Thursday 17 December 2009

Defending the Middle

2009's Politicians of the Year: Both John Key and Phil Goff deserve our thanks for keeping New Zealand safe for democratic moderation.

IT’S BEEN a bad year for extremists – of every stripe – and New Zealanders are happy about that. As a people, we are wary of politicians who turn up on our doorstep (or, more likely these days, on our TV screens) peddling radical nostrums. The politicians who do best in this country are those who reassure us that everything’s under control, and that, both individually and collectively, we’re doing just fine.

It’s almost certainly untrue. But it’s what we want to hear. So even when a party is submitting a genuinely radical programme to the electorate, the exercise is almost always couched in terms that insist the measures on offer amount to nothing more than sound, common sense.

Michael Joseph Savage’s ground-breaking Social Security Act, denounced by the National Party as "applied lunacy", was defended by the diminutive Labour leader as "applied Christianity". And, surely, ran Labour’s (sub-textural) argument in the 1938 election campaign: if Social Security is good enough for Gentle Jesus, and little Mickey Savage, it’s got to be good for you!

And Roger Douglas, when he was busy dismantling Savage’s welfare state, appealed to the electorate not in the flinty language of his neoliberal hero, Frederich von Hayek, but in the language of the Left. The free-market would help the poor much more than it would help the rich. There would be long-term gain for the whole country – if only we were willing, for the common good, to endure a little short-term pain. And besides, as everybody who’s just lived through nine years of Muldoonism surely realises: "there is no alternative".

It’s the country’s strong feelings of gratitude at being so winningly reassured in the midst of a global recession, coupled with his pledge to eschew the sort of radicalism represented by Dr Don Brash’s 2025 Taskforce Report, that has kept John Key at the top of the electorate’s hit-parade for more than a year.

It can’t have been easy.

The Auckland Right: that shadowy group in which the independently wealthy, corporate bosses, PR gurus, local-body big-wigs, academics, school principals, publishers and journalists mix, mingle and plot; has never been content to leave politics to the politicians. They came after Bolger in 1997. They came after Clark and Cullen in 2000. They came after English in 2003. And not even the stratospheric poll-ratings which he continues to post, month after month, may be enough to stop them from coming for Key in 2010.

Indeed, Key’s extraordinary popularity has only made them more clamorous for "strong leadership" and "decisive action". It’s as if they really do see political support as a store of capital: a political bank balance from which a leader can make withdrawals in carefully calculated tranches.

Privatise ACC? That will cost you 7.5 percentage points in the One News/Colmar-Brunton opinion poll ratings – cheap at half the price!

It’s this failure to understand politics as a dynamic – rather than a static – system which makes the Auckland Right so very dangerous to the conservative cause in general, and National in particular.

Perhaps it’s because, as an independently wealthy man, Key owes nothing to, and needs nothing from the Auckland Right, that makes him so unusually successful at resisting its demands.

Neither Bolger, Shipley, English nor Brash possessed this crucial advantage. To secure the funding he required for the 1990 election campaign, Bolger was forced to accept Richardson as his Finance Minister (an appointment that came within a whisker of costing National the 1993 election, and which contributed mightily to the introduction of MMP). The party was bounced into dumping English under similar threats of "No Brash – no money" in 2003.

But Key has enough cash to fund National’s next election campaign single-handed. He can snap his fingers at the Auckland Right (and their threats) with impunity. And so far, and much to his credit, that’s exactly what he’s done.

But Key’s freedom isn’t limitless. The New Zealand state continues to spend much more than it takes in, and is currently funding the difference at the rate of $250 million a week. Rich though he undoubtedly is, the Prime Minister can’t fund the entire national debt out of his own pocket!

He and his Finance Minister have a Budget to present in the first half of 2010. If it’s not going to be a Budget written to the specifications of the Auckland Right, what sort of document is it going to be? If he’s not going to heed the extremists, who is he going to listen to?

THE OTHER BLOW struck against ideological extremism this year came from the fist of Phil Goff. It was a great deal riskier than any blow Key has yet struck (with the possible exception of his refusal to bow to the pro-smacking brigade) because Goff had neither the tremendous power of the prime-ministership, nor a seemingly never-ending run of fabulous poll-ratings to protect him.

Goff’s blow was against the "Komissariat" – that political sub-set of Labour’s broader constituency notorious for the strident hostility it ritually unleashes against even the slightest criticism of its identity-driven, social-liberal ideology.

Though small in number, the Komissariat is largely responsible for what might be called the "John Tamihere" view of Labour – i.e. as the natural home of "front-bums", poofters, grievance-mode Maori and every other variety of politically-correct wanker the boys in the Waitakere pubs can think of.

Before Goff can hope to win back these "Waitakere Men" (not to mention their wives, mothers and sisters) he has to be seen to have "dealt" to the Komissariat - in both his own caucus and across the wider party.

