Monday 27 September 2021


Not Helpful: It is no small thing when a former leader steps forward to criticise the present leadership’s handling of a national crisis. Far from generating unity, such interventions can only intensify divisions – especially when the former leader concerned hails from the Opposition party. On top of the fears arising directly out of crisis, such interventions heap the bitterness of partisanship and conflict. Only in the face of the most imminent danger; only in response to the most abject failure; could such an intervention be justified.

IT IS NO SMALL THING when a former prime minister speaks publicly during a time of national crisis. At such times, the words of former leaders, spoken in support of present leaders, can have a powerfully unifying effect. Indeed, there are few gestures capable of generating such positive results. When support is received from across the party-political divide, the message is simple. In this time of crisis, what unites us is of vastly greater importance than what divides us.

By the same token, it is no small thing when a former leader steps forward to criticise the present leadership’s handling of a national crisis. Far from generating unity, such interventions can only intensify divisions – especially when the former leader concerned hails from the Opposition party. On top of the fears arising directly out of crisis, such interventions heap the bitterness of partisanship and conflict. Only in the face of the most imminent danger; only in response to the most abject failure; could such an intervention be justified.

That the former National Party prime minister, Sir John Key, makes no attempt to convince his fellow New Zealanders that the policies of their government pose either an imminent threat to public safety, or represent an abject failure of political leadership, casts his very public intervention in the ongoing Covid-19 crisis in a deeply troubling light. To present an alternative strategy to that of the Government: a strategy unsupported by scientific evidence, but laced with highly contentious invective; raises serious questions as to motivation.

Not the least of these questions is why Key chose to make his intervention in splendid isolation from the present leader of the National Party, Judith Collins? The most obvious riposte: to give Collins plausible deniability; simply will not wash. Key’s article, published in competing newspapers, on the same day (26/9/21) comes at a time when Collins’ leadership is under constant fire from forces both inside and outside her party. It would, therefore, be entirely understandable if Key’s opinion-piece was construed by many National Party supporters as a “For God’s sake, woman, stand aside and let me show you how it’s done!” moment.

If Key’s article constituted a magisterial review of Jacinda Ardern’s government’s handling of the Covid-19 Pandemic, such an unflattering construction might have been avoided. Had it been full of carefully marshalled scientific evidence and practical solutions to well-established problems, suspicions of intra-party dog-fighting could have been cast aside. Especially if it had been rounded-out with a measured, above-the-fray call for bi-partisan co-operation in the national interest. Sadly, Key’s article does not fit this description.

Even Key’s choice of metaphor – the ill-fated mission of Apollo 13 – fails to fire. Key presents Apollo 13 as the classic example of imaginative adaptation:

“In a crisis, humans can be creative and inventive. Faced with the growing acceptance that Covid-19 and its variants may be with us indefinitely, the New Zealand Government and public health officials, like Nasa in 1970, rapidly need to change their thinking to adapt to the new challenge.”

Except that Key’s understanding of Apollo 13 is fundamentally flawed. Nasa didn’t change their thinking, they were simply forced to do more of it. Most importantly, they had to think about how to get the astronauts home safely using only what they had on the spacecraft. That was the critical challenge: to accept that no one was going to save Apollo 13 except the men on Apollo 13. All Houston had to offer them was advice. To get home, the Apollo 13 astronauts had to “follow the science”.

It is highly instructive that this interpretation of Apollo 13 never occurred to Key. Hardly surprising, of course, since by this reading, Jacinda Ardern, her Government, and “the team of five million” behaved exactly like the astronauts. They sealed themselves in and sat tight in their tiny, acutely vulnerable country. They consulted their scientists, heeded their advice, and with maximum care, and minimum destruction, brought New Zealand safely home.

It is telling that Key looks upon the this extraordinary success-story and can come up with no better descriptions than “smug hermit kingdom” and “North Korean option”. In the midst of this country’s ongoing, much more desperate, and yet to be won struggle against the Delta variant of the Covid-19 virus, New Zealand’s former prime minister decries what he sees as the Ardern Government’s lack of urgency:

“The only urgency we’ve seen for months is an enthusiasm to lock down our country, lock up our people and lock out our citizens who are overseas.”

