Tuesday, September 28, 2021

John Key's less than glorious re-entry into the political arena

If you wanted a measure of how dire things have become in God’s Own Country, the weekend provided it.

John Key wrote a comment piece attacking the government’s management of the Covid-19 pandemic and was rapturously welcomed by the centre-Right as some sort of messiah returned from the wilderness.

You know things are in a seriously bad way when Key is acclaimed as the nation’s saviour. Yes, I know he was a popular prime minister, but I never understood why and still don’t.

I never knew what, if anything, he stood for, and I never heard him say anything remotely insightful, still less inspirational. His one attempt at leaving a permanent impression on New Zealand, in the form of a new flag, was comprehensively defeated – not so much because it was a bad idea, necessarily, but because it was poorly managed and presented a sulking, resentful Left with an opportunity to prick his balloon. It was his only act of real political boldness and it failed.

Otherwise Key left virtually no footprint. You look at the political space that he occupied for eight years and there’s virtually nothing to indicate he ever passed through. He was at best a competent manager who had the good fortune to be supported by some capable cabinet ministers, among them Bill English and Stephen Joyce. But – and it’s a big but – Key was successful politically, which is what the National Party has always valued above all else. He won elections.

He appealed to New Zealanders for reasons that eluded me. Political journalists liked to say he had something called “Everyman appeal”, but in my case it was Everyman minus one.

I wasn’t the only one scratching my head over the Key phenomenon. In his book The Passionless People Revisited, the late Gordon McLauchlan referred to Key as “the Face” and suggested he was the perfect leader for a bland, passionless country. “I could sense the attraction of personal charm,” McLauchlan wrote, “but saw or heard nothing to hint at the gravitas [that] mature citizens should want from a mature leader, and nothing to excite admiration.”

For me, the true measure of Key – the real insight into his personality and character – lay not in anything he achieved politically, but in what he revealed of himself away from politics: for example, his idea that it was fun to tug a young waitress’s ponytail and his jokey admission on a blokey radio show (a milieu in which he felt right at home) that he urinated in the shower. Everyman appeal? Really??

In fact you can make a compelling argument that Winston Peters, who never served as prime minister (other than in an acting capacity), had a far more profound and lasting impact on New Zealand than Key, who served nearly three terms in the top job.

I don’t mean that as a compliment to Peters. He left his mark for all the wrong reasons and in the worst possible way. By anointing Jacinda Ardern as prime minister in 2017 when, morally, National had earned the right to govern with 44 per cent of the vote to Labour’s 38 per cent, Peters effectively set the course on which New Zealand finds itself fixed today.

By taking that step, he facilitated the installation in 2020 of the most radical left-wing government in our history – one that’s pursuing a divisive and destructive agenda for which it has no mandate, and which has the potential to cause long-term and possibly irreversible harm.  

I hope Peters is proud of his legacy. When he occasionally harrumphs in the media about the damage the Ardern government is doing, as he did again this week, people should remind themselves that Peters himself is the man to blame for the country’s predicament.

They should also remind themselves why he backed Labour in 2017. All the evidence suggests he did it not because he sincerely believed a Labour government would be better for New Zealand. He did it out of an urge to exact utu on National, his own former party; in other words, out of spite because of his fury over the embarrassing leaking of his personal superannuation details, an act for which he blamed the National government. He would also have calculated, no doubt correctly, that he would exert greater influence over Labour than would have been possible over a more experienced and battle-hardened National.

Of course Peters couldn’t have foreseen subsequent events: the mosque shootings, the Whakaari eruption and Covid-19, all of which contributed to the elevation of Jacinda Ardern to politically stratospheric levels of popularity, internationally as well as at home. Nor would he have foreseen the collapse of the National Party as it cycled through several embarrassingly ineffectual leaders. But most ironically for Peters personally, he wouldn’t have foreseen that Ardern’s management of those crises would so impress the electorate that voters would reward her with the right to govern alone, thereby consigning his own party to the political scrap heap.

Poetic justice, some would say; Shakespeare would have loved it. But what a price the country is now paying. 

So while New Zealand politics has taken a sharp turn to the left that Peters would have neither wanted nor intended, no one should be in any doubt that he set the country on its present path. It all started with that cynical decision in 2017 to put his own political interests ahead of the clearly expressed preference of the voters. Who knows how different things might have been had Peters opted to go with National?