His "Nationhood" speech to Palmerston North Greypower did just that. Not only did it break the sacred rule forbidding criticism of the tangata whenua, but, when the Labour Komissariat bit back, Goff was able to force them to publicly recant their opposition.

It was a small, but vital victory for Goff. He goes now into the Christmas break feeling confident that his broader strategy of sharply refocussing Labour’s message around the material needs of low and middle income earners (as opposed to ticking off the remaining items on the Komissariat’s reform agenda) can be rolled out unhindered.

FOR THEIR STIRLING JOINT DEFENCE of "democratic moderation", it seems only fair to jointly award John Key and Phil Goff the title of 2009’s "Politician of the Year".

This essay was originally published in The Independent of 17 December 2009.


peterquixote said...

You can see that Chris suggests a banana republic for NZ:
Chris says:
But Key has enough cash to fund National’s next election campaign single-handed. He can snap his fingers at the Auckland Right (and their threats) with impunity. And so far, and much to his credit, that’s exactly what he’s done.

This is an absurd old world socialist idea from Chris.
John Key has 50 million.
Thats nothing in International politic.

peter quixote

Anonymous said...

They came for Farmer Jim
With his jaunty Irish charm.
They kicked him out of office
Though not back to the farm.
Instead of grog with Winston
It was cocktails with the Yanks,
Whilst from his true blue legions
The Helmsman got no thanks.

They came for Auntie Helen,
The baby boomers' Queen.
The once crusading liberal,
Turned Pragmatist Supreme.
They picked away and pilloried
Until her skills wore thin.
And now she's in New York,
Our loss,the Third World's win.

They also came for Cullen,
That deft, acerbic man,
With his finely-balanced books
And counter-cyclical plan.
They mocked him as a skinflint
And as a spendthrift too.
I don't know how he could be both.
Nor, I suspect, do you.

But will they come for Johnno,
The state-house kid turned rich?
Perhaps their plans to scupper him
Will end up in the ditch.
Or will they yet succeed?
And whence will come the blow?
It's really quite opaque.
Might Fran O'Sullivan know?


Chris Trotter said...

Bravo! Victor. Bravo! You've done it again.

Anonymous said...

Chris, I suspect the reason you're only getting a few comments is that, like me, others are having real trouble getting through. I've written out the same 4 paragraph response to the article (and by no means a critical one) three times now and they just aint getting through.

Chris Trotter said...

"Markus" - I have received your "commentaries-by-installments" (I wish I could help you with the problems you're encountering) and am posting them here under, my own name, for the convenience of Bowalley Road's readers:

Markus 1:

Yep, Auckland's extremist laissez-faire Right appear to have been around since at least the late 1920s/early 1930s ("The Kelly Gang") when relatively moderate conservative, Gordon Coates, was decried as a "dangerous Socialist".

Incidently, I presume one of the right-wing journalists referred to above would be a certain former leading NBR writer turned highly-aggressive, red-baiting "historian" who is occasionally given free rein by The Listener (e.g. the whitewash of Fintan Patrick Walsh, the hatchet-job on W.B.Sutch, the regurgitation of 1950s SIS paranoia with puppy-like enthusiasm).

And it's probably safe to assume that the same Auckland Right lobby-cabal has been the driving-force behind the up-coming referendum on MMP (certainly some of its members have recently taken a prominent role in espousing the Supplementary Member cause - all to no avail, SM remains by far the least attractive option according to opinion polls).

National/Key have attempted to argue that the referendum's all down to intense pressure from the general public (tragically, Jane Clifton has recently gone down the same road in The Listener).

The reality, of course, is that most polls over the last few years have recorded majority or plurality support for MMP, and little interest in a new referendum.

Chris Trotter said...

Markus 2:

In an earlier thread I briefly discussed the swing at the last election, but didn't quite get around to answering a question 'Ritchud' put to me: "So who did Labour lose in 2008?"

Difficult to answer the demographic part of this question without full breakdowns from opinion polls, but I can briefly outline the geographical/regional dimension to the swing.

It pains me, as a loyal, born-and-bred Wellingtonian, to say this but Labour's focus has to be AUCKLAND, AUCKLAND, AUCKLAND!!!

Most of the largest Lab-to-Nat swings in the Country occurred in the city of sails in 2008. Of the 17 seats there, no less than 15 experienced above-average swings to National. While Otaki, Whanganui, New Plymouth and Taranaki-King Country all recorded swings of between 3.5 and 5.5 percent, many Auckland seats were swinging by 8,9 or 10 percentage points.

Compare this with Wellington where every single one of its 6 seats experienced BELOW-average swings to National.

