Friday, 27 November 2009

The Devil's Own Job

The luck of the Devil: For a year now, John Key has enjoyed a charmed political life. It's enough to make you wonder if he's had a little supernatural assistance.

ELECTION DAY 2008. John Key is in his Helensville electorate pressing the flesh and generally showing National’s flag before heading back to Parnell and, hopefully, a night to remember. Pausing on the steps of his electorate office to soak up a bit of the bright November sunshine, he wonders what he’ll be doing in a year’s time.

"Believe me, sonny, you don’t want to know."

Key looks around, startled. He’d thought he was alone, but somehow an old man has managed to creep up behind him without making a sound.


"You were wondering what you’ll be doing a year from now. Believe me, you don’t want to know."

"How …"

"I read your mind, son. It’s just one of my many … talents."

Key squints at the old man’s face, but the wide-brimmed sun-hat he’s wearing casts a dark shadow over his features.

"Look, I’m sorry, but I’m due back in town. I really don’t have time to talk."

"Don’t worry, sonny, what I’ve come to say won’t take very long. The … ‘person’ … I represent has asked me to congratulate you on the stunning victory you and your party are about to win, and to pass on a little gift."

Key blanches, remembering the rather unusual contract he’d signed all those years ago. It had required him to surrender some very precious things, but the rewards he’d received in return were – well – spectacular.

"Careful," he smiles, "we don’t want to tempt fate."

The old man chuckles.

"Fate, you reckon? No, sonny, you’ve been tempted by something a great deal scarier than Fate. But don’t worry, your victory has already been signed-for. It has been sealed. And, make no mistake, the … ‘person’ … I represent always delivers. Just as he always collects."

"Hmmm." Key attempts one of his trade-mark ‘What, me worry?’ grins, but it doesn’t quite come off.

"You said something about a gift."

"I did indeed", replies his unnerving companion.

"For a year-and-a-day, John Key, everything you do will rebound to your advantage. You and your party will enjoy unprecedented levels of public support. New Zealand will fall truly, madly, deeply in love with its new prime minister. Your opponents will grind their teeth to dust in frustration – and so will your friends. For them, it’s going to be the Honeymoon from Hell."

The old man makes a cackling sound which, in spite of the bright sunshine, sends a shiver down Key’s spine.

"And after the first year? What happens then?"

"Who are you talking to?" Bronagh Key casts a worried eye over her husband, as a big BMW pulls up in front of the office.

Key blinks, shakes his head, and takes his wife’s hand. "Nobody, honey. Just thinking aloud. Come on, let’s go home."

As they pull away, Key casts a worried glance over his shoulder. The old man has disappeared, but his voice echoes eerily in the Prime Minister-to-be’s head.

"After a year, sonny, you’re on your own."

* * * * *

WHETHER JOHN KEY owes his success to diabolical influence, or his own (seriously underestimated) political talents, there’s no disputing the fact that his first year in office has been a charmed one.

So, it really is uncanny how events have turned so suddenly against the Prime Minister – if not exactly a year-and-a-day after his 2008 triumph, then spookily close to it.

Right on cue, Hone Harawira has catalysed the one reaction that Key most needed to avoid: a reversal of political polarities.

National beat Labour not only by harnessing the anger and frustration of conservative New Zealanders, but also by reassuring their more liberal compatriots that they could bring about a change of government without jeopardising the major gains of nine years of Labour rule.

This enabled Key, and his Rich List backers, to run under a populist false-flag. So tired had the plebes become of "Aunty Helen" that they were willing to bestow upon a man with $50 million in the bank, and a mansion in Parnell, the counter-intuitive title of "Friend of the People".

But keeping his promises to the electorate has been an extremely costly exercise for Key’s Government. New Zealand’s fiscal position is now dire, and some very difficult decisions lie ahead. Finance Minister, Bill English, must either dramatically expand the State’s income (raise taxes) or sharply reduce its expenditure (cut spending).

Neither option will be popular.

The 6,000 bikers who rolled up to Parliament last week were merely the advance-guard of the potentially huge army of aggrieved citizens which is likely to make the same journey over the next twelve months.

As Key and English are forced to do what is necessary – rather than what is popular – a restoration of traditional political identifications: National for the rich, Labour for the poor; is bound to gather pace.

To offset the unpopular consequences of its economic policies, Key and his ministers will almost certainly overcompensate in other areas. Justice Minister, Simon Power, is already promising to strip "celebrities" of their right to name suppression. The tossing of such populist red-meat to the mob is unlikely to endear him to the legal fraternity – or their high status clients.

It is not, however, economic austerity, nor outrages to legal probity, that will seal Key’s fate. National and its allies were elected to assuage – not excite – conservative New Zealand’s deep sense of grievance. What the whole Hone Harawira/Maori Party saga has exposed is the inconsistency between National’s declared conservative objectives, and its ongoing facilitation of social-liberal policy.

A world where "Maarees" can get "special treatment"; girls can "do anything"; men can marry other men – but parents can’t smack their kids – is a world turned upside-down. For nine years, conservatives from all social classes have clung faithfully to the belief that a National-led government would turn things rightside-up again, and restore the "natural" order.

Last Saturday’s "March for Democracy" showed how little that sense of grievance has been assuaged, and how deeply conservative New Zealand feels betrayed.

Hugely assisted by his forthright condemnation of Harawira’s "racism" and the Government’s secret deals with the big Maori corporates, Labour leader, Phil Goff, is reaching out his hand to these alienated conservative voters.

Convincing a majority of New Zealanders to stick with Key for another year is going to be the Devil’s own job.