This not the sort of language one expects to hear from someone who is trying to help. Frankly, it is more akin to the sort of language one encounters on Facebook. A cartoonist who shared Key’s opinions would undoubtedly depict Jacinda Ardern as a madly cackling queen enthroned atop a pile of prostrate Kiwi prisoners.

Not content with describing his country as a gigantic jailhouse, however, Key goes on to characterise the Government’s expert scientific advisers as fearmongers:

“Public health experts and politicians have done a good job of making the public fearful, and therefore willing to accept multiple restrictions on their civil liberties which are disproportionate to the risk of them contracting Covid.”

Says who? A former prime minister whose professional expertise lies in currency trading – an occupation with no obvious connections to the science of epidemiology. One hesitates to ask which overseas model Key would wish to see promoted by the New Zealand Government: Sweden’s, Ireland’s, Singapore’s, the United Kingdom’s, the United States’?

One wonders, too, how Key must have greeted the news that the latest polling by Research New Zealand shows upwards of 70 percent of New Zealanders wholly or partly supportive of the “multiple restrictions on their civil liberties” that “Lockdown” entails. His dismay at discovering how very few New Zealanders favoured dropping all restrictions – “masks, quarantine and the lot” – just 7 percent, is easily imagined.

Key’s 5-point plan, for what? “Freedom Day”? is a curious mixture of carrot and stick. The more reasonable suggestions are already being investigated by the Government, the Ministry of Health, and the business community. At the core of his appeal, however, is Key’s deep-seated frustration (shared by the not inconsiderable number of powerful individuals and organisations for whom he is speaking) with the Government’s all-too-evident success in persuading a substantial majority of the population that the measures it has adopted to keep New Zealanders safe are both necessary and effective.

How do they explain their own failure to persuade New Zealanders that getting rid of lockdowns and throwing open the borders is the best way forward for the country? The insulting answer, sadly, is because, as far as Key is concerned, they are too scared to think for themselves. In short, they have been frightened into compliance. “Stop ruling by fear.” Key bluntly demands of Ardern’s government.

It is as well Key declined to govern New Zealand with the ham-fistedness on display in this opinion-piece. Had he done so, it is doubtful his time in office would have lasted eight years. With the considerable political finesse he demonstrated as prime minister, Key could have achieved so much more. An essay clearly intended to be constructive, filled with the agreeable optimism that made New Zealanders vote for him again and again, would likely have prompted a grateful phone-call from the Prime Minister – maybe even an invitation to toss some ideas around. The effort carried in yesterday’s newspapers, however, merited no more than it received – a good hard slap from Covid Response Minister, Chris Hipkins.

It turned out to be a small thing after all.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 27 September 2021.


CXH said...

NASA was certainly better at helping bring the astronauts home than this government has been to fellow Kiwis. Although sports teams and film crew had no real problem.

I also agree that we have been sold a tale of fear. That we are all going to die if we don't surrender. Yet I have three children overseas that are moving between countries. That have self testing and self isolating. That are given this thing called trust and responsibility for their behaviour. What do we get - lectured to like we are children. Told to behave and be kind, like we don't normally.

Still I guess it is not allowed to critise our present queen anymore.

Kat said...

A fair number of us were never fooled by Mr Key and his so called "political finesse".

The messaging in this recent splutter from thee political con artist is a timely reminder of just how simplistic and unscientific the approach on Covid is from the opposition.

However there may be a hidden political game plan at play.

Here's a song for Mr Key:

Nick J said...

Its not what Key said, it is the fact that under Collins National have failed to provide a voice for opponents of Jacindas' policies. Labour have been gifted an absence of credible political opposition.

That absence is dangerous as in layman's terms Labour are persuaded of their own bullshit and are feeding it to the public with no dissenting voice.

