Thursday, 6 August 2009

Backroom Boy

Re-framing the new political environment: Murray McCully, like his fellow neo-conservative, Dick Cheney, knows that the best deals are done when nobody is looking.

IT’S A CHILLING image. In the foreground we see the face of the former US President, George W. Bush, wearing that wide-eyed, open-mouthed, slightly goofy expression so beloved by the world’s caricaturists. Behind Bush, his features ever-so-slightly out-of-focus, hunches Vice-president Dick Cheney. While the President looks towards the camera, the Vice-president’s eyes remain fixed, proprietarily, upon his boss. Points of light reflect off his steel-rimmed glasses. His mouth is forming into just the faintest hint of a smirk.

Small wonder TIME magazine chose this photograph to illustrate their special report on "The Final Days of Bush & Cheney". A thousand words could hardly match its deeply creepy depiction of the relationship between Cheney and his hapless Texan protégé.

Has a New Zealand photographer to captured a similar "moment" between our own Prime Minister, John Key, and his Foreign Minister, Murray McCully? It wouldn’t require much effort, because there is definitely something in McCully’s political relationship with Key that recalls the sorcerer’s apprentice aspects of the Cheney-Bush combination.

Perhaps it’s the boyish and disarmingly ingenuous demeanour of the New Zealand Prime Minister that makes one think of Bush, or the talent both men possess for inflicting grievous bodily harm upon the English language. More seriously, it could be the uneasy feeling one gets when watching the public performances of Bush and Key that their grasp of public policy is only as strong as their last verbal briefing. In this respect, the sharpness of the contrast between Key and his predecessor, Helen Clark, is only exceeded by that of the man who succeeded Bush, Barack Obama.

The parallels are also there between Cheney and McCully.

In terms of the recent political histories of their respective nations, both men have been around forever. Cheney (like his close ally, the former Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld) began his career in the days of Richard Nixon (1968-74). He was elected to the House of Representatives five times during the Reagan era, and, before becoming George W, Bush’s running-mate in 2000, served in George Bush Snr’s administration (1988-1992) as Secretary of Defence.

McCully was first elected to Parliament 22 years ago, in 1987, but his career as a National Party insider stretches all the way back to 1973 when, at the age of 20, he was elected President of the Young Nationals. Those 36 years in the trenches have fashioned McCully into the ultimate political insider. Few within his party (perhaps Michelle Boag?) could match the intricacy or extent of his political networks, or challenge his encyclopaedic knowledge of who did what to whom, when, and why. It is taken as an article of faith in National Party circles that, since 1987, no leadership coup has proceeded without McCully’s blessing.

All of which suggests that Key is in McCully’s political debt, and is, therefore, bound to take the MP for East Coast Bays’ ideas on both domestic and foreign policy extremely seriously. TIME magazine writes of Cheney that: "Both by habit and by design, he cultivated a relationship that suited Bush’s view of their roles: the President as the ‘decider’ and Cheney as the éminence grise who counselled him. In reality, by wiring the bureaucracy and being the last person Bush spoke with on many key decisions, Cheney became [as his biographer Barton Gellman put it] a ‘sounding board for advice he originated himself’." It’s a description that could, with only a small amount of editing, be used to describe McCully’s relationship with Key.

McCully’s influence over National’s conduct of domestic policy is more apparent in the present Government’s evolving "tone", than in any specific policy.

It should not be forgotten that, as National’s Communications Director in the late-1970s, McCully observed at close hand the crudely authoritarian and deeply divisive style of Sir Robert Muldoon, and how effective it was at driving wedges into Labour’s traditional support-base. That the raw meat of "Laura Norder" and beneficiary-bashing has become the staple diet of Labour’s disillusioned deserters, is in no small measure attributable to McCully’s strategic insight.

McCully understands, in a way that Key almost certainly does not, the critical importance of keeping the deep-seated social resentments of the New Zealand working-class bubbling merrily away. Certainly, MSD Minister Paula Bennett’s release of the income details of two politically active domestic purposes beneficiaries recalls the very worst excesses of Muldoon’s right-wing populism.

McCully’s influence is, however, most pronounced in matters relating to diplomacy, trade and defence. It is in these fields that the impact of the neo-conservative ideology he shares with Cheney is clearest.