That’s why I say he had a more profound and long-lasting impact than Key, who always gave me the impression he regarded the prime ministership as a milestone to be ticked off on the career pathway he had mapped out for himself before moving on to something else.

But back to Key’s weekend article, which broke new ground by being published in both the Herald on Sunday and the Sunday Star-Times.  

There’s no doubt that many New Zealanders were waiting for someone to articulate the building sense of resentment against Ardern and her government over their management of Covid-19, and Key stepped up at the right time. He always did have a good sense of timing – an ability to sense and seize the moment, which was possibly what made him such a formidable international currency trader.

He was also able to use his status as one of our two most successful living politicians (the other being Helen Clark) to command a degree of media prominence that few others would have been granted. Even NZME and Stuff, media organisations not noted for their tough and rigorously even-handed scrutiny of the Labour government, could not ignore the opinion of a man who won three terms in government, a record rarely achieved in New Zealand. Besides, Stuff and NZME need to sell papers, and Key’s still a big-enough name to do that for them, especially when he’s expressing the frustrations and misgivings of an electorate that is becoming immune to Ardern’s magic dust and has grown tired of the daily spin.

So Key got a lot of media traction, even though the points he made have all been made previously by other people. His opinion piece made an impact not because what he said was original, but because it was John Key saying it.

What was surprising was that Key unnecessarily blunted the impact of his piece by making a silly mistake – one so fundamental that any half-decent PR adviser should have been able to point out the risk.

It lay in Key’s description of New Zealand under Ardern as a smug hermit kingdom akin to North Korea. As a piece of rhetorical hyperbole it served the purpose of capturing public attention and triggering a media feeding frenzy. But it also undermined the credibility of what Key was saying, simply because the comparison with North Korea was so demonstrably outlandish.

More to the point, it enabled the government and its media defenders to scoff in disbelief. And they were entitled to, since no one seriously believes New Zealand can be compared with the world’s most repressive state – a country where millions starve, dissent is brutally suppressed through imprisonment or worse and a high-ranking politician was executed with an anti-aircraft gun for making the mistake of falling asleep during a speech by the Supreme Leader

Thus the ensuing debate, which should have been about Covid-19 and lockdown, predictably focused not on the good sense in much of what Key said – for example, about the lack of a clear pathway out of lockdown, the massive cost of borrowing to compensate for economic inactivity, the stranding of New Zealand citizens overseas and, perhaps most crucially, the imposition of restrictions on civil liberties that are disproportionate to the risk of catching Covid-19 – but on whether New Zealanders should feel insulted by the North Korea analogy.

When Key went on Morning Report, the reference to North Korea seemed to be the only thing Corin Dann was interested in. On Stuff, Dominion Post editor (and frequent North Korea visitor) Anna Fifield rushed into print – unnecessarily, I would have thought – with an explanation of all the ways in which New Zealand differs from the Kim Jong Un regime. Covid-19 Minister Chris Hipkins was another who eagerly latched on to the North Korea angle, grateful no doubt for the opportunity to deflect attention from Key’s more cogent arguments. Simon Wilson in today’s Herald? Ditto.

So while Key may be baaack (as a headline on the far-Left website The Standard put it, in a nod to the The Terminator), his re-entry into politics has hardly been an unqualified triumph. Yes, he put some runs on the board on behalf of the growing number of New Zealanders disenchanted with the government’s pandemic management. But when he could have knocked the ball out of the park, he lofted a soft catch into the hands of the other side.  


Lindsay Mitchell said...

Key walked while the going was good. His self-interested decison was as influential to present circumstances as Peters' when he picked Ardern.

Andy Espersen said...

“Gordon McLaughlan referred to Key as “the face” – and suggested he was the perfect leader for a bland passionless people”.

Yes, Karl – he was just “a face”. But New Zealanders were never “a bland, passionless people” - and never will be. He left no definite “marks” - and therein precisely lies his importance. He was the ultimate in conservative leadership – and therein precisely lies his greatness (for New Zealand then). During his three terms nothing much happened – his only feeble attempt to leave a definite footprint of his reign, namely to change our flag, was an abject failure (thank goodness!). However, how he would have reacted to real phenomena like for example the Covid epidemic, or the climate-change panic, or the sudden, quite spontaneous Maorification of New Zealand, will remain unanswered forever – but we might have been surprised.

