can’t really out-Labour Labour. But how long or effectively he can resist the pressure from the right of his own party to revert to type is the big question.

It’s worth remembering that Key’s elevation to leader of the National Party was less than glorious. His predecessor Don Brash had come a cropper over the infamous Hollow Men election funding scandal, to which Key was a bit of a sideshow, escaping with only minor cosmetic bruising. He might have received the odd email himself, but he didn’t open them, he claimed. He might have been in the loop when election funding and strategies were discussed, but he never knew about any pamphlets. He did not have email relations with those Brethren! He did not inhale!

It was all a little shabby in my opinion. And from that moment I began wondering how far John Key could be trusted. I also wondered if Nicky Hager’s follow-up to The Hollow Men would be titled The Shallow Men.

National had once again gambled on an outwardly marketable but essentially unproven figurehead. They had their reasons, not the least being the evident dearth of leadership talent among their senior parliamentary ranks. But one could be forgiven for being a little leery of all this. Brash’s real legacy to his adoptive party was not so much the revival of their electoral fortunes - which, arguably, would have occurred naturally anyway after the rout of 1999 – as it was a reliance on spin and image control. Even at his demise, supposedly senior journalists were fawning over the “gentleman Don” image and Mr Nice Guy hokum that had become the media script.

And straight away the next script was being written, with John Key floating up in the polls on nothing more than a few vox pop platitudes and well-rehearsed state-house-to-million-dollar-mansion cliches. As one unkind commentator put it upon hearing Key’s first speech as leader, he doesn’t so much have a vision or a dream as “aspirations going forward”.

Perhaps it’s inevitable that to begin with we know comparatively little about a new leader’s guiding philosophies, their true agendas, their view of the world beyond their personal areas of expertise. But it still surprises me how many people were willing to give the thumbs up to a guy who remained for all intents and purposes an unknown quantity.

What we must really hope, however, is that Key is not an unknown quantity to himself. When the smoke from Hager’s gun cleared what became most apparent was that Brash was beset on all sides by clamouring, nagging, demanding, priggish, ambitious, contradictory and sometimes ridiculous voices, all wanting to influence their man’s public persona.

Again, maybe a lot of that is to be expected at the top levels of politics, but one of the qualities of a real leader is to be able to withstand that pressure from the kind of special pleaders, lobbyists and haughty sense-of-entitlement ear-benders that plagued Brash.

Key will require intellectual stamina and a sense of personal conviction to avoid becoming just another poster boy for tax cuts and privatisation. The usual suspects named in The Hollow Men will be as busy as ever, just more mindful of the perils of email. About the best we can say for Key right now is that Ruth “I am a patient man” Richardson doesn’t approve and has branded him “Cullen lite”.

Well, there is another thing in his favour, and that is his deputy. Bill English has been hard done by in many ways, including now having to walk three paces behind the man who backed Brash over him in they dirty leadership coup that began all this unpleasantness in the first place. Hindsight is a wonderful and useless thing, but it’s worth imagining what might have happened had National been cunning enough to let Jenny Shipley take the fall in 2002 and then installed English as the comeback kid. Instead of being branded a loser, he might well have capitalised just as effectively on second term disaffection with Labour but, unlike Brash, been able to assemble a viable coalition government.

The problem with that “what if?” is that Shipley was jettisoned because of her association with the hardline policies the electorate had just repudiated. English was supposed to represent the kinder, gentler face of National, but the damage was too great and Labour’s momentum too strong for any miracle recovery.
When English was peremptorily rolled for Brash it struck many of us that this might prove counterproductive in the long run. Conventional wisdom has it that Brash led National to within a whisker of power, but that ignores both his unwillingness to build alliances and his doctrinaire monetarism that was at odds with majority opinion. At the next election National will have been out of power for as long as they held it last time. That is long enough for anyone to have worked out that New Zealand doesn’t want extremists in power.

Hence, in my opinion, the switcheroo they’ve pulled and the careful positioning of Key as a supposedly credible alternative to Labour without actually standing for anything much at odds with Labour. It’s a political ideology I have dubbed “National Socialism” – again, I’m being facetious, and I don’t imagine Key and his cohorts are ready to break out the brown shirts after this year’s election.

If anything, my silly sobriquet makes National sound more interesting than it really is. As mentioned earlier, Key can’t even express a position on the hop, as we witnessed most recently when Cullen changed the foreign ownership rules during the bidding process of Auckland Airport, and Key was caught between wanting to be anti-Labour yet not appear pro-foreign ownership of strategic assets.

It’s a beige tightrope he’s been walking since the beginning. Go back even further to his first speech as leader. Instead of the headline grabbing Orewa antics of Brash, he mumbled a few platitudes about being worried about our supposedly growing underclass. The media would have much preferred that he launched into some tirade about the undeserving poor, perhaps suggesting the time had come for a proper debate about compulsory sterilisation, the return of capital punishment for the worst violent offenders, an IQ-based means test for prospective parents ...

Instead, having worked out that divisive messages have a downside even if the headlines run your way for a while, Key played the great uniter. If “the Kiwi way” lacked the oomph of Brash’s “iwi/Kiwi” billboard populism, no one could take much offence from it, either. New leader praises motherhood and apple pie shock!
What little he offered in the way of tangible proposals were just as beige, including the by now anodyne notion of work-for-the-dole, a rote response to the vexed issue of welfare dependency that’s proven time and again to be easier said than done.

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