Shhhh! Don't Frighten The Horses! And that, in essence, is the story of John Key’s prime-ministership. For National Party voters the status quo of 2008 has been protected and extended. The lives of most New Zealanders have not been subjected to sudden and dramatic changes.
INCREMENTAL CHANGE is, generally-speaking, the most effective expression of democratic government. Most human-beings are uncomfortable with sudden and dramatic change. They can live with it, and through it, if they have to. (Just ask the citizens of Christchurch and Kaikoura!) But most people, given a choice between the status quo and massive upheaval, will opt for the status quo.
Understanding the New Zealand electorate’s sensitivity to change is what made John Key such a successful prime minister. Like all clever politicians, he approached the whole fraught business of change with the wary circumspection of someone handling nitro-glycerine.
There are, of course, exceptions to this general rule about change. If, for example, the status quo has become unbearable, then the prospect of dramatic change acquires a much less frightening aspect. In these circumstances, the smart politician not only embraces the necessity for “Big Change”, but he also does everything he can to cast the dog-in-the-manger defenders of the status quo as “enemies of the people”.
On 4 March 1933, the day Franklin Delano Roosevelt was sworn-in as the thirty-second President of the United States, nearly one in every three adult American males was out of work and most of America’s banks had closed their doors. For many millions of Americans the status quo had, indisputably, become unbearable, and they were hungry for change.
Nevertheless, Roosevelt was mindful of the need to reassure his fellow citizens that he understood their anxieties concerning both the magnitude of the economic crisis gripping their country and the radical scope of the measures required to fix it. “So, first of all,” he told the American people, “let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”.
By the time John Key became prime minister on 19 November 2008 there were many who believed that Big Change would be the defining characteristic of his ministry. His election victory had coincided with the full onset of the Global Financial Crisis and the world was teetering on the brink of an economic calamity every bit as transformative as the Great Depression.
New Zealand’s free-market enthusiasts were as eager for Key to take advantage of this real crisis as they had been for David Lange to take advantage of the 1984 speculator-driven financial crisis triggered by Labour finance spokesperson, Roger Douglas’s, leaked promise to devalue the New Zealand dollar by 20 percent. Their hope was that the incoming Key government would seize the opportunity provided by the Global Financial Crisis to announce a raft of savage spending cuts and launch yet another round of radical deregulation.
But John Key was made of considerably sterner stuff than the politically inexperienced and economically illiterate David Lange. The new National Party prime minister understood that for most New Zealanders – especially those who had been kind enough to vote for him – the status quo was a very long way from becoming unbearable. Quite the reverse, in fact. A lengthy period of economic buoyancy had turned the status quo into something to be protected and, if possible, extended for as long as possible.
And that, in essence, is the story of John Key’s prime-ministership. For National Party voters the status quo of 2008 has been protected and extended. The lives of most New Zealanders have not been subjected to sudden and dramatic changes.
For those Kiwis living on the margins, however: the unemployed, solo mums, unskilled workers, homeless people; the changes have been wrenching and unceasing. Unfortunately, a majority of New Zealand’s more secure and contented citizens have been willing to accept the suffering of this marginalised underclass as the price to be paid for maintaining their own, very comfortable (and increasingly valuable) status quo. Had the poor mobilised politically against the unbearable conditions of their daily lives, the status quo might have changed. But they didn’t – and it hasn’t.
All the evidence points to Andrew Little and (most) of the Labour Party having, finally, absorbed the key political lesson of the past nine years. That a clear majority of voting New Zealanders remain unconvinced that New Zealand faces anything remotely resembling the conditions that confronted Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, or Michael Joseph Savage in 1935. The status quo, for most Kiwis, remains far from unbearable. Big Change is not required.
Certainly, the multiplying number of government failures: the lack of affordable housing; declining water quality; land sales to foreigners; overcrowding in primary school classrooms; the sorry state of New Zealand’s mental health services; is fast reaching the point where, after nine years, the voters are ready for “an orderly rotation of political elites”. What the electorate (as presently configured) is not ready for, however, is revolution.
The contemplation of six impossibly big changes before breakfast can safely be left to the TOP of Gareth Morgan’s head.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 21 March 2017.