Saturday, 24 October 2009

With Us in Spirit

Quintessentially Kiwi: New Zealanders will only fall out of love with John Key when they cease to admire the image in the mirror he's become.

JOHN KEY must occasionally pinch himself – just to make sure he’s not dreaming.

To be told, after a week of quite spectacular political mismanagement, that your party has risen to nearly 60 percent in the polls is certainly the belief-defying stuff that dreams are made of.

But where did the Prime Minister learn this knack for defying political gravity? What is the secret of his success?

"It’s almost as if he’s a sort of political idiot savant", a friend of mine testily exclaimed a few days ago. "He doesn’t know how he knows exactly the right political move to make at any given moment – any more than Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man knows how he knows exactly the number of match-sticks his brother’s dropped on the floor – he just does."

This sounded much too close to Bill English’s description of John Key "hopping from cloud to cloud" to be entirely comfortable. I mean, outwitting an accomplished conservative politician might be difficult – but it’s doable. Being constantly bested by a Prime Minister whose abilities veer-off into the supernatural – well, that’s just not fair.

These dark musings were not helped by David Farrar’s "Kiwiblog" posting an item purporting to prove that John Key is the antichrist. (Did you realise that he joined the National Party in 1998, which, as everybody knows – cue spooky music – is three times six-hundred, three-score and six – the Number of the Beast!)

As Mr Farrar wickedly noted: "This would also explain why he is beating Goff so badly in the polls."

Indeed it would! And it might also explain another of Mr Farrar’s intriguing tit-bits of information – the fact that the National Government’s share of public support, as measured by the polls, is fully a third higher one year on from the 2008 General Election than it was on the night.

Not even if you go back (as Mr Farrar very helpfully has) to David Lange’s first year (Mr Lange being the last prime minister elected to replace a leader who’d ruled NZ more-or-less single-handed for nine years) will you find numbers like Mr Key’s. In June of 1985, Labour was 2 points behind its National opponents. (Thanks Roger!) In September 1991, Jim Bolger’s National Government was a whopping 20 points behind the Opposition parties. (Thanks Ruth!) And even Helen Clark’s Labour-led government, thanks to the employers’ stage-managed "Winter of Discontent", found itself 4 percentage points behind its rivals.

Obviously (if you’ll permit me to paraphrase Bob Dylan’s enigmatic Ballad of a Thin Man) "something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is – do you, Mr Goff?"

We might, however, hazard a few guesses and/or observations.

The first is that Helen Clark’s government – especially in its third term – wildly overshot the New Zealand political runway.

Kiwi voters were in the market for someone willing to haul the country back on to the "mainstream" tarmac. Someone who could return their lives to "normal" and release them from the uncomfortably negative emotions "Aunty Helen’s" behaviour had aroused.

Mr Key was that "someone". Not as bossy or "politically-correct" as Ms Clark; nor as divisively right-wing as Don Brash. A successful bloke they could admire – but who never made them feel inadequate. A guy they could chat with over a summer barbecue without the slightest embarrassment. Someone whose kids looked remarkably like their kids. Someone, in short, remarkably like themselves.

I think it was North & South magazine’s Virginia Larson who dubbed Mr Key "the candidate from central casting" – and, as events have proved, it was a particularly apt description.

My own metaphor is slightly different. To me, the Prime Minister embodies what the Germans would call the zeitgeist – the spirit of the times.

What America had in President Ronald Reagan, New Zealand has in Prime-Minister Key: a leader uniquely capable of reflecting itself – to itself.

It’s not something Labour can do anything about. To attack John Key is to attack up to three-fifths of the voting public. Like a figure from ancient mythology, every blow you strike against him leaves a gaping wound not on his body – but your own.

His fall can only be tragic – and Labour will have nothing to do with it.

Because New Zealanders will only fall out of love with John Key when they cease to love the image in the mirror he’s become.

This essay was originally published in the Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 23 October 2009. 


