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.