I have never voted for Key or National, but I thank Key for opening his trap. Whilst I dont agree with what he said somebody had to say it. Doubt must be cast, the response to the pandemic needs to be opened up to keep our government honest.

Brandzel said...


David George said...

Nick: "National have failed to provide a voice for opponents of Jacindas' policies"

I can fully understand why you think that Nick. I see new National party (and ACT) press releases almost daily. They are email linked to supporters and put up on the National party website and on a couple of independent websites. They're usually very good, often with an angle that the government hadn't considered (or chose to ignore) and written by some very capable MPs as well as the leader of the opposition herself.

You won't see these press releases in the "press" however. These important communications between the people and the parties wanting to form the next government (and to hold the current one to account) have, effectively, been barred from the MSM. You will see OTT reporting if anyone says anything controversial or not in PC accord with the latest version and endless speculation on leadership though. What happened to "speaking truth to power"?
The media seem intent on hounding Judith Collins, perhaps they'd like to cause her a breakdown like they did to her predecessor.

I really don't have a problem with former politicians saying their piece (certainly Helen Clark has been vocal on some issues as well) JK's comments weren't specific or actual National Party policy so they should rightly be made separately from the party.

Right from the get-go the level of fear mongering has been absurd but the now discredited modelers and experts seem to still get the government's attention. What's up with that.

Tiger Mountain said...

John Key has always represented international finance capital first and foremost throughout his career–from NZ Foreign Exchange to Merrill Lynch to New York Federal Reserve. And of course in the NZ Parliament, most visibly where with the assistance of his personal Lawyer he instigated a short lived Tax Haven, taken up by over 10 thousand offshore trusts (who soon evaporated almost overnight when IRD reporting requirements were changed). After Parliament he has been on various boards at senior level including ANZ. A person of his standing surely can be judged by the company they keep.

So, Mr Key, he of misremembered personal share holdings, of causing a walkout by female MPs, of not remembering his views on the ’81 Tour, he beloved of pulling a young, subordinate woman’s hair, decides to play the former PM card in the middle of COVID existential turmoil …That he will never be a statesman is readily apparent.

As Chris says he made no useful contribution to the situation the country is in so why did he bother? Perhaps to serve capital this time by trying to intervene in National Party affairs–a conflicted party with ineffective leadership is of little use to those that want the borders open and all restrictions on tills jingling removed. Interesting though as Mr Key was absolutely guided by focus groups and the likes of Curia polling. Would he if in office, really have disregarded the 70% of New Zealanders who for now, do not agree with his prescription?

Shane McDowall said...

New Zealand has 4,194 covid cases with 27 deaths. Denmark: 357,370 2,646. Norway: 187,593 850. Iceland: 11,632 33. Pardon me if I prefer Aunty Cindy's approach to the crisis rather than listening to right-wing fuckwits like Mike Hosking and Dr Facebook.

Colin54 said...

The truth is such a rare thing these days hence people seem to get very upset when they are confronted with it.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Jesus Christ, I find myself agreeing with Shane McDowall again.Given our population ratio with the US, if we'd handled it as badly as they did we would have had close to 2000 deaths. I wonder what John Key would be saying about a government who allows that. Come to think of it, does anyone take any notice of the man these days he was never anything much more than a pretty face.

Colin54 said...

Goodness I think the question being asked is what is the plan ? When do we rejoin the world ? What is the criteria going to be ? If its is 90% vaccination, is that the threshold ? We have to face reality we cannot simply keep borrowing money and keep our borders shut.

DS said...

>>>Goodness I think the question being asked is what is the plan ? When do we rejoin the world ? What is the criteria going to be ? If its is 90% vaccination, is that the threshold ? We have to face reality we cannot simply keep borrowing money and keep our borders shut.<<<

We can decide about reopening when we know (via the Northern Hemisphere winter) what sort of death toll endemic Covid actually involves. If, as I suspect, it is a Very Bad Winter, then the Government builds some specialised MIQ facilities away from Auckland, keeps pushing vaccination (thus ensuring any future lockdown is level 3, not 4), and keeps the borders shut, because the alternative is letting thousands die.

