Friday 10 October 2014

Anticipating Trouble

Keeping A Weather-Eye Out: If John Key truly wishes to challenge Richard (“King Dick”) Seddon’s record for political longevity, then he should weigh very carefully the costs and benefits of mobilising mass resistance during his government’s third term. Successful prime ministers will always anticipate trouble, but wise ones do not seek it.

JOHN KEY BELIEVED he knew what was in Nicky Hager’s book. He was wrong. Instead of containing a host of embarrassing stories about New Zealand spying on its friends in the South Pacific, and intercepting the secrets of its largest trading partner, Dirty Politics concentrated on matters much closer to home. For nearly a fortnight, the Prime Minister and his advisers struggled to deflect Mr Hager’s revelations. Ultimately, shutting down Dirty Politics required measures of unprecedented severity: the forced resignation of a cabinet minister in the middle of an election campaign.
The much ballyhooed “Moment of Truth” proved to be a very different story. Knowing in advance who was on Kim Dotcom’s guest-list made matters considerably easier for the Prime Minister. Long before the “moment” arrived, Mr Key had prepared his defences and rehearsed his attack-lines. Though Glenn Greenwald put on a very brave face for his fellow journalists, the Pulitzer Prize-winner was obviously discomforted by the fierceness of Mr Key’s counter-punching. One can only imagine the mighty sighs of relief (on both sides!) as his plane took off for Brazil.
Anticipating trouble is one of the most important skills a political leader can master. Even more important, however, is knowing how to deal with trouble when it arrives.
One of the many questions Labour Party members and supporters would no doubt like to put to David Cunliffe is why he was so very bad at anticipating events which were readily predictable.
Mr Cunliffe had been a Member of Parliament for nearly three years when Mr Hager’s third book, Seeds of Distrust, unleashed the so-called “Corngate” scandal in the midst of the 2002 election campaign. Would it not, therefore, have been prudent for the Leader of the Opposition and his advisers to prepare for a similar eventuality in 2014? Was there no one in Labour’s ranks sufficiently well-acquainted with Mr Hager to give Mr Cunliffe some idea of what was coming? Of course there were, but they were never asked.
Nor was Mr Cunliffe sufficiently flexible as a politician to take advantage of Dirty Politics when it was released. A politician more willing to risk all for the keys to Premier House might have seized upon Mr Hager’s revelations and forged them into a weapon of deadly political effect. But, the moment came … and then it went.
What, then, should the Prime Minister, and whoever is unlucky enough to be elected leader of the Labour Party, be anticipating over the next three years? What are the pitfalls Mr Key’s government should try to avoid? What potential problems will his opponents seek to exploit?
Education and the Environment would seem to be the most likely arenas of conflict for the National Government. Significant – and politically highly contentious – changes are proposed in the way both New Zealand’s education system and its environment (both urban and natural) are managed. Neither of these vital spheres are lacking in defenders.
The powerful teacher unions stand athwart all roads leading towards privatised education. Any attempt to expand dramatically the roll-out of “Partnership Schools”, or strengthen the Government’s “National Standards” regime in the primary sector, will almost certainly be met with concerted union resistance.
This may not be seen as altogether a bad thing by Mr Key and his colleagues. The opportunity to strike a crippling blow at the most powerful of the public sector unions may prove too tempting a trophy for a third-term National Government to resist. Plenty of helpful advice on how to beat public sector unionists will no doubt be forthcoming from the Canadian Conservative Party and the US Republican Governors of Wisconsin and Michigan.
Would the public rise in defence of the teachers and their unions? Twenty years ago the answer would have been “Yes”. But now? With the anti-union response to The Hobbit dispute in mind, Mr Key might just be willing to roll the dice.
Linked as it is in the public’s mind with dirty dairying, mining in national parks, deep-sea oil-drilling and the governments’ (both local and national) support for environmentally damaging and financially dubious irrigation ventures, the reform of environmental legislation will be a wager hazarded for much higher stakes.
With Labour crippled – probably beyond recovery – the Greens will be looking to use National’s environmental “reforms” as the springboard for establishing themselves as the only effective Opposition party. In alliance with Greenpeace, they will do all they can to put themselves at the head of a mass protest movement of young and old, rural and urban, Maori and Pakeha.
If John Key truly wishes to challenge Richard (“King Dick”) Seddon’s record for political longevity, then he should weigh very carefully the costs and benefits of mobilising mass resistance during his government’s third term. Successful prime ministers will always anticipate trouble, but wise ones do not seek it.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 7 October 2014.


pat said...

Believe National will continue their war on the Unions and in particular the educational varieties but suspect their tactics have already been well outlined and they indicate a longer game...the well proven method of divide and rule as premised by their "leadership roles" which fit perfectly with their elitist view of life...but suspect that will take more than the current term to be completely effective though am equally sure it will ultimately succeed if not undone by a change of government....yet another good reason for Labour to get its act together and really if they cant or dont the future for those of us who are not 'the cream that rises to the top" (or the scum that floats on the surface, depending upon your viewpoint) have a very foreign future in front of us.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

I'm not so sure that the public has ever "risen up" in defence of teachers. Most working-class parents keep relatively quiet, and many middle-class parents regard teachers are simply some kind of servant – particularly if you work in an upmarket private school. The old stereotypes about lots of holidays and "those who can do" still abound – largely put about by those who wouldn't survive 5 minutes in a low decile secondary school, but they are never put to the test :-). If you are correct no it will be interesting – as in the Chinese "interesting times".

JanM said...

There was a time, Guerilla Surgeon, when most of the population at least had respect for teachers as the hard-working professionals most of them were, don't you think?
That all underwent a drastic change in the 80/90s when people were openly encouraged to regard teachers as servants answerable to parents and their wishes. The 'Tomorrow's Schools' policy has wrought much damage in this area. I have seen some great teachers being treated appallingly. All part of the plot, of course - the rich don't want the poor to be seriously educated; they might start asking questions!
Teaching is/was my profession, but wild horses wouldn't drag me to it now.

Anonymous said...

Don't get me wrong - I thoroughly enjoy your blog sir, however I take issue with your passing reference to "dirty dairy" and irrigation schemes of dubious financial value. Next time you are in North Otago where Bowalley Road is then have a look at how irrigation has transformed the region into a wealthy area. Bowalley Road itself is in line for stage two of the local irrigation scheme.

Chris Trotter said...

To: Anonymous@13:16

I am well aware of what has happened to the countryside in which I was raised.

North Otago's tawny hills have turned an unnatural shade of green and the Waianakarua has been reduced to a trickle.

Where once farmers farmed to the geography, raising sheep and harvesting fields of wheat, oats and barley, there are only cows, cows and more cows.

A sad picture.

pat said...

and the overabundance of moos is sadly not just in Bowalley Road...

Anonymous said...

I just checked the Waianakarua. It's no trickle. Stage Two will come from the Waitaki. Also no trickle. I note 40 new houses being built between Tokarahi and Oamaru. I note that the population is becoming younger and wealthier. The sports club decline has been halted. Where farmers previously farmed to the geography the climate and banks drove many to suicide in the 80's. Now the banks are driving to them. Young people no longer have to move away from North Otago to use their education. To lament the loss of the dry hills is to lament the loss of poverty.

Chris Trotter said...

Exactly where did you check it, Anonymous@14:44? Was it at the Old Stone Bridge by the Millhouse - where the flow is barely 5cm deep!

And, of course your population is recovering. Dairying is much more labour intensive than raising sheep or growing wheat and barley.

What's more, it wasn't farming to the geography that drove farmers to suicide in the 80s - it was the actions of the Fourth Labour Government which almost overnight stripped away the decades-old economic assistance that had made such farming sustainable.

And that's the great curse of intensified dairy farming - it is simply unsustainable. The mode of farming you celebrate is wantonly asset-stripping the environment on which it ultimately depends.

Those same young persons' grandchildren will curse them for their greed and short-sightedness.

Oh, and one more thing. Pronouncing so authoritatively on the benefits of dairying in North Otago suggests to me that you have access to some form of specialist knowledge.

To confirm this, I think you should tell Bowalley Road's readers who you are.

Maybe you're a farmer, maybe not. My best guess is your a regional councillor, politically committed to serving people with a vested interest in destroying the very landscape you were elected to protect.

I sincerely hope you're getting on in years because, believe me, a day of reckoning is coming

Anonymous said...

I won't reveal my identity because I am not high enough in my career to risk making my political views known lest they offend someone who is looking to hire me. You will have to accept my word that I am not elected or in public life. I have links to dairying obviously, but it's not the industry of my profession (or that of my wife). Not even linked to my industry.
I checked the river at the mouth and caught a fish and cooked it on a camp fire. The good life!
As for the sustainability question - farmers are awake to this and nutrient budgeting is done. Independently audited environmental plans are required to have irrigation. Effluent is actively managed daily to ensure maximum nutrients stay on farm. Waitaki plains farms have been irrigating since the mid-seventies and are still excellent grass growing farms so that seems sustainable to me. Improvements in technology can only improve this. I could go on, but I think I have made my point that the industry is responding positively to the fair criticisms leveled at it.
I agree that Rogernomics helped some farmers along the track to suicide in the 80's but you will recall it was a dry decade.

Anonymous said...

I guess you got your wish for tawny brown hills in North Otago.