A democratic country like New Zealand only needs firm political action when some circumstances obviously change. I suggest that during his term we met with no crises, needed no political intervention, warranted no interference in any spheres. There was a steady progress everywhere : in race relationship, in freedom for our economy, in general well-being for us all (perhaps, say I, excepting for the mentally ill! And Key’s government (under then Health Minister Jonathan Coleman) was just beginning to think of doing something about that).

Phil said...

I have been musing recently that TVNZ News is like something you would expect to find in North Korea. Highly staged media reports with grinning groups of children adoring Jacinda Ardern. Labour now control sections of the NZ media in away that is abnormal and seems more compatible with a dictatorship. Perhaps a very kind version of Russia where there is a pretence of democracy.

pdm said...

Karl the strength of John Key was that he almost always gave straight answers to questions. Unlike Jacinda Ardern he rarely waffles and I cannot recall him telling a blatant lie if he did not know - pretty much he said he did not know. Jacinda has regularly been found out telling outright lies. He never backed away from people like Mike Hosking who held him to account.

David McLoughlin said...

Thanks for this article, Karl. It really made me think about Key's place in our recent history. I was out of the country for three years of his reign, so was here for about two thirds of it. It seemed to me that he performed adequately enough.

His were three terms of stability after Helen Clark's three terms of relative stability, which basically gave us 18 years of stability after 25 years of the utter chaos that was NZ from Kirk's death in 1974, through nine years of Muldoon, then Jim Bolger (including three years of Ruth) and the madness of the Shipley-Peters meltdown.

You had to have lived through those 25 chaotic years to appreciate the stability ushered in by Clark and continued by Key. And that was Key's achievement, almost nine more years of Clark's policies. The two of them got on very closely and admired each other, and txted each other constantly during the Key prime ministership.

So yes, Key basically was a steady-as-she-goes old-style political conservative, who left little mark on the country.

Paul Brydges said...


I agree with most of what you say, but when you say Key met no crises during his tenure, I fell you are off the mark. Key and English had to deal with the GFC, the greatest politic test to face New Zealand since the Stock Market Crash of 1987, or the Oil Crises of the 1970s.

Key and English handling of the GFC was so successful, that prosperity and surpluses were once returned to New Zealand

Hiko said...

Very good article Karl

Birdman said...

Long time since we've corresponded and as you know I closely follow and admire your thoughts, depth of analysis and the perception of your articles. Like so many others I appreciate the insights and analysis you provide, but don't forget you still owe me a crafty.

I am at odds with you over aspects of this one as I see the reaction to Key's statement as akin to a little bit of panic. The reference to North Korea actually hit the spot, as the PM protection spin and the Pravda media government protection racket, that you have eloquently written about recently, went into immediate overdrive. After first trying to laugh off the NK hermit kingdom comparison, the apparently 'imminent solutions' to the problems and shortcomings Key pointed out were immediately and breathlessly announced, by both Ardern and Robertson across as many media as they could, as being 'worked on' and 'soon to be rolled out'. Initiatives only they apparently could have conceived of, like home isolation for 150 business people, is now just around the corner - who would have thought but the populace isn't so dull as to not notice.

The number of attacks on Key, particularly from the acolytes like Fifield who has destroyed the DimPost's credibility as a newspaper, are testament to the raw nerve. If Key follows this up by responding to the criticism of his statement then we could see real public debate return. That he has had to do this tells the hapless Nats they need a bit of a change, as they're currently dead in the water.
Cheers, Jack

Phil said...

Also the Christchurch earthquakes which was one of the biggest insurance events in global history.

Odysseus said...

Under Key I never felt my freedoms or my way of life or indeed my sanity were threatened. He and his leading Ministers were competent managers through the GFC and the Christchurch earthquake. That is all I want from a government. As you say the current regime is on track to do irreversible damage to this country, especially in race relations. Their denial of democracy over Maori Wards and now the Three Waters is dictatorial, and their instincts, as viewed through their cancelling the few effective journalists and scheming to ban free speech, are totalitarian. The North Korean analogy may be exaggerated but it contains seeds of truth which is why the Leftist establishment have been so deranged by it. A palpable hit.

Karl du Fresne said...

Please email me. The address I have for you no longer seems to work.

David McLoughlin said...

Other commenters have reminded me I was living overseas during the GFC and Christchurch quakes, so I did not experience John Key's obviously good responses to these. This probably colours my overall view of his reign.

Andy Espersen said...

You are right, Paul Brydges. That crisis went over the heads of most of us (certainly including me) – precisely because our government was so adept and wise in handling it, and protecting us. Hardly anyone, except those deeply involved in business and finances, even perceived the dangers presented with that crisis.