It's not as if closed borders negatively affects the dairy industry, which is how New Zealand earns its living. The media would whinge about their overseas holidays, but that's really it.

Alex Stone said...

Thank you for this contribution Chris - and to the others for the comment above. But 'political finesse'? Did John key really have this? All I saw was a proven liar. With his legacy a failed vanity project - the black and blue flag. It's something I have known with political reporters before - they become so well-versed in (or inured to) in the dark art of it all, that a 'good politician' is a person who gets away with breaches of integrity, or a flagrant though charismatic hypocrite. Let's not forget: John Key was (is) a liar.

Anonymous said...

I will not bother to comment on the value-less Key remarks as the pathway out of lockdowns is to achieve a vaccination coverage as near to 100% of the total population as possible if the country is to avoid a health disaster. The government, the media and others talk of getting a vaccination rate of 90% of the eligible population (today we are at 78% first dose and flagging) but even at 90%, in terms of total population, that represents only 75% of New Zealanders, leaving 25% unvaccinated. Primarily the unvaccinated would be below 12 years of age, including infants, those above 12 years who chose not to be or missed being vaccinated for various reasons and a much smaller group that could not be vaccinated for health reasons. Many of the unvaccinated would fall into low income groups needing and living in close quarters. At the moment the vaccination rate for Asian New Zealanders is 18% higher than for European ethnicities while Pacifica and Maori are 12% and 32% lower respectively. Every lever must be pulled now to vaccinate our community with, I would think, the best being a government announcement of a social dividend (say, $200 tax free) for each and every member of our society that is double-jabbed (from the youngest to the oldest) to safeguard an ailing health system. The direct cost $1bn.

The Barron said...

I have an interesting book, 'Fairness and Freedom: A History of Two open Societies - New Zealand and the United States' by a visiting American academic, David Hackett Fischer (2012). It even has Chris Trotter cited.

Fischer argues (successfully, I believe) that the United States political rhetoric is based very much on the concept of 'freedom', while New Zealand's dominant political rallying point is the view of 'fairness'.

I raise this because of the dominance in the NZ media of pushing the term 'freedom' in regard to mitigation of public health measures in NZ. This follows the way lockdowns, masks and other public health restrictions have been portrayed in the states, and Boris' ridiculous 'Freedom Day' (more people able to attend more funerals?). It has been disturbing for the NZ media to follow this line of description. Fairness is usually only raised when figures of equity concerning Maori and Pasifika, but generally the media have put a certain tinge to the reporting. Despite this, polls suggest that fairness remains the basis of NZ thinking. We all make sacrifice until we can reach the maximum safety for all.

Then I remember another book - 'Fear is the Key'. Fairness is lost on him. When we look at those seeking isolation, we have to ask 'why do they want to return?', generally it is because they seek the safety that NZ has provided. Yet the calls from the right seem to be both compromising that safety while somehow helping those wanting to return. Except for personal circumstance, most wanting to return to NZ accept that we should not have more returnees than can be safely managed.

So who is Key advocating for? Clearly those who think they have the right to conduct international business unobstructed by the needs of the majority. For international capitalists like Key, regulations in NZ, Hawaii or wherever else have nothing to do with the freedom within the national boarders, but the freedom from national borders.


Russ the muss said...

I don't understand this past tense comparison. We are still in a pandemic, we have COVID and it's now endemic. So those are the cards. Lock-down is no longer a shoe in. It's our turn to take our medicine and join the world living with this thing. The good news is u can get vaxxed, unlike other countries early on. So get jabbed and party on.

Nick J said...

So far comment from Key and some on this column monetising the vaccine. Its rather concerning when people think that others opinions are so shallow that they can be changed by offering money.

Patricia said...

John Key was, and probably still is, a currency trader. The words ‘currency trader’ are a euphemism for a gambler. Nothing more nothing less. Such people have only a short term ability to concentrate and certainly should not ever lead a country. That requires a long term planning ability and that is something a gambler cannot do.