It surprised me a little earlier this year when Labour's "Regional Road Trip" focussed on Otaki, Whanganui, small-town Taranaki and New Plymouth. Because if there's any region Labour should feel relatively happy about it's the lower North Island (including the places mentioned above).

The fact is every single seat in this region recorded a below-average Lab-to-Nat party-vote swing in 2008 (and from memory it was a similar case at the 2005 election). It's really the last area Labour should be worrying about (although obviously strategist Darren Hughes wouldn't mind winning back his Otaki seat ;-)

Labour's second focus should be on Auckland's hinterland immediately to the north and south. Helensville, Rodney and Whangarei all experienced above-average swings in the north, as did Hunua, Waikato, Hamilton West and "Greater Tauranga" (ie Tauranga and the Bay of Plenty seat) to Auckland's south.

From memory, some seats - particularly in West also recorded some of the greatest swings to the Nats in 2005. Hence in seats like Te Atatu, you're actually looking at an enormous swing over 2 consecutive elections).

And then I'd suggest the third main focus should be on Christchurch which swung almost as heavily to National as Auckland - 5 out of 6 Chch seats recorded above-average swings from Labour to National (blue-collar Wigram being the exception).

All this, of course, ignores the crucial demographic dimension.

Anonymous said...

I can't help thinking that NZ has become yawn-inducing, middle of the road boring under Key's utterly pragmatic leadership. When it comes to major decisions he seems to be without spine, and is more concerned with what other world leaders may think, rather than Kiwis at large. At least Phil Goff took a major risk, admirable, seeing as he does not have fifty millions smackaroos to fall back on.

We are stuck in the past with Key, sometimes a radical agenda is needed, I admire Sir Roger far more, NZ politics these days is about as exciting as Coronation Street.


Anonymous said...


Politics is about keeping the country and its people as safe as possible from the tides of outrageous fortune.

If a politician has a lucky run, he or she may actually make things better for the majority of citizens. Most of the time, however, they're battling upstream to prevent things getting worse.

Your comment about the 'yawn-inducing middle of the road ' reveals the self-indulgent inanity behind so much right-wing thinking. Never mind the consequences of our policies, let's just have fun and get radical!

But it's people's lives that your radicalism plays with. It could mean elderly or disabled people or the sick having to do without the basic necessities of life.

It could also mean hundreds of thousands of lives turned upside down by the maelstrom of economic change, when all that most people (quite sensibly ) want is to live their own private lives (nothing to do with politics, economics or the drivel of business gurus), with a modicum of security.

We've been down the path you appear to favour already in recent decades and we know that it's cruel and heartless, no matter how much fun it gives you to strike extremist poses and pretend to logical rigour.

We also know that it has the potential to tear society apart. Now that really would be fun wouldn't it!

Meanwhile, if you think Coro Street is devoid of excitement, you just haven't been watching.


Anonymous said...

Victor, I wasn't arguing for a radical right-wing agenda actually. Just some bottle from our govt, some spine, some daring to be different, and not worrying about what Obama does first. MMP has made politics boring, the robustness has gone.

Wish TVNZ would bring back the Facelift series, now there was some political fun.'


Adolf Fiinkensein said...

I was closely involved with the rural sector throughout NZ in the mid eighties. For a decade I was in charge of a sales team of 24 people direct selling to pastoral primary producers. My people knew all about the literally dozens of farm suicides which took place in the aftermath of the Douglas revolution. Sure the measures had to be taken but it was the speed and harshness of them along with the total absence of any safety net which caused so much personal tragedy for so many people. Of course the media dutifully ignored this quiet little massacre in the paddocks and corn fields so most of your readers knew nothing of it.

It is for that reason that I deride the loud mouthed shouting of the fundamentalist rightists who seem to live in a secluded community where political pureness comes from a book; where one must have a guru to worship and adore; and where the art of compromise and negotiation is unknown and if encountered, is deemed sinful.

Some of you will know I'm a National Party member and with the exception of current policy on Fiji and the ETS I think NACTionalMP are doing a pretty good job and Mr Trotter's analysis in this piece is pretty much spot on.

Merry Christmas Mr Trotter and a pleasant New year. Thank you for your entertaining scribbling this past year. I won't wish you prosperity because good Lefties have this inherent need to be poor.

Anonymous said...

So have I got yopu right, Tanya?

You object to the 'yawn-inducing middle of the road' not because it's 'middle of the road' but because 'it's yawn-inducing'.

Toughen up, Tanya! There are more important issues around than keeping you entertained.

If you're life's so boring, why not take up a new, crocheting, flamenco dancing .....the list is endless.


Anonymous said...


Another hobby you could take up is correcting my horrendous typos.

And, whilst I'm all for blandly moderate politicians, I'm also wholly opposed to blandly sycophantic media, of which we've had far too much over the last half dozen years.

So I agree. Bring back 'Facelift', but not at the expence of Coro Street.