Come to think – would John Key have misused quantitative easing (old-fashioned, funny-money social credit) the way financially ignorant Ardern and her equally ignorant cohort do it today in the face of Covid?? We may yet end up like Zimbabwe!!!

Karl du Fresne said...

It's true that New Zealand was less damaged by the GFC than many other countries, but I wonder to what extent that was due to heavy lifting by Bill English as Minister of Finance - and before him, Michael Cullen.
As for the Christchurch quakes, I'm not sure all Christchurch residents would concur that the aftermath was well managed. The consequences are still causing grief more than 10 years later.

Don Franks said...

No fan of Key except that I respect his consistent defence of the 65 retirement age. Key upheld this through time when Labour was actually undermining it.
Winston Peters virulent anti immigrant agitation was, I believe his worst legacy, legitimising some racist attitudes which still fester today. On the plus side, he came up with the Gold card which provides my daily ( off peak) free rides.
So, two wee ticks for these otherwise unwanted operators. I shall be amazed if the current Prime minister betters either of those tangible achievements.

Hilary Taylor said...

I'm a ChCh resident who lived through the quake times. I recall the opening of the container mall, Restart...Key was mobbed, Brownlee trailed in his wake & Mayor Bob Parker entirely sidelined. Quite a thing for this Kiwi unused to seeing that sort of star power in a politician. Ardern is the same, with knobs on...the times are a bit different, the social media generation. I remarked other day to someone unlucky enough to be in earshot that it was a queer thing when what John Key says is deemed 'provocative' (Tame)...lol. And Fifield...Oh look, I wrote a book, and lets all be super-po-faced about all this. Adults, are they?

I see from NO Minister that 'Kimbo', a commenter here, has died...RIP that man. I enjoyed his remarks.

Karl du Fresne said...

I'm shocked and saddened to hear about Kimbo. I spoke to him only about a week ago. As you say, Hilary, he was a frequent commenter here.

Hilary Taylor said...

Tom Hunter's piece on No Minister, which memorialises several of his friends, including Kimbo, is titled 'The Actuary Cometh' and dated 26/9/21.

Terry M said...

I have no respect for narcissistic bullies with a hair-pulling fetish, and I’m sure I saw something about offering lotto tickets for vaccinations the other week on the internet. It’s like driving offenders. You cannot fix stupid. You cannot legislate for stupid. Perhaps you can buy stupid. After all it worked with the media. Give it a crack. If that doesn’t work think Darwinism. Survival of the fittest. And I’m sure that this inventive government could always come up with a solution similar to that for eliminating mycoplasma virus. Cull the buggers that test positive.

Paul Goldstone said...

In 2008 I worked in a big Government Ministry. Even in early 2008 we knew the NZ economy was going into recession (thanks Michael Cullen). Then in late-2008 I saw the economic predictions from the GFC. It was a catastrophe. NZers don't realise how utterly disastrous the 2008 GFC could have been for New Zealand. But it wasn't. And for that we have to thanks the very good economic management of Key and English.
And for the remaining 9 years, John Key oversaw good economic growth and unusual social peace. And from my personal experience, he was a very very good manager - he was immensely hard working, he understood issues in-depth, he listened well, and he pushed the bureaucracy hard t get results. (The contrast with the current PM, who has few management skills, though is a very good communicator, is notable).
John Key was a conservative PM - of course he didn't achieve radical changes. But he did get NZ through the GFC, and led NZ through a pretty good 9 years.

Karl du Fresne said...

I saw the tribute to Kimbo, thanks to your alert. I didn't know him - in fact only spoke to him once (a few days before he died, as it happens) - but he was obviously a singular spirit and a bit of a contrarian. We need contrarians.

Chris Morris said...

I disagree with you over the effect of John Key's statement. His North Korea was hyperbole and everyone outside the bubble recognised it was - no different to the use of Godzone. But it was a brilliant meme and put the Government on the back foot, either explaining that it was about to do stuff, just hadn't announced it; or just waffling showing up they had no plan. He got cut-through where ACT and National just got ignored. The fact that so many of the PM's acolytes, including her partner, have come out opposing it shows it got through.
The other thing it has done is make the media a lot more critical of the Government. I doubt the Monday morning editors conference is anywhere near as cordial.
Further to my comment, everyone remembers the Polish shipyard and smell uranium on your breath. Neither was true, but they were defining moments. That is what good memes do.