Thursday, 19 March 2009

Something Is Happening Here

Why has the National Party suddenly reverted to type? And where has "that nice Mr Key" got to?

SOMETHING has happened. You can hear it in the talkback callers’ sudden change of tone. You can see it in the faces of the people who, in 2008, broke the habit of a lifetime and voted National. They’re not ready to admit to having made a huge mistake – not yet. But their extreme defensiveness at even the slightest criticism of John Key and his government speaks volumes.

The intricate latticework of National’s electoral support, laboriously assembled over the past five years, is no longer green and yielding. It has become brittle, and its ability to withstand the shocks and stresses of conventional governance is diminishing with every passing day.

The turn will take several more months to appear in the polling data. It is only very rarely that quarter-of-a-million voters change direction all at once. Don Brash achieved such a shift with a single, seminal speech. And, in the blissful dawn of this present government’s term, Key was able to lift his party’s popularity to unheard of levels of around 60 percent. But just as Brash’s quarter-of-a-million new voters slowly drifted back to their natural political habitats, so too will Key’s king tide of public affection ebb away. Indeed, it may already have turned. Why? Because something has happened.

It may be something as banal as National’s outstanding political bills being presented for payment. More than any other kind of political party, a party of and for businessmen knows that, in this world, nobody gets something for nothing. Some pretty big cheques have changed hands since Don Brash wrenched the National Party leadership from Bill English’s unwilling hands back in 2003. For five years the people who signed those cheques have been very patient, but now, with National securely in power, and an economic cyclone bearing down on their bottom lines, the time for excuses has passed: payment is due.

Payment to whom? Well, I have no idea how much – if any – money was donated to the National Party by Australian insurance companies. But there can be no disputing the fact that in July of 2008 there was considerable excitement across the Tasman at the prospect of New Zealand’s "casualty insurance market" being opened up to the private sector.

"Publicly, as best we can identify, and contrary to the statements made by several insurers we have met with in New Zealand," wrote analyst Andrew Kearnan of the now defunct investment bank, Merrill Lynch, "the National Party has made no formal statement on its plans for the ACC. Informally, however, we understand the National Party has been very clear in saying it will privatise the ACC."

In the same report Kearnan notes: "The National Party has highlighted a lack of public confidence in ACC … It is clear that [satisfaction] levels are generally quite low (only marginally above 50%) although it’s clear that the trend is improving."

Perhaps it is that improving trend which, almost from the moment it assumed office, has fuelled the National Government’s ruthless campaign to undermine the New Zealand voter’s confidence in what is still universally hailed as the world’s best provider of cost-effective, no-fault, accident insurance.

Of course, ACC is by no means the only target of the National Government’s disfavour. The Emissions Trading Scheme – loathed in equal measure by such large-scale consumers of electricity as Rio Tinto’s aluminium smelter at Bluff, and climate-change-denying dairy farmers all over the country – was another early casualty. More recently, it has been the Environment Ministry itself, where policy development on "carbon neutrality" and "sustainability" has come to a shuddering halt.

Payment due? It is always so difficult to tell in New Zealand, where the identity of large party donors can be legally shielded from public scrutiny by purpose-built trusts. What can be said for certain, however, is regardless of whether the policy changes relating to ACC, the ETS, or, even more recently, private prison management, relate to substantial contributions of money, or, more prosaically, to substantial contributions of votes – payment is being made.

On the other hand, what "happened" may simply prove to be the outward expression of National’s innermost drives. Conservatives and neo-liberals can pretend to be social-democrats (or even, if the front page of Newsweek is to be believed, "socialists") for a little while – but not indefinitely. In the end, their ideological DNA rebels at the prospect of "Labour-lite" compromises threatening such litmus-test issues as the (re)distribution of wealth, and the proper exercise of power. No matter how popular such social-democratic policies might prove, National’s political genes just won’t let the state grow at the expense of the private sector, or allow workers to feel sufficiently secure in their jobs to take on the boss.

Hence the Government’s point-blank refusal to abandon its promised tax-cuts, and the indecent haste with which it introduced, debated and voted into law the so-called "Fire at Will" bill. Not even the looming economic recession was sufficiently daunting for Key to retract his promises to lighten the fiscal burden of his electoral base. Nor, it seems, was the acute vulnerability of the desperate-jobless to the demands of unscrupulous and exploitative employers real enough to deter National from rushing through the 90-day legislation under urgency.

For sheer reactionary folly, however, the reintroduction of the British titles "Sir" and "Dame" cannot be surpassed. Here, in all its wrinkled nakedness, the National Party’s ineradicable distaste for democracy’s egalitarian principles stands revealed. Exposing not only the Tories’ cringing sycophancy towards everything British, but also (and much more alarmingly) their abiding allegiance to the aristocratic tenets of social hierarchy and inherited inequality.

Ignoring for one moment the virtuosity of his performance as "a new kind of National Party prime minister", we should also, perhaps, ask ourselves whether the "something" that has happened, is simply that Key has grown tired of the act.

Certainly, last Wednesday’s announcement of the counter-recessionary nine-day fortnight initiative was made by an uncharacteristically unenthusiastic Prime Minister, clearly unimpressed with the whole, rather underwhelming, exercise. Key’s critics have long maintained that beneath his cheery smile and demotic turn-of-phrase, there lurks a deeply conservative individual. Maybe they’re right.

Perhaps, as a sympathetic outsider, the Wall Street Journal’s Mary Kissel saw clearly what our press gallery has trained itself so rigorously not to see: a politician irrevocably wedded to "market-based approaches"; and the leader of a country in which "big government" is, once again, "coming under the gun".

This article was originally published in The Independent of Thursday, 19 March 2009.


Anonymous said...

Chris, you are onto it. I feel it aswell, the level of expectation and the palpable disappointment from Joe and Josephine Average as they count the little they get in return for kicking Helen and the bad girls into touch is building up. You can "aspire" to be one of the "rich" guys but they will do their utmost to keep it a closed shop and make you pay royally to join. And they are laughing that Joe rendered his misogenistic vote on their behalf because they will never have to pay Joe, in fact it will cost him. How perfect is that?

Actualy there is a price to pay. There is no pressure valve to release for John Key and his motley crew because they are caught in a perfect storm of economic depression, climate change and energy depletion. Cash capital and ecological capital are in short supply and there is no easy fix within the current political and economic paradigm.

What you are sensing is the new spirit of the age emerging, what is past is gone and cannot again be. Whilst John and crew waste time trying to breath life into a corpse we should now take our "aspirations" and use them constructively to replace the world based on private greed with one based upon common need.

Anonymous said...

It is not on that big business should set up trusts to allow them to donate to parties in exchange for policy. In my eyes it really pushes the boundaries towards corruption.
Many on the right would prefer a one party state as long as it is their party I'm sure. Democracy in our country needs strengthening and I don't for one second believe National is the party to do that.

Pdogge said...

Well said Chris,the icing certainly is falling of the cake, the sausage's not sizzling quite so much.Anyway here's a very good quotation that we must never forget.

"The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.
John Kenneth Galbraith

Anonymous said...

Don't you think labours just as bad as national when it comes to funding from business?