Tuesday 31 May 2011

In Perilous Times

In No Hurry To Change Horses: No more than in 2002, when, in the perilous times ushered in by 9/11, New Zealand voters opted to stick with the diplomatically savvy Helen Clark; the voters of 2011 are in no mood to abandon their commercially savvy Prime Minister, John Key.

SIX OUT OF TEN New Zealanders say they’re willing to back John Key’s bid for a second term. Four out of ten say they’d prefer some other combination of parties and politicians running the country.

We haven’t seen a gap that wide since 2002.

Back then, of course, the ideological boot was on the other foot. In the early months of 2002, just before the Alliance began the serious business of tearing itself into bloody little chunks, and well before Nicky Hager’s book, Seeds of Distrust, spawned the word “Corngate”, the Centre-Left gave every appearance of having taken out a mortgage on the treasury benches.

Could it be that Mr Key’s soaring popularity is being driven by forces very similar to those that persuaded Kiwis to again repose their political trust and confidence in Helen Clark? The forces erupting out of the tragic events of 9/11.

What happened on that fateful September morning changed everything.

It transformed an unpopular American president, shoe-horned into office by the US Supreme Court, into the symbolic leader of an embattled West. And behind George Bush, their briefcases bulging with geopolitical prescriptions of the most radical kind, crept a shadowy cabal of neo-conservative ideologues determined to pitch America into a state of permanent war.

New Zealand’s leader was also transformed by the events of 9/11. In a suddenly perilous world: where countries were either with the United States – or they were with the terrorists; New Zealanders quietly rejoiced in the fact that their Prime Minister was a woman whose whole adult life had been devoted to the study of international politics.

If anybody could bring New Zealand safely through the turmoil and travail of the “War on Terror” – it was Helen Clark.

Fast-forward six years to the general election of 2008.

Once again the world was convulsed. Not, this time, by Islamic terrorists, but by a collossal financial collapse that threatened to plunge the global economy into a second Great Depression.

And, once again, the New Zealand electorate counted its lucky stars that history had raised up an alternative prime-minister whose whole adult life had been devoted to mastering the ebb and flow of global financial markets.

John Key: raised in a state-house by his widowed mum; currency trader extraordinaire; self-made millionaire; married to his high-school sweetheart; father of two teenage children.

In the dangerously leveraged suburbs, where the governments of developed nations are made and broken, it was hard to imagine a politician better suited to the temper of his times. Truly, John Key was, as one waggish journalist noted, “the candidate from Central Casting”.

And he was lucky.

Though he and his party received scant thanks from the voters, Labour’s Minister of Finance, Dr Michael Cullen, had bequeathed the incoming National Government one of the healthiest sets of government accounts in the Western World. Dr Cullen’s surpluses enabled Mr Key and his Finance Minister, Bill English, to cushion New Zealanders from the worst effects of the global financial crisis.

Mr Key’s success cannot, however, be entirely attributed to extraneous influences and events. Politicians tend to be judged by their choices, and like his predecessor, Mr Key has chosen well.

Helen Clark faced the choice of joining, or staying out of, the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq. By fearing to tread where George Bush and Tony Blair rushed in, she amply confirmed the New Zealand voters’ faith in her political and moral judgement. Watching the unfolding nightmare of Iraq on the news, they quietly congratulated themselves for sticking with Labour.

The strategic choice which has defined Mr Key’s first term as prime minister is whether to embrace the radical neo-liberal policies urged upon him by his Far Right critics in 2009 and 2010; or, to hold fast to the policies of political and economic moderation which have secured his 2008 election victory. To his credit, Mr Key has steadfastly refused to abandon his moderate stance. Stratospheric poll results have been his reward.

In schweren Zeiten – in perilous times – the political trajectory of electorates is almost always towards the safety of the known and the reassurance of proven competence. Riders only change horses in mid-stream when they’re terrified their present mount will pitch them into the torrent.

In the perilous year of 2002, the voters were happy to let Helen Clark guide them safely out of the geopolitical flood. But, in the equally perilous year of 2008 they were only too happy to exchange Ms Clark’s tired red mare for Mr Key’s fresh blue stallion.

Much can happen in six months, but all the polls suggest that New Zealanders retain sufficient confidence in their National steed to dig in their heels and urge it forward to the farther shore.

It may cost them a few treasured possessions, but they’re not yet ready to mount anyone else’s.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 31 May 2011.


Unknown said...


A good analysis. Clearly a 'moderate stance' is appropriate when circumstances are benign. The question is 'do we live in such times'?

There are a good many people who are of the opinion that our circumstances are more perilous, and something more proactive than a 'moderate stance' is required.

If this analysis is correct, then John Key's moderate stance is actually a betrayal of his responsibilities to all New Zealanders.

A comfortable ride, funded by overseas borrowing may ensure another term in office for this National Government, but if economic circumstances worsen, as well they might, then we could easily face the kind of austerity measures currently being imposed on Greece, Ireland, and Spain, with the attendant rioting in the streets.

Of course, it will be the same people who are presently demanding that the Government maintain their standard of living based upon borrowing, that will subsequently turn out in the streets to decry future austerity measures.

