(Published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, March 18.)
On the morning of the big jobs summit in Auckland recently, Radio New Zealand presenter Kathryn Ryan interviewed three of the summit participants.
Two of the interviewees, Rod Carr and Michael Barnett, were from the business sector. The third was Laila Harre, feisty trade unionist and Minister of Women’s Affairs in the Labour-Alliance coalition government of 1999-2002.
I expected Ms Harre and the two business representatives to disagree over how New Zealand should protect itself from the global economic crunch. We have become so conditioned to polarised debates that I waited for the participants to dig in to their trenches and start lobbing grenades back and forth.
That’s the norm, after all. But the interesting thing about this discussion was that there was no sniping, no point-scoring and no resort to rigid ideological positions. The focus was practical, the tone calm and reasoned. All three wanted to protect jobs.
At one point Mr Carr, a former deputy governor of the Reserve Bank and chief executive of Jade Corporation, emphatically agreed with something Ms Harre had said. Then Ms Harre agreed with something Mr Barnett, the CEO of the Auckland Chamber of Commerce, had said. She even expressed some sympathy for the predicament of business.
This was radical. I wouldn’t want to convey the impression that they’d all stripped naked and were frolicking in a metaphorical hot tub of harmony, but something significant was going on here.
It reinforced my sense that there has been a sudden and profound change in the national mood. This can be partly attributed to the urgent need to deal with a sharply contracting economy, but there is more to it than that.
I think it has a lot to do with John Key. In saying this, I’m back-pedalling somewhat because until relatively recently, I was deeply sceptical about Mr Key. I complained to anyone who was prepared to listen that no one knew quite what he stood for. It seemed to me dangerous to elect a prime minister who appeared to have no fixed ideological reference points.
I have now come around to the view that the apparent absence of any non-negotiable positions on Mr Key’s part – the very deficiency that I complained about – may make him the ideal leader for our time.
I referred in a previous column to his relentlessly upbeat disposition. That in itself, I believe, has done a lot to change the mood of a country that previously experienced nine years of essentially downbeat leadership from Helen Clark.
The effect of the change at the top is similar to that on a school from which a stern, finger-wagging headmaster has retired, handing over control to a much more relaxed successor who thinks school should be fun. It’s quite a liberating sensation, though how long it will last remains to be seen.
The other marked difference between New Zealand under Key and New Zealand under Clark is that the old ideological battle lines have suddenly been erased. The new prime minister is happy to engage with anyone and doesn’t rule out any policy if he senses it might work. There are no ideological no-go zones.
He has demonstrated this, as I have written before, by reaching out to ACT on his right while simultaneously forging a close and apparently successful relationship with the Maori Party on his left.
Recently we have observed Mr Key’s open-minded approach in the way his government supported Miss Clark’s bid for a top job in the United Nations. I think it’s fair to assume this was done not with a cynical motive – in other words, to get her out of the way – but because Mr Key genuinely believed she had the skills for the post and the appointment would bring credit on New Zealand.
Since then it’s been announced that the National government has appointed former Labour Cabinet Minister Paul Swain as its lead negotiator in talks with the Ngati Porou iwi over Treaty of Waitangi claims.
Regardless of what one might think about the Treaty gravy train, this was another example of Mr Key’s party setting aside old tribal rivalries and acknowledging that a former political foe had the appropriate credentials for the job.
This is the antithesis of the rampant cronyism pursued by Labour, under which party loyalists such as former party president Mike Williams and ex-CTU head Ross Wilson were appointed to powerful public positions for which they were not necessarily well-qualified, and in which they could be relied on to carry out the government's wishes.
To be fair, National governments of the past have indulged in some pretty distasteful cronyism too. Those were considered the rules of the game.
To Mr Key’s credit, he seems happy to throw that old rulebook onto the scrap heap – and good on him, because there’s precious little evidence that it served New Zealand well.
The change in the tone of politics could not have come at a better time. New Zealand faces possibly the greatest economic crisis in its history. As people like Reserve Bank governor Alan Bollard keep reminding us, we don’t know how bad it might get.
But that word “possibly” is important, because we’re not yet sinking in quicksand and might still be able to avoid it.
If any country can pull together to avert the sort of economic catastrophe now engulfing the US and Britain, it should be New Zealand. We are a small, intimate country; everyone knows everyone else and we all speak a common language. Ultimately, the values and concerns that unite us are far greater than those that divide us.
One of the interesting features of Parliament is that, away from the public battleground of the debating chamber, where politicians are inevitably tempted to grandstand, MPs build warm and positive relationships that often cross party lines. You see this when they socialise together.
That sort of rapport could be invaluable right now, when the country urgently needs a sense of common purpose. With his ability to take much of the heat out of politics, Mr Key may be the man to make it happen.