It’s very hard to tell how sincerely Key himself holds these views, as his speech writers appear to lack much verve, and he is what we might charitably call charismatically challenged. As for the state-house-to-self-made-man media morality play we’re all meant to assume underpins his philosophies, forgive my scepticism. Key’s origins were humble enough, for sure, but that only places him in the fine company of a great many New Zealanders who enjoyed the embrace of a benign welfare state, a system that helped lift the prospects of many beyond whatever version of modern serfdom they might have experienced had it not been there to intervene.
When people describe that old New Zealand as a classless society, that’s basically what they’re talking about - not that there weren’t rich and poor, but that what passed for a middle class was enormously broad and relatively cohesive. To be fair, Key acknowledges this when he speaks of the opportunities he had despite his background.
Being from precisely the same generation as John Key I recognise the country he describes. I played with kids like him from homes a bit like his. We all went to state schools and played in the same sports teams and got into the same trouble. Some of us had two parents, some only one. Some had second hand cars and others brand new ones. And a boat. Some had big houses and others little boxy ones built by the government, often just a street away. Some mums worked, some didn’t. None of us wore shoes in summer.
It doesn’t surprise me that someone like Key might have gone on to make a fortune using his nous - because he was not underprivileged and there was no hidebound class system pushing him back down where he belonged.
What doesn’t seem to have occurred to Key, given that he seems to believe that there was no “underclass” such as exists today back when he was pulling himself up by his bootstraps in “the Kiwi way”, is that the world he now inhabits and which made him rich might also have something to do with the rise of the new untouchables he now laments.
The liberated finance markets that floated Key’s boat were ushered in by the same political forces that slashed benefits, sold assets, closed entire industries and opened an ever-widening income gap. You can’t keep arguing that today’s problems are not linked to the culture of individualism and consumerism encouraged by the past two decades of free market policies. It defies logic that the crumbling edges of society - those streets we’re apparently all too scared to walk down - aren’t connected to the decision making centre.
Key would argue, I guess, that moral decline and the erosion of that all-important sense of community are products of Labour’s failed “mishmash” of policies - and he’d be right to some extent if he could admit that this was because Labour has essentially maintained the free market status quo while trying to ameliorate its worst excesses. Attempting to outflank Labour on that front will only lead to a different mishmash, I’m afraid.
Shorn of its party political references, Key’s speech was little more than a sentimental view of the past combined with a mildly dystopian version of the present, with the speaker casting himself as a man of sincere opinion and homespun wisdom. For all the professed desire to lift those currently mired in long-term unemployment and hopelessness out of their misery, or to stem the tide of economic refugees flooding across the Tasman, Key still seems an unlikely social engineer, let alone revolutionary.
If the issues are as big as he suggests, surely the policies should be correspondingly bold and imaginative. I think there is scope for this – and since I’m in an educational institution, I’d recommend a massive investment in this sector, from pre-school to pure research, a long term programme designed to eventually break the cycles of disadvantage, crime, poor health and all the other symptoms of a society that doesn’t value its young – or those who teach them – enough.
But politics has long ceased to be about anything much more than a poll driven popularity contest and right now the audience likes the contestant in blue.
More than anything Key’s political star has risen at the expense of Helen Clark’s. Rightly or wrongly, she is perceived by enough voters now as the figurehead not only of a certain party, but of a style of politics – interfering, overbearing, feminist, socialist, politically correct, the nanny state embodied.
For whatever reasons, a large enough chunk of the electorate has tired of her. This aversion to her style, personality, gender even, strikes me as irreversible. And while she cannot reinvent herself, others have been busy inventing John Key.
Weirdly, though, I see Clark’s lasting victory lying in having forced National to come up with someone like Key. They say the times throw up the man, and perhaps we live in bland times. But by having usurped (or perhaps repositioned) the centre of New Zealand politics for three terms, the Clark Labour Government has dragged National leftwards in the process. They tried veering right but it didn’t work. John Key represents, in the market parlance he would understand, a correction. The paradox being, to take the very long term historical view, if you want to blame anyone for the rise and rise of John Key, blame Helen Clark.
This talk was delivered by Finlay Macdonald as part of the Distinguished Communicator Lecture Series for the Centre for Science Communication, Otago University, April 2, 2008.
It is based on a series of columns written for the Sunday Star-Times over several years.