JOHN KEY seldom ventures into the public realm without a plan. He didn’t make his millions, or get to be New Zealand’s prime minister for eight years, on a whim. Certainly, there was nothing whimsical about his now notorious op-ed contribution to last Sunday’s newspapers. His people were setting that up at least three days prior to its publication. What’s more he was primed and ready when, inevitably, the news media came a-calling. As the famous American trade unionist, Joe Hill, might have said: “This didn’t just happen, this was organised!”
But, organised to what end? That is the key question.
Let’s begin with the op-ed piece itself. Essentially, this offhand effort had only one serious purpose – to supply a few hundred words to wrap around a handful of key phrases: “smug hermit kingdom”, “North Korean option”, “ruling by fear”. These were the super-spreaders of the anti-government virus which Key’s op-ed piece seemed so determined to circulate.
And its target, plainly, was the huge number – well over 400,000 – of National Party voters who defected to Labour in last year’s general election. The voters who rewarded Jacinda Ardern for getting them (and the rest of New Zealand) through the worst (or so they thought!) of the Covid-19 Pandemic.
Because, as Key the political strategist understands with crystal clarity, these are the only people who matter to National. Their sheer numbers represent something pretty close to 20 percent of the electorate. Win them back and National instantly regains electoral competitiveness. Fail to win them back, and National has no viable pathway to power. Clearly, Key is of the view that the present leader of the National Party either cannot, or will not, grasp this – the central reality of contemporary New Zealand politics – and he intends to do something about it.
Re-reading Key’s op-ed piece, it is hard to avoid the impression that its most arresting phrases and sentences were not included because they made much sense, or possessed the inestimable advantage of being true, but because they had tested well in a focus-group composed of precisely the sort of voters National needs to regain power: well-educated, independent, middle-class women.
One sentence, in particular, caught my eye:
“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 is a superbly constructed piece of political rhetoric – not least on account of Key’s threefold repetition of the word “lock”: lock down, lock up, lock out. But, if these words tested well, then we must conclude that the enthusiasm of those well-educated, independent, middle-class women is beginning to wane. Not to the point of returning to the National fold. Not, at least, while Judith Collins is minding the store. But enough to smile grimly at “smug hermit kingdom” and nod enthusiastically at lock down, lock up and lock out.
How many of these women have a friend or relative overseas who is desperate to get back home – but can’t? How many are beginning to despair of ever seeing Tuscany, or Melbourne, again? How many of them, though still loyal to “Jacinda”, are fast losing faith in her “strategy”? How many of them would go back to National, if only National had something – or someone – worth going back for?
One of the lessons John Key undoubtedly learned on the currency trading-floor was the towering unwisdom of sending good money after bad. The same, of course, applies in politics. There is absolutely no point in fighting with Act over the ideological red-meat so beloved by National’s rural and provincial voters. If David Seymour wants them – then take them! After all, what’s he going to do with them? Enter into a coalition with Labour? The Greens? Te Paati Māori?
Key knows that those well-educated, independent, middle-class women are never going to vote for a party guided by a bunch of Bible-thumping rural red-necks. Better they all go to Seymour and Act, than hang around stinking-up National so badly all the fine ladies decide to stick with Jacinda and her “progressive” policies. As the Chair of a major bank, Key is keenly aware of how far up the corporate food-chain “wokeness” has percolated.
Oh yes, Key’s op-ed intervention was thoroughly planned, but it was also carefully targeted. And not just at Jacinda!
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 1 October 2021.