Sanctuary said...

"...This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 31 May 2011..."

And rendered instantly ridiculously out of date by John Key's announcement that he plans to return welfare policy to the nineteenth century.

Chris Trotter said...

John Key has announced no such thing, Sanctuary.

He has announced a ministerial working group to study Paula Rebstock's Report.

Exactly how much of it National ultimately adopts will depend upon the degree of push-back from the opposition parties and civil society in general.

If the push-back is substantial, and if it is registering in National's polling, then Key will discard Rebstock's welfare working group with the same disdain as he discarded Brash's 2025 task force.

If, on the other hand, the public shows signs of wanting him to "put a bit of stick about" in the welfare department - then that's what he'll do.

The core concept to comprehend in regard to Key's government is that WE drive it. If he is judged to be immoderate - then it will only be because WE have asked him to be immoderate.

Which raises some interesting philosophical problems about how immoderation should be defined - does it not?

Unknown said...

Chris, with respect to welfare, we have arrived at exactly the situation you have outlined in your comments.

Democracy in New Zealand has now been reduced to parents (government) responding to a demanding electorate (children).

If the kids act up, then the parents throw them some sweets to pacify them in order to 'maintain the peace'. The more they act up, the more sweets they throw.

The children understand this very well.

The Prophet Isaiah declared that this would happen in Israel when they turned away from the living God. In chapter 3 verse 4 he states:

"I will give boys to be their princes, and children shall rule over them."

It is difficult to see how an electorate can be expected to mature into adulthood, if the Government keeps rewarding their immaturity.

Sooner or later economic reality will force us all to act like grown ups, and Greek style tantrums will produce nothing.


Anonymous said...

I think you are reading it wrong. Key has successfully pretended to be moderate while taking every opportunity to attack the poor and give hand outs to his rich mate.
His great success is in being able to pretend he is a moderate to those who want him to be, while simultaneously giving a nod and a wink to the far right as he quietly eases in their direction. He has learned the lesson of the 1980s and 1990s that governments can do almost anything you want to the worst off 20%, as long as they deny it and the media backs them up the rest of the population doesn't care or even notice.
Its not that he is any different to Brash, its just that he is too smart to honestly lay his unacceptable agenda out.
Its only when the self centred middle class, or their children, start to hurt that the truth comes out.
That won't start happening until he is into his next term.
In the meantime Labour will convince themselves they need to move even further to the right to be elected and a new centre will have effectively been established.
This process has been repeated time and again over the last 30 years and we never seem to learn.

Adolf Fiinkensein said...

You've got it Mr Trotter. By George, you've got it.

It's called 'taking the people along with you.'

Anonymous said...

Or Labour's steed is a broken-down, bow-legged old nag fit only for the glueworks, facing the wrong way, with saddle on back-to-front and with some frayed and rotten old baling twine for reins. Who would jump to such a stallion?

Key hasn't won Kiwis over Chris, he has masked and deferred and trickled in most of his attacks, while laying foundations for asset sales, privatisation of services and cutbacks for the poor. The few bold moves he has made (sacking Chch regional council, corporatising Auckland's councils into unaccountable CCOs) were buckpassed to fall guy Rodney and ACT.

Where Key has been shrewd is in waiting to within 6 months of the elections (and after Labour's response to the last pre-election budget) to see if Labour could put up any viable leadership/policy that could snatch the election for the left. Once it was clear Labour would not, Key was free to announce lots of post-election slashing, safe that an election win would give him a 'mandate', and Labour had left it too late to realistically respond by changing their tune and campaigning on a real left wing message...

Given a viable alternative, people would abandon Key in droves. But what do we get? Unapologetic Rogergnome Labour (ask Goff or Mallard or Cunliffe if they are capitalists) or Matt McCarten tacking good policies onto hare-brained Hone. And all overlain by the overweening arrogance of the social liberal - 'we know what's best for you' like Sue Bradford.

Brace yourself for more misery at the hands of the capitalists, whether Labour or National or ACT.

Mad Marxist.

Anonymous said...

I think you have to look at recent events such as leaky homes, the finance companies and associated developers: they are somebodies dog and (I would suggest),are seen to belong to the libertarian right.
As for the left, people see welfare as like a fat pork chop (i.e too much fat). People believe the career solo mum - urban legend(?). Also you have covered many of the reasons yourself why people are off labour: The Arrogant Left etc, etc.

Anonymous said...

You have switched horses it seems, Mt Trotter, and have joined National? You seem to really like Mr Key and his watery policies, going by this post. Can't you see past him either? I'm really surprised, I thought you'd always be loyal to Labour.

Key is Labour Lite, and I agree, not really a moderate at all. Only pretending to be. Time will tell...and we are in for some shocks, I reckon. Boring really, Key. Always in the limelight. What does this tell you?

Don't you just miss Helen? I love the fact that she was never a media star, nor wanted to be.

Loz said...

I remember a conversation, many years ago, when a political firebrand mused that in spite of university rhetoric, the "revolutionary class" was the middle class as its support is a requirement of all major change. The strength of traditional Labour was that it could broadly unite middle New Zealand with general proletarian empowerment. John Key has been steadfast in accommodating the values of middle New Zealand while Labour and other minority parties of the left have increasingly isolated themselves from middle New Zealand.

