The National government richly deserved the lesson it got in Northland. Since its re-election, it has treated voters with an attitude bordering on contempt.The day after the election, John Key warned his party against third-term arrogance. He promptly proceeded to disregard his own advice and has continued on much the same path ever since.
Yes, the government has plenty of reason to be cocky. The economy is humming. Migration is running at record levels, indicating New Zealand is seen as a desirable place to be.A run of sporting successes – the Black Caps, the Wellington Phoenix, the Breakers, the Hurricanes, Lydia Ko – has contributed to a feel-good mood that will rub off on National, which is no doubt why Key is in Melbourne today watching the cricket, rather than in Singapore attending the funeral of Lee Kuan Yew (as Tony Abbott is). He wants to share in any glory that’s going, just as he did in the embarrassing three-way handshake at the Rugby World Cup in 2011.
National and Key are holding up well in the polls, too. But for how long?Virtually every action the government has taken so far in this term has been tainted with the odour of hubris and, far worse, deceit. Even when it got something right, as it did with its decision to commit a modest force to Iraq, it brought discredit on itself by Key’s childish crowing in Parliament.
“Get some guts and join the right side,” Key shouted at the opposition benches. It didn’t just detract from National’s principled decision (at least we hope it was principled, and not just a pragmatic attempt to stay onside with more powerful allies); it also gave Labour leader Andrew Little the perfect opportunity to respond that the people with real guts were the soldiers being sent to a dangerous war zone, not Key in his comfy seat in the House of Representatives.I detect signs that the old born-to-rule mentality – never the Nats’ most endearing quality, but mercifully out of sight for most of the MMP era – is re-asserting itself. It was evident in the government’s smug certainty (at least initially) that it would retain Northland, despite the cloud hanging over its former MP. But there have been several other clues that Version 3 of the Key government is of a subtly different character from those of the previous two terms.
Exhibit One: The dust had barely settled after the election before the government pushed through a bill exempting employers from the obligation to provide paid rest and meal breaks.As the first significant legislation of National’s third term, it seemed a deeply symbolic statement. There seemed no other way to interpret it than as a signal that the Key government was reverting to a National Party archetype from an earlier era, shedding its friendly, centrist face in favour of a more classical right-wing hard line on employment relations.
To be fair, that message was modified by this week’s introduction of legislation providing tougher penalties for companies that breach employment laws. But given that it coincided with the increasing preponderance of zero-hours contracts, which tilt contractual terms entirely in favour of employers, the tea-break bill suggested a return to the days when conservative governments were seen as unsympathetic, even hostile, to workers.You don’t have to be a staunch trade unionist (I’m certainly not, as most readers of this blog would know) to believe this runs counter to the New Zealand belief in a fair go, especially for those with little or no power to protect themselves. All else aside, it just looks mean-spirited that at a time of robust economic growth, with the share market humming and most companies reporting healthy profits, National passes legislation whittling away workers’ traditional entitlements.
Until recently, this government had done a pretty good job of convincing people that it didn’t just represent the sectional interests from which National draws much of its financial backing. No doubt that’s one reason why its popularity has remained steady. But you have to wonder whether the party is abandoning that broad-church approach in favour of preferential treatment for favoured groups.Which brings me to Exhibit Two: Auckland’s proposed Skycity Convention Centre. From the outset, this looked like a dodgy sweetheart deal. But it began to look even more shonky when it emerged that the taxpayer was likely to be left footing the bill for a massive cost blowout.
It seemed clear the government was prepared to go along with this, and had indicated as much in cosy chats with Skycity. It was only when the public revolted that National hastily engaged reverse gear, insisting that a generous taxpayer handout to the casino company had only ever been a technical option.That’s not how it looked, and I don’t think people were fooled. Either the government was incompetent in entering an arrangement that was loaded in Skycity’s favour, or it was pandering to wealthy friends. Either way, it smelled.
For Exhibit Three we need to go back to November, when National bulldozed potentially intrusive new security laws through Parliament on the pretext that urgent action was needed to save us from terrorists.Nothing had been said about this in the lead-up to the election only weeks before. No doubt the government would explain that by saying the terrorism threat wasn’t apparent then, but a more likely explanation is that electronic surveillance was a hot issue during the campaign and National strategists didn’t want to give its opponents any more oxygen than they already had.
Instead, we were asked to believe that the security risk had escalated so suddenly and alarmingly that the government couldn’t afford the luxury of normal parliamentary process. Only two days were allowed for submissions on a bill that greatly increased the power of the SIS to pry into people’s lives.When Radio New Zealand interviewer Guyon Espiner asked Chris Finlayson, the minister in charge of the SIS, to explain the unseemly haste, Finlayson testily replied that the government had no time for “chit-chat”. He subsequently apologised, but didn’t look at all contrite.
