Saturday, February 7, 2009

Key has transformed the political landscape

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, February 4.)

How suddenly, and how radically, the political landscape has changed.

We have a new prime minister, one quite unlike any of his predecessors.

The two dominant political figures of the past nine years, Helen Clark and Michael Cullen, have quietly melted into the wings, leaving the Labour Party under the leadership of Phil Goff and Annette King.

As capable and experienced as these two politicians are, it’s hard to see them as anything but stopgap leaders, holding the fort until one of the younger Labour Party thrusters (David Cunliffe? Darren Hughes?) pushes his or her way through.

What happened in the November election was nothing less than a transfer of power from one generation to the next. But there is even more to it than that. It has reoriented New Zealand politics in the same way (though not nearly as dramatically) as Barack Obama’s election has transformed the political mood of the United States.

The election of John Key signalled a new style of centre-right political leadership that could reshape the National Party and re-position it for the future.

It is a potentially far-reaching change that seems to have caught Labour napping, and the centre-left party will have to re-invent itself quickly – as the left-wing commentator Chris Trotter has noted – to catch up.

Let’s look at the generational issue first. Only 11 years separate Mr Key and his predecessor, yet they represent different eras. The events that shaped Helen Clark’s political values, and those of her generation, had little impact on the man who now leads New Zealand.

Miss Clark epitomised a generation politicised by the student radicalism of the 1960s – a generation that rejected the traditional values of its parents in everything from sex to music.

Mr Key was born too late to be deeply affected by any of this. To him and others of his generation, which is now displacing the Clark-era baby-boomers as the politically dominant demographic group, the Vietnam War and Springbok tours are probably little more than historical curiosities.

Miss Clark was of the generation that chafed under the autocratic, socially conservative rule of Robert Muldoon. Mr Key, by contrast, was a young adult in the tumultuous days of a reformist Labour government that turned New Zealand upside down and gave it a hearty shake. The political forces that shaped the two could hardly have been more different.

But possibly even more significant than any of this is John Key’s political personality.

He is a prime minister of a style we have not seen before: relaxed, open and congenial. David Lange appeared to have some of these qualities but at heart he was intensely private and, some say, a troubled man.

You certainly don’t get the impression of hidden torment with Mr Key. There is a freshness and spontaneity about him that reaches across traditional political divides. As with many sunny optimists, people find him hard not to like. A lifelong leftist of my acquaintance described him last week as “a good bloke”.

Perhaps more important, he doesn’t seem bound by old conventions and stereotypes. National Party leaders in the past have tended to be stuffy (Keith Holyoake), authoritarian (Robert Muldoon) or pompous (Jim Bolger). Mr Key is none of these, and clearly feels no need to change his personality simply because he has become prime minister. He is not awed by the weight of his office.

Neither is he bound by dogma. With Mr Key you get the impression that whatever works is okay.

Until recently I regarded his pragmatism as a mark against him. I thought the leader of the National Party should be staunch in upholding its traditional values – individual freedoms, private enterprise and so forth. But less than three months into his prime ministership, I’m modifying my views. Because already, he has changed the tone of the country in a positive way.

For one thing, Mr Key’s willingness to break the mould is refreshing. We saw this in the way he surprised everyone, and defied political convention, by reaching out simultaneously to ACT on his right and the Maori Party on his left.

More recently we have seen this quality in the disarming but politically shrewd way in which he defused the issue of whether a Maori sovereignty flag should fly on the Auckland Harbour Bridge. No big deal, he said; just find a flag that’s acceptable to all Maoridom (that was the shrewd part) and he’ll even fly it over Parliament.

Mr Key’s political modus operandi is to reach out and engage with people rather than stand on the ramparts delivering ultimatums. So far it’s a winning technique.

On the occasion of Paul Holmes’ farewell from Newstalk ZB's breakfast show, just before Christmas, we saw in the background the remarkable sight of Mr Key in earnest but apparently amicable conversation with Miss Clark. If that wasn’t an indication of a new style of leadership, I don’t know what is.

We saw it again in the annual celebrations at the Ratana marae. Here, deep in traditional Labour territory, Mr Key was feted while the Labour delegation was left, figuratively speaking, out in the cold. Labour MPs even experienced the humiliation of hearing their party roundly (and justifiably) rebuked by one of the official speakers for the way it had taken the Maori vote for granted.

The warm welcome given to Mr Key was partly in deference to his position as prime minister, but there was more to it than that. It was also an acknowledgment that he had give Maori a more meaningful say in government than Labour ever had.

In less than 100 days, Mr Key has comprehensively re-arranged the furniture of New Zealand politics. In the process, he has moved the political centre-ground decisively to the right. And he has done this without resorting once to the mythical far-right ideological agenda that his critics predicted would be unveiled if he won power.

What’s more, he has done it effortlessly, and with a smile on his face. This is a wholly new style of politics.

Of course this may not last. The political path is strewn with booby traps that could blow up in Mr Key’s face.

But for the moment, his success has left Labour flat-footed. The party’s preachy, censorious finger-wagging is suddenly out of fashion and out of synch with the mood of the electorate, as Chris Trotter has written.

Trotter has suggested that this new-look National government is emotionally connecting with the public in a way that Labour can’t match. If the Opposition doesn’t loosen up and select candidates more in tune with popular sentiment, he wrote, National may revert to being the natural party of government. He may well be right.


Ayrdale said...

Engagement with the Maori Party is a political and social masterstroke.
The many ills that best Maoridom and the country can only be solved by Maori themselves. Attempting to impose solutions, or sweep them away with more money have come to naught, and Pita Sharples at least knows this.
We have come to the end of the ideology era with Key's election, and if MMP is going to survive the electorate needs proof of its value.
This coalition could offer that...

Jordan Carter said...

Karl, most of this column is fair enough, but could you explain how what Key has done has moved the centre to the right, as opposed to moving National to the left?

Karl du Fresne said...

Fair question. I would suggest Key has done both. But I would argue that the net result is to New Zealand's benefit, after nine years under Labour. That's why I can live with it - for the time being, anyway.