Thoughtful Workhorse: For doing most of this government's heavy lifting and for thinking about the half of the electorate who doesn’t vote for the National Party, my Politician of the Year for 2015 is – Bill English.
CHRISTMAS LOOMS, and political columnists – like everyone else – are looking forward to enjoying another festive season in the sun. Before we head off to the beaches and the barbecues, however, one last chore remains. As the Old Year hobbles towards the wings of the political stage, our own grandiloquently judgemental subset of the journalistic profession feels obliged to nominate a Politician of the Year.
It’s tempting to award the prize – again – to John Key. Because, pony-tails and off-colour stunts aside, our Prime Minister remains a phenomenon. Eight years into his prime-ministership, Key’s extraordinary popularity with the voters remains undiminished. This, alone, would be sufficient to conjure-up words like unusual, uncanny and unprecedented. But, when you add to the PM’s bullet-proof popularity, the enduring popularity of his government, then words begin to fail even those of us who use them for a living.
Quite simply, this National Party-led Government has no peer in post-war history. Not even the long, languid summer of the Holyoake Years (1960-1972) can offer New Zealanders a valid comparison. In those First-Past-The-Post days there was a fair bit of give in our electoral system. In 1966, for example, National’s vote dropped 3.5 percentage points to an historically low 43.6 percent, and yet “Kiwi Keith” retained power with a majority of 8 seats.
A decline of that magnitude under MMP would, almost certainly, be fatal. And yet, in spite of the Opposition parties’ fondest hopes, ‘decline’ is not something that John Key’s numbers have, so far, been willing to do.
He won office in 2008 with a very creditable 45 percent of the Party Vote (the highest ever secured under MMP up until that time). In 2011, when all the pundits were expecting a falling away of popular support, National’s Party Vote improbably rose to 47 percent.
Now, 47 percent would have been highly respectable result even under FPP. In the context of New Zealand’s proportional electoral system, however, it was utterly astounding. So when, on Election Night 2014, it looked as though National may have lifted its Party Vote, again – this time to 48 percent! – people began muttering about political witchcraft.
But it is not the Devil that John Key has made a pact with, it is that part of the New Zealand electorate that enjoys secure and relatively well-remunerated employment; a stable family environment (including a home whose value continues to scale new heights of implausibility) and which, if pressed, will admit to living a life of considerable material comfort.
“Winners” is such an ugly word, but that is how these folk would, by and large, define themselves. And while they’d be reluctant to admit that their success is attributable to anything but their own hard work and talent, they’re more than willing to acknowledge that John Key and National have done nothing to hinder their advancement.
To celebrate the absence of a negative is hardly the most positive of political expressions. But, for as long as it delivers National around 50 percent of the Party Vote – they’ll take it.
What makes me reluctant to award the accolade of Politician of the Year to John Key, however, is his apparent lack of interest in the lives of the 50 percent of New Zealanders who don’t vote for the National Party, and for whom John Key is not the Preferred Prime Minister. Call me old-fashioned, but I believe that true political greatness is to be measured by what a politician (and government) does: not only for the lucky and the strong, but also for the weak and unfortunate.
Now, at this point you may be thinking that I’m about to bestow the accolade upon someone from the Opposition’s ranks. You would, however, be wrong. Because 2015 has not been a year in which anyone from the Opposition parties has offered the weak and the unfortunate very much at all – not even that most subversive of emotions: Hope.
No, the politician I have in mind is the one who labours away in the engine-room of Key’s Government. The one who keeps the wheels of the economy turning, and international investors smiling.
Solid achievements, both, but I am more disposed towards him because, unlike his boss, he has been giving long and arduous thought to the plight of the weak and unfortunate among us. More than this, he has been thinking about them in a new and intellectually challenging fashion.
His approach has been called actuarial, because his calculations are all about the risk and the cost – both individually and collectively – of not making the weak stronger and their misfortunes less determinative; of not organising the right sort of state intervention at the right time.
For thinking about the half of the electorate who doesn’t vote for his party, my Politician of the Year for 2015 is – Bill English.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 22 December 2015.