The imperious Finlayson gave the impression of believing the government was under no obligation to explain itself. Dammit, why couldn’t we just trust National to get on with things without the inconvenience and nuisance of public scrutiny?Exhibit Four: The selloff of state housing. Either this was poorly conceived and executed (it was certainly poorly explained to the public), or the government’s real agenda all along was less admirable than it wanted us to think.
Either interpretation is open. The first is supported by the fact that the Salvation Army, whose acceptance of the deal appeared crucial to its credibility, decided it wasn’t feasible.If things had been handled properly, the Sallies’ support would surely have been locked in earlier. After all, the disposal of state housing was a centrepiece of the government’s programme for the year; you’d expect every T to be crossed and I dotted.
The second interpretation, the conspiratorial one, is that the Salvation Army’s putative involvement was always just a smokescreen to make the proposal look respectable, and that the real purpose was to get state housing off the government’s books whatever it took.And hey, if the Sallies weren’t interested, private developers might be. Could that have been the government’s preferred option all along, and one that would play well to business interests eager to make a buck from cheap state assets? Given past experience, in the energy sector especially, people could hardly be blamed for being cynical.
Exhibit Five is the nonchalance with which National initially approached the Northland by-election. Key talked as if all the party’s candidate, the hapless Mark Osborne, had to do was turn up. Never mind that the sitting National MP, Mike Sabin, had gone AWOL in circumstances that remain unexplained. It seemed to be assumed that loyal Northland voters would unquestioningly fall into line regardless.But even Winston Peters gets something right occasionally, and he did the country a favour by making National squirm in the North. It was almost a pleasure watching the government’s complacency turn to panic as it realised it had a fight on its hands.
It’s hard to recall a more naked display of schmoozing and vote-buying than that which followed, although whether swarms of Cabinet ministers in leather-upholstered limos did National any favours in impoverished Northland is a moot point. More likely, the so-called charm offensive simply reminded locals of how rarely they’ve featured on the government’s radar.Overshadowing all the above is Exhibit Six – arguably the most damaging of all, because it suggests Key plays fast and loose with the public’s trust.
I refer here to his shifty response when he faces questions from journalists. He is slippery and evasive, often batting legitimate questions away with bland, airy-fairy dismissals.His consistent refusal to give satisfactory answers, especially on matters relating to electronic surveillance and the GCSB, has become embarrassing to watch. What’s more, it plays into the hands of Nicky Hager and the conspiracy theorists, since it suggests Key and his government have something to hide.
Voters signalled clearly last September that they would not allow Hager’s strategically timed anti-government disclosures to sway the election result. But the election is six months behind us now and the revelations just keep coming. Far from dousing speculation about what the GCSB gets up to, Key gives it momentum by adopting that familiar blank “I know nothing” look whenever reporters start asking questions.Arguably the most damaging of the leaks related to Trade Negotiations Minister Tim Groser’s bid to become head of the World Trade Organisation, where it’s claimed the GCSB was used to spy on Groser’s rivals.
Most of the allegations previously swirling around the government spy bureau involved esoteric issues, too far removed from the reality of most people’s lives to register as important or relevant to them; but eavesdropping on rival candidates for a job is something anyone can understand.And while the public may be persuaded that electronic monitoring is necessary where national security is involved, even if it’s illicit or duplicitous and risks getting us offside with friendly countries, it becomes much harder to justify when the purpose is merely to help a National insider score a prestigious international job.
That just seems sneaky, and it was made worse by Key’s dismissive comment that Groser’s rivals “wouldn’t give a monkey’s”. That type of flippant dismissal might be acceptable with his mates on the golf course, but it falls far short of what New Zealanders are entitled to expect from their prime minister.It both trivialised and sidestepped the issue. If Key isn’t willing to answer legitimate questions fairly and squarely, he should stop making himself available to journalists. As it is, he plays the public for suckers and makes a mockery of the principle of accountability.
Even Bill English, usually a straight shooter, seems to have adopted a Key-like approach to uncomfortable questions. In his case, this sometimes involves denying what is screamingly obvious – for example, that the Salvation Army’s withdrawal from the proposed state housing split-up was a setback for the government. Not at all, said Bill, unblinking. Hmmm.It’s as if, having survived the firestorm of the 2014 election campaign with his personal popularity intact, Key has decided he and his government are bulletproof. But like water on rock, suspicions about government integrity have the potential to gradually erode his credibility.
And that’s essentially what we’re talking about here: integrity. A government that can’t be trusted to be honest with the people doesn’t deserve to stay in power.