Tanya Stebbing said...

I'd say that Key will be there as long as he wants to be, maybe as long as twelve years, if he can stand it for that long. Can the polls for Labour go any lower? Talk about teflon Key, no matter what.

Phil Sage said...

Maybe New Zealand will never fall out of love with Key and the economy will be remade with a pragmatic non-ideological approach that values work, education and thrift.

And in 12-15 years time he retires to the gratitude of his nation...

Does that fantasy rile you Chris?

Neil Stockley said...

Another way of putting it is that John Key embodies his party's current narrative (story) about New Zealand and, more to the point, "middle" New Zealand's narrative (story) about themselves and how they feel, what they want.

Key will get into problems when he longer embodies his narrative (like Muldoon in 1982-84, or David Lange in 1988-89) or when the NZ public's story about themselves changes, along with their mood and wishes for the future. This happened to both Muldoon and Lange and probably Shipley and Helen Clark as well. The UK's rejection of Churchill in 1945 is an even better example.

Chris Trotter said...

Not at all, Phil.

In a democracy, people always get the government they deserve.

Anonymous said...

Might I suggest that part of John Key's appeal is that he is rich and that many voters think he will therefore make the rest of us rich (c.f. Fujimori, Berlusconi).

What will they think of him in a couple of years time, with the world recovering from recession and New Zealand back at the bottom of every conceivable OECD index, whilst our brightest and best continue to expatriate themselves?

Phil Sage, I hope your prophesy comes true. But I see nothing so far to suggest a willingness to transform our economy in an intelligent, export-orientated, sustainable direction. If anything, we seem to be going backwards.

The good thing about Key is, however, that he is still a 'work in progress'. He learns quickly and seems to be broadening his understanding and sympathies as he gets to feel more at home in office. He may yet surprise us, but only if his party lets him.


Anonymous said...

I think it was North & South magazine's Virginia Larson.... (actually I think you'll find she nicked it off a particularly incisive anonymous commenter at The Standard whose saint-like humility precludes complaint..)

Anyhoo, nice analysis as always Chris, but when considering a polly's popularity, the possible alternatives must surely be a huge factor.

Goffy's perceived personality deficit and "baggage" (via association with both Rogernomics and as Hels-lite)leaves him well out in the cold - as reflected in his poll rating. It's an empty field, and the Keyster canters to his easy lead.

Another factor is indeed the zeitgeist: being currently not so much pro-Key (whose middle-management, rather effete salesman/local body bureacrat aura is hardly likely to resonate deeply with the Helenhate/Winniebash vibe of recent years, one would think), but a sensitivity acutely attuned to the global economic situation.

Uncle Sam's tent cities, abandoned houses, mass unemplyment etc have replaced Reds under the Bed as the unspoken kiwi boogeyman: our traditional hero and fantasy-figure is obviously and seriously ailing - and the epidemic (as foreshadowed in Blinglish's grim figures) could spread here at any time. A smiling, confident-looking manager is the precise reassurance sought right now - a kind of cheerful GP to a worried nation, replete with (supposed) arcane knowledge on the mysteries of international finance.

His problems will only kick in when the disease takes firmer hold (probably around mid-next year). There are no "specialists" to take over responsibility: as unemployment hits the cities and commodity prices and debt ravage the provinces, our chummy GP's aspirins will be increasingly ridiculed - and the baying from the "alternative practitioners" of ACT and the BRT will take a toll on that practised grin.

If there's skin thicker than a ciggy paper there, we haven't seen it yet: as you note, Chris, tragedy is the likely denouement for this particular character. I just hope that by then, Labour has a credible lead in the wings - and has re-discovered the plot.

The Dunedin School said...

Incidentally, David Farrar only quoted that item proving (beyond any shadow of a doubt) that John Key is the Antichrist. It originated with The Dunedin School:

And we might have had in mind some similar accusations made about Barack Obama in the U.S. (particularly in the more southern regions thereof...).