After many decades of ideologically driven governments, we tend to view political history as being from the left or right. Australian political history is not as clear cut. Robert Menzies' 18 years as Prime Minister was based on the idea of representing a "broad church" instead of a philosophical ideal from either left or right. John Key seems to be following in that tradition & the broad support of the middle class is the reward.

The upcoming debate over benefit entitlement, already mentioned in this blog, is a good example where the parties of the left insist on alienating middle New Zealand. The labour movement from the 1870's through to the 1960's (or even 1980’s) opposed the idea of charity & argued that all New Zealanders were entitled to meaningful work & adequate compensation for their labour. That argument is never heard today. Instead, battle lines are being drawn over supporting handouts or not.

Long gone is the concept of a “safety net”. I have tried to get the most recent statistics I could find into how bad the benefit problem has become in New Zealand. The statistics below are from government websites.

56,000 on Sickness Benefit (2010)
85,000 on Invalids Benefit (2010)
67,000 on Unemployment Benefit (2010)
113,000 on Domestic Purposes Benefit (2011)
545,014 on Superannuation & Veterans benefits (2010)

That’s a total of 866,000 New Zealanders reliant on Government assistance. Supporting that number is only 1,300,000 (Full Time Equivalent) New Zealand Wage & Salary earners (each earning an average of only $25.96 an hour). With an aging population there is an unavoidable economic crisis brewing with the whole benefit system.

I hasten to add that Superannuation is not a benefit; it’s an entitlement that every recipient has spent decades paying into. That doesn’t detract from the enormous burden it represents for taxpayers of the nation.

The traditional left would never have argued for the “right” of hand-outs but would have maintained every person had an entitlement to meaningful, socially valuable work. Even if that means the government would coordinate community orientated, part-time work programmes, all New Zealanders could state their subsistence was the basis of honest labour and not charity. The weekly unemployment benefit represents two days of work on minimum wage – I can see no reason why all beneficiaries shouldn’t be organised to play a meaningful role in society. Not only would it give thousands of New Zealanders an opportunity to get out of the house and have some social contact with others, it would beguile the simmering anger of over-burdened wage and salary earners who are only too aware of how much benefit abuse currently exists.

Chris Trotter said...

To: Anonymous@7:26

No, not a supporter of National. Rather, someone who is genuinely interested in exploring the reasons behind the extraordinary levels of public support for the present prime minister and his government.

Olwyn said...

@Loz: the traditional left endorsed a policy of full employment. Widows, abandoned wives and those with serious chronic illnesses did get government benefits, however. Furthermore, if something like 15% of our work force were not presently living in Australia would would have even more people on benefits. I get very sick of people who carry on about those on benefits but reject full employment as a policy option. And what is this government doing about unemployment, apart from whipping up hatred? Importing people from overseas to rebuild Christchurch and to serve drinks at the RWC. That's what.

Andy C said...

I think JK defies your political analysis because he's not a politician in the way the left would create such a person. I.e years of acedemia and resarch and then through the activist movement.
He's certainly not driven by any ideological dogma in the way Sue Bradford or Don Brash are.
He comes accross as a good manager. Listens to the points of view, certainly swayed by his own personal outlook, and makes a decision. Where he wins is that he can be won over by a good argument.
Take the mining issue. Aus exports rock, we export food. OK fair question, can we make truck loads of cash by exporting our rocks. The thinking was that we could and he thought that it would carry with the public seeing as how so many people are leave this country for mining jobs. Alot of shouting a breif stroll down Queen Street and the policy changed. People wanted to keep Great Barrier as it is and that was that.
The left treated it as the great flip flop because left leaders never flip flop. Their ideology won't let them.
Joe Public comes away with a "Yeah we won and we've been listened to." And lets be honest all grown ups (and children) like to be listened to and taken notice of.

Anonymous said...

Fair enough, Mr Trotter. The current support level for Key and co is baffling to me. I find Key bland and very boring. Do Kiwis really want such benign and dull leadership? A bumper sticker, always in the pics, nice but shallow.

As for Labour, I say, where on earth have they been? They need to change their gameplan. Agree with commenter above, they have alienated the middle class, and this is partly why theirr polling is so low.

Anon from 7.26 and now!
Anon 7.26 and 1.25 am!

Anonymous said...

I find this analysis somewhat at odds with what Chris said on 'the Panel', on RNZ, in regard to John Key on HARDTalk. Key appeared either arrogant or ignorant, or both, when it came to simply ignoring the informed views that disproved his tourism slogan. Don't think Helen Clark would have said, oh I can find another scientist that agrees with my view.

The analysis is also wrong, as steady does it actually masks the current fiscal crisis. And how to explain a record fiscal deficit with the highest exchange rates in modern history. Could it be a return to a cycle of excessive foreign borrowing, beyond what is needed, and ruinous interest payments which will take up more and more of future Budgets. The result will be a major correction which will hurt the most vulnerable. Isn't Key actually signalling this for the next Budget?