Keeping A Weather-Eye Out: If John Key truly wishes to challenge Richard (“King Dick”) Seddon’s record for political longevity, then he should weigh very carefully the costs and benefits of mobilising mass resistance during his government’s third term. Successful prime ministers will always anticipate trouble, but wise ones do not seek it.
JOHN KEY BELIEVED he knew what was in Nicky Hager’s book. He was wrong. Instead of containing a host of embarrassing stories about New Zealand spying on its friends in the South Pacific, and intercepting the secrets of its largest trading partner, Dirty Politics concentrated on matters much closer to home. For nearly a fortnight, the Prime Minister and his advisers struggled to deflect Mr Hager’s revelations. Ultimately, shutting down Dirty Politics required measures of unprecedented severity: the forced resignation of a cabinet minister in the middle of an election campaign.
The much ballyhooed “Moment of Truth” proved to be a very different story. Knowing in advance who was on Kim Dotcom’s guest-list made matters considerably easier for the Prime Minister. Long before the “moment” arrived, Mr Key had prepared his defences and rehearsed his attack-lines. Though Glenn Greenwald put on a very brave face for his fellow journalists, the Pulitzer Prize-winner was obviously discomforted by the fierceness of Mr Key’s counter-punching. One can only imagine the mighty sighs of relief (on both sides!) as his plane took off for Brazil.
Anticipating trouble is one of the most important skills a political leader can master. Even more important, however, is knowing how to deal with trouble when it arrives.
One of the many questions Labour Party members and supporters would no doubt like to put to David Cunliffe is why he was so very bad at anticipating events which were readily predictable.
Mr Cunliffe had been a Member of Parliament for nearly three years when Mr Hager’s third book, Seeds of Distrust, unleashed the so-called “Corngate” scandal in the midst of the 2002 election campaign. Would it not, therefore, have been prudent for the Leader of the Opposition and his advisers to prepare for a similar eventuality in 2014? Was there no one in Labour’s ranks sufficiently well-acquainted with Mr Hager to give Mr Cunliffe some idea of what was coming? Of course there were, but they were never asked.
Nor was Mr Cunliffe sufficiently flexible as a politician to take advantage of Dirty Politics when it was released. A politician more willing to risk all for the keys to Premier House might have seized upon Mr Hager’s revelations and forged them into a weapon of deadly political effect. But, the moment came … and then it went.
What, then, should the Prime Minister, and whoever is unlucky enough to be elected leader of the Labour Party, be anticipating over the next three years? What are the pitfalls Mr Key’s government should try to avoid? What potential problems will his opponents seek to exploit?
Education and the Environment would seem to be the most likely arenas of conflict for the National Government. Significant – and politically highly contentious – changes are proposed in the way both New Zealand’s education system and its environment (both urban and natural) are managed. Neither of these vital spheres are lacking in defenders.
The powerful teacher unions stand athwart all roads leading towards privatised education. Any attempt to expand dramatically the roll-out of “Partnership Schools”, or strengthen the Government’s “National Standards” regime in the primary sector, will almost certainly be met with concerted union resistance.
This may not be seen as altogether a bad thing by Mr Key and his colleagues. The opportunity to strike a crippling blow at the most powerful of the public sector unions may prove too tempting a trophy for a third-term National Government to resist. Plenty of helpful advice on how to beat public sector unionists will no doubt be forthcoming from the Canadian Conservative Party and the US Republican Governors of Wisconsin and Michigan.
Would the public rise in defence of the teachers and their unions? Twenty years ago the answer would have been “Yes”. But now? With the anti-union response to The Hobbit dispute in mind, Mr Key might just be willing to roll the dice.
Linked as it is in the public’s mind with dirty dairying, mining in national parks, deep-sea oil-drilling and the governments’ (both local and national) support for environmentally damaging and financially dubious irrigation ventures, the reform of environmental legislation will be a wager hazarded for much higher stakes.
With Labour crippled – probably beyond recovery – the Greens will be looking to use National’s environmental “reforms” as the springboard for establishing themselves as the only effective Opposition party. In alliance with Greenpeace, they will do all they can to put themselves at the head of a mass protest movement of young and old, rural and urban, Maori and Pakeha.
If John Key truly wishes to challenge Richard (“King Dick”) Seddon’s record for political longevity, then he should weigh very carefully the costs and benefits of mobilising mass resistance during his government’s third term. Successful prime ministers will always anticipate trouble, but wise ones do not seek it.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 7 October 2014.