• John Key, the Ideologue

    The Opposition, and the Labour Party in particular, always under-estimated John Key.  What they saw was no more than a genial glad-hander and a seat-of-the-pants chancer – at best, a populist adept at winning the centre ground.  It was only a matter of time, they thought, before he came unstuck.

    What they missed was a sharp political intelligence and a clear ideological commitment.  The result – they were always fighting the wrong battle.

    John Key certainly had important political gifts, in terms of likeability and the ability to communicate and relate to people.  Much of the opposition’s effort was devoted to trying to negate those advantages, in the hope that the feet of clay they were sure were there would be exposed to the public gaze.

    They failed to understand that the battle was not one of personality politics, but real politics. The personality was merely the means by which a deadly serious re-making of New Zealand – along ideological lines – was being undertaken.

    If we review the Key years, the trends are unmistakable.  Business interests have been given top priority; social and environmental issues have been increasingly relegated to the second or third rank.  Public assets have been privatised and the public sector and public spending have been subject to constant cuts; the law has been changed when required to suit the interests of overseas corporations.

    Workers’ rights have been reduced; employers have been given more power.  Child poverty – and poverty more generally – has increased and life on benefits is tougher; the rich have enjoyed tax cuts.  Homelessness has re-appeared in our midst and owning their own home is now beyond many young Kiwis; those already owning their own homes and property speculators in particular have made fortunes from soaring house prices.

    It is John Key’s politics, not his personality, that have produced these intended outcomes.  They have been produced, not by a relaxed middle–of-the-roader, but by a dedicated ideologue.  They are the result of a particular kind of neo-liberal politics, of a consistent and deliberate push from our Prime Minister to turn New Zealand into a “trickle down” economy (and society), one that clearly differentiates between winners and losers, one where the top priority is to ensure that the winners do even better and the losers have to get by as best they can.

    Who can doubt that he has succeeded in changing our country as he intended?

    John Key was no doubt perfectly genuine in his belief that this was a New Zealand that would be acceptable to most, but he was nevertheless adept at concealing his intentions in case they were not supported.  He was on occasion quite open about this.

    A few years ago, the then Premier of Queensland, Campbell Newman, was contemplating asset sales to raise cash.  He sought advice from John Key as to how he could get away politically with what he knew would be an unpopular measure.  Key’s advice, as reported in the New Zealand media?  “Do it in small stages,” he said, “and people won’t notice.”

    He was also pragmatic and cautious when it suited.  A new policy would usually be “floated” in advance, and then referred to “focus groups”, so that the public response could be judged.  Depending on that response, the policy would be implemented or tweaked as necessary or simply abandoned.

    Here, in other words, was a political operator who knew exactly what he was doing.  It is no accident that he was highly regarded by his right-wing colleagues in other countries, to the extent that he has for some time been chair of the International Democratic Union, the global association of right-wing political parties.

    He had, after all, achieved what so many of them had struggled with – he had sold a neo-liberal agenda to voters who would normally have rejected it as extreme and contrary to their values.

    His easy manner and “nice guy” image meant, of course, that he was able to conceal the ideological mainspring of his politics not only from the voters but from his opponents as well.  They were reluctant to accept that they were being confronted by a serious political operator and were so bemused by his image that their attention was distracted from the serious political purpose that was being served.  They were fighting the image – “a cheeky chappie” – when it was the politics that should have engaged their efforts.

    Key’s departure and the arrival of Bill English in his place should make things simpler for the slow-witted.  There will, one imagines, be less dissembling and a more clear-cut, no-frills, political direction.  It will in many ways be a relief to get back to clear political choices and a better chance of deciding the kind of New Zealand we want.

    Bryan Gould

    11 December 2016.







  1. Jillian Innes says: December 11, 2016 at 3:49 amReply

    Liked this summary of Keys leadership. We did seriously underestimate him to N Z s loss and should be to Keys shame..and the sycophants he had around him
    Hope Andrews Littles Agenda is taken up by the country and the Neo liberal dinosaurs are driven into the swamp…..

  2. Mr Tank says: December 11, 2016 at 11:29 amReply

    “should make things simpler for the slow witted!” I love it! … even as it reveals one of the lefts great flaws.

  3. Joe-90 says: December 13, 2016 at 9:28 pmReply

    Of all the dozens of surveys I have read on Key in the aftermath of his resignation, this is the most acute. Absolutely hits the nail on the head. Have circulated to a number of friends and that’s the universal response. I realise you were making a concise point and the article is the better for it, but even from my own sphere, I could add so many more elements, such as the reduction in democracy (e.g. ECAN, transparency – political management of OIAs), turning of MfE into an outpost of Treasury rather than a counterpoint, and commercialisation of DOC into a quasi SOE operating completely at odds with its governing legislation, and immigration running at levels, deliberately, that increase the cost of housing, because no supply response is possible to meet that level. I could go on and on. Labour has failed to communicate a picture so that the public see a Ruth Richardson style government here, not a smiley man they would happily talk to at a neighbourhood BBQ. If they had, National’s support mightn’t be so strong.

    Thank you for this Bryan.

  4. Bruce Bisset says: December 21, 2016 at 3:39 amReply

    and were you saying these things, at least as bluntly, BEFORE he resigned? if not, why not?

    fat use saying them now….

    • Bryan Gould says: December 22, 2016 at 6:44 pmReply

      Are you really Rip Van Winkle? Bryan Gould

  5. Steve Withers says: December 22, 2016 at 7:21 amReply

    The media have been complicit in concealing the real agenda, preferring instead to focus on the supposed nice guy and smooth political operator. At least this is the kind we have been fed. I never say the appeal of Key myself. A smile is a poor trade for lower wages, degrades public services and neglected public assets.

    NZME and Fairfax’s obvious infatuation with Key and National isn’t an accident either.

  6. Steve Withers says: December 22, 2016 at 7:21 amReply

    The media have been complicit in concealing the real agenda, preferring instead to focus on the supposed nice guy and smooth political operator. At least this is the kind we have been fed. I never say the appeal of Key myself. A smile is a poor trade for lower wages, degrades public services and neglected public assets.

    NZME and Fairfax’s obvious infatuation with Key and National isn’t an accident either.

  7. Susie says: January 5, 2017 at 10:47 pmReply

    Thank you, Bryan for expressing this so succinctly. I still find it extraordinarily hard to credit that – “The Opposition, and the Labour Party in particular” have not actually caught on to Key’s systematic rolling out of the neoliberal framework, inch by inch, hectare by hectare, over New Zealand’s green and pleasant land. I have assumed that only lack of courage, skill or articulate means could explain why (most of) Her Majesty’s Local Opposition has failed to respond with suitable outrage to the systematic dismantling of New Zealand’s imperfect yet substantial framework of social, environmental and economic protections.

    The demolition seemed to kick off at just the same moment in 2008 that Key came to power, as though this had been planned meticulously for years and stored ready for use – and indeed, maybe it had. To many of us, the game was as plain and overt as the nose on your face. We have roared with fury at atrocities large and small. These include the unpicking of our noble local government frameworks (‘the envy of other nations’) in which lay the mainstay of our participative democracy, the several cuts that kneecapped our means (‘the envy of other nations’) to use our own renewables and resources to reduce fossil fuel dependency, and the wholesale laying out for plunder of our wonderfully rich and rare strategic assets (certainly the envy of other nations) – as though New Zealand was just a cheