FROM: Extortium Public Relations Ltd
TO: The Right Hon. Bill English, Prime Minister.
RE: Getting Through 2017
THINK OF YOUR GOVERNMENT, Prime Minister, as a rubber ducky floating in a bath from which someone (and we all know who) has just removed the plug. The bath is very full, so it will take some time to empty. But, high and dry your rubber ducky will be, Prime Minister, if you do not find some means of either replacing the plug, or refilling the bath.
Replacing the plug will be tricky – but not impossible. Essentially, Prime Minister, you need to come up with a political persona packing the same stopping power as your predecessor’s “cheerful chappy with $60 million in the bank and happy to leave it at that” routine. We’re not about to suggest that you march around the Beehive balcony blowing your own trumpet like poor old Geoffrey Palmer, but we’d be failing in our duty if we let you go on thinking that National’s rubber ducky is going to be saved by all that “Southern Man” shtick.
A quick stocktake of your political assets shows you to be intelligent (your enemies even accuse you of being an intellectual!) hard-working, effective, and capable of projecting a steely determination to achieve your stated goals. These are all essential qualities in a leader, so it’s good that you’ve got them. The $64,000 question (which is, by the way, the exact total of Extortium’s latest invoice) is how to turn these assets into a plug.
You said something a while back about the size of New Zealand’s prison roll being both a “moral and fiscal failure”. That was good – very good. Not quite up there with Tony Blair’s “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” soundbite – but close. We can work with that.
One of the problems with your predecessor’s persona was that it was a little light in the moral weight department. How did you put it in that North & South article? Something about John “skipping from cloud to cloud”? Coming after the rather dour and schoolmarm-ish Helen Clark, this lack of gravitas didn’t really matter (in fact it was an advantage) but after eight years, John’s “What, me worry?” act, was wearing a little thin.
We’re entering the Age of Trump, Prime Minister, when leaders who know the difference between right and wrong, truth and falsehood, wisdom and foolishness are about to go over extra bigly (as the new president might say) with the voters.
That’s the beauty of your “moral and fiscal failure” line. It’s such a canny mixture of heart and head. What’s more, it also plays, in a very positive way, to your strong Catholic faith. Plenty of people will have told you that this is a political negative that should be played down as much as possible. But, we at Extortium don’t see it like that at all. We look at the global response to the ministry of Pope Francis I; at his enormous cross-over appeal; and cannot see any reason why we shouldn’t be able to get some of that love, mercy and humility vibe working in your favour.
Heart and head, Prime Minister, heart and head. Don’t be afraid to quote scripture (or poetry) in relation to the dreadful condition of the poor. But, at the same time, don’t let your opponents get away with making all kinds of promises that they can’t possibly keep. Play up this “social investment” idea of yours for all its worth. National Party voters generally resent seeing their taxes spent on people they regard as wastrels and crooks, so the idea of spotting “vulnerable children” early and steering them towards a more taxpayer-friendly future is pure electoral gold.
It’s the same with prisons, Prime Minister. Portray comprehensive rehabilitation of prisoners as both the right thing to do, and a way of saving money – lots of money – and you’ll not only keep the conservatives on board, but also the liberals. Voters like their politicians to be both caring and cautious. They want a leader whose a spendthrift with love and kindness, and a tightwad with their taxes.
Pull that off, Prime Minister, and National’s rubber ducky will never hit the bottom.
Alternatively, you could keep her bobbing happily about by lavishing generous tax-cuts on us all.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 30 December 2016.