The Foreign Affairs portfolio, McCully’s reward for giving Key the nod, allows him to pursue (well away from the prying eyes of the news media) his long-held objective of restoring New Zealand to its proper place in the Anglo-Saxon fold. His impatience with the diplomacy of grand moral gestures – epitomised by Kirk’s despatch of a frigate to the French nuclear testing-ground at Mururoa Atoll; Lange’s Nuclear-free legislation; and Clark’s refusal to join the invasion of Iraq – underpins his determination to re-couple New Zealand to the train of its traditional allies.

Working in Cheney-like secrecy with the Defence Minister, Wayne Mapp, and Trade Minister, Tim Groser, McCully has spent the last nine months radically reorienting New Zealand diplomacy. The days of New Zealand lecturing the world from a lofty ethical perch, held together by the diplomatic equivalent of No. 8 Wire, are over. Foreign policy under McCully is guided by the more conservative thinkers of Canberra, Washington and London – just as it was in the days of Sir Keith Holyoake and Muldoon.

Almost without them noticing, McCully has enlisted New Zealanders as eager participants in the War on Terror; foot-draggers in the campaign against climate change; and mini-imperialists in the economic re-conquest of the South Pacific.

McCully is also pressing Key to send the SAS back to Afghanistan in a combat role. If the blood of Kiwi soldiers is the price New Zealand must pay to convince her erstwhile allies that she is once again ready to play her part as the fifth finger of the Anglo-Saxon "fist", then he will not demur.

Like Cheney, McCully is perfectly content to let his protégé claim personal ownership of "advice he originated himself". Thirty-six years of political skulduggery have taught this backroom boy that the best deals are done when no one’s looking.

This essay was originally published in The Independent of Thursday, 6 August 2009.


Shona said...

The shivers ran down my spine as I read this Chris. Absolutely spot on! The destruction of Labour's excellent identity shaping foreign policy over the years is being steadily shredded. Will give this slimeball of a minister an earfull next time I see him at the local famers market. At least it'll make me feel better .

Anonymous said...

Christopher, I think you are very unfair in comparing Paula Bennett with Rob Muldoon.

After all, it was he who grew up during the Great Depression and saw hardship beyond the scope of what Paula Bennett would hope to have experienced, what with her award wages and penal rates, not to mention the housing corp mortage she got at 19....

Beneath that nasty exterior, there was a deep sense of empathy for the poor and underpriviliged, and we see that in his efforts to maintain the social infrastructure at all costs, inspite of pressures inside and out.

There is no doubt that he would go after unionists, gays, Maoris, 'hippies', 'commies' and the like, but the little people, the solo mothers slogging their guts out, he left well alone. He would never have stooped to Paula Bennetts level. If she was Muldoons cabinet, she would have been out on her ear.


Chris Trotter said...

Hmmm, Millsy. Not so sure you're entirely right about old RDM. Certainly, he kept faith with the "little people" - the Petit Bourgeoisie - as all good right-wing populists must, but just cast your mind back to the behaviour of his first Social Welfare Minister, Bert walker, with his lovers-under-the-bed obsessions, and his determination to keep a close watch on the way solo mums spent their benefits, and I think you'll agree that Paula Bennett wouldn't feel that out of place in a Muldoon Cabinet.

Anonymous said...

In the word of a famous rugby coach, Mr Trotter, "Just look at the bloody record".

True the likes of Merv Wellington, Bert Walker, and Frank Gill, are the spritual antecendants of Laws, Rankin, Tamahere, Slater and Farrar, but looking back, their bark was worse than their bite. RDM certainly had the mandate to slash the DPB and the welfare state to the low levels that his successors of 1991. And in some ways, the electorate was way more intolerant and bigoted in 1977 than it was in 2009 (that, really is saying something). But the welfare state was more or less intact when Muldoon left office in the dark winter of 1984, save for some tinkering round the edges, as all parties natually do. And also, it was Muldoon himself that opposed the benefit cuts of 1991. Though he chose to abstain rather than cross the floor to vote with his Labour enemies (It is worth mentioning that the benefit cuts are the reason why Michael Laws left the National party - not that he is going to bring that up in a hurry :-))..

Where Muldoon, Walker and co differ, from Bennett, is that this buxom westie is prepared to carry out actions to back up up her words. In the words of Sarah Palin, the heels are on and the gloves are off. Whereas Muldoon and co were just literally grumpy old men.

I know who I would rather have...