This essay was originally published in The Independent of Thursday, 26 November 2009.


Tanya Stebbing said...

I'd say his luck is about to run out, how bellegerent he has become, even arrogant. If you write to National MP's they don't write back, and they only take comments on their sites that are in alignment with their views. Never will I vote for Key again, shyster. Voting for change was a fallacy.

Anonymous said...


Do you think that New Zealand First will make a comeback?

In recent decades, they've been the primary beneficiaries of right wing populist protest.

Were they discredited for all time by last year's plethora of Winston-gates? Is there life for them without Winston? Might we expect something worse to emerge in the vacuum on the populist right?

And please feel free to make reference to the Weimar Republic if you so wish. They could be quite relevant here


David Baigent said...

Heh, I enjoyed it, Good entry, story line holds on and finished with a change and moral to match.
Fiction suits you.


Brendon Mills said...

And we get the news that the goverment is about to make large cuts in expenditure in the 2010 budget.

Enjoy your summer Chris, I suggest you read up on ways to avoid getting Carpal Tunnel syndrome. Youre going to need it.

Lew said...

Chris, five months ago almost to the day, you took high umbrage to my suggestion that you were becoming "one of those conservative baby boomers which are thwe subject of his latest column".

Given the tone of this piece, and the two which follow which all celebrate the Labour party's appeal to social conservatism, not only as valid political strategy but as healthy and beneficial to NZ society, how exactly was my characterisation unjustified?

In the intervening months I have waited for your to clarify your position; and rather than explicating how you are really actuially a progressive, all you've done is confirm the initial diagnosis; and gleefully so. May I now retract my retraction?


Chris Trotter said...

Ah, Lew, I wondered where you had got to.

Sure, go ahead, knock yourself out - I don't mind in the least.

More and more these days I find myself sympathising with the German playwright, Hans Johst, who wrote:

"Whenever I hear the word 'culture' ... I release the safety-catch on my Browning."

Lew said...

Chris, while it may have seemed so, I wasn't asking your permission -- I was asking whether you actually have any defence to make. It seems you don't. Does this mean your high dudgeon back in June was simply theatrical, or has your conservatism copngealed into something more soloid since then, that you are now more prepared to own up to it?


Lew said...

Ah, dear, two comments full of typos. I apologise.


Chris Trotter said...

What it means, Lew, is that I feel under absolutely no obligation to respond to your questions.

My "high dudgeon", as you put it, was only aroused by what I saw as your argumentum ad hominem. With the benefit of hindsight, however, I can see that personal abuse is actually about the only currency we could possibly trade in.

Our world-views are so radically at odds that any attempt to seriously debate the issues that divide us are bound to end in vituperation.

I am a democratic-socialist, you are a social-liberal. There will be times (fewer and fewer I predict) when we will share the same path. Times, too, when we will share the same enemies.

But simply because we are, sometimes, cast in the role of our enemy's enemies, doesn't make us comrades.

Far from it.

The best thing, therefore, is for us to follow Bob Dylan's sage advice, and simply agree that: "you'll go your way, an' I'll go mine."

Lew said...

Chris, having the advantage of your public profile I became aware of these differences many years ago; and yet I thought there was some hope.

The trouble is that you claim the mantle of progressivism, not solely that of democratic socialism and its exclusive obsession with the economic. You don't need me to tell you that progressivism is not democratic socialism; it maintains a wider agenda than simple class conflict, incorporating those New Social Movements which you deride and the identity matters behind them -- feminism, indigenism, and so on. And yet you continue to lump them in together.

Not to traverse the relative merits of either -- you're right that this is aimless -- but your claim to a bob each way is bad for both. It allows the enemies of either movement to conflate them and apply the failings of either to the other. The impetus behind my earlier posts on the topic was, in the words of a rather less erudite bard of the 1960s to say: "Hey, you, get off my cloud!"

If you're going to be a democratic socialist, by all means do so. Proclaim it loudly, that everyone may know that there's a social conservatism which comes along with it. But don't presume to claim a monopoly on leftism by claiming that you're also a progressive, or any sort of liberal. Not only is it false advertisement, it's a disservice to your own cause and to others of us who, while not your comrades, are -- as you agree -- not your enemies.


Chris Trotter said...

Generously expressed, Lew.

Alas, I am as jealous of the reputation of progressivism and liberalism as you are.

Perhaps it simply boils down to the very unoriginal observation that every social movement is ultimately defined by the struggles which engulf it.

Thesis, antithesis, synthesis.

History only moves forward because men (and women) push it.

If you're ready Sisyphus, one more time.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to butt into this private argument but , Lew, I'm much more your natural enemy than poor old Chris, as I'm a Social Democrat (not a Socialist) who is philosophically a Burkeian conservative.

Both you and he worry about being progressive. I don't. I know that progress is a delusion. What counts are humanity and compassion. These in turn require a degree of social cohesion, economic prosperity and public liberty. The rest is window dressing.

And now, Chris, can I ask you to answer my question about right wing populism?


Lew said...

Victor, it's not a private argument at all; in fact it's been a rather public one.

You talk about social cohesion -- what I talk about is the things which lie behind social cohesion, or its lack. As does Chris -- except, by and large, he only talks about one of those things.


Anonymous said...


You will notice that I also talk of humanity, compassion, economic prosperity and public liberty.

I don't think Chris would demur from these priorities.

But without social cohesion , we would have a Hobbesian war of all against all, in which none of these other public goods could be acheived.

In its turn, social cohesion depends upon traditions of civility .

In New Zealand's case, these traditions are mainly derived from Britain, although neither the Maori component nor New Zealand's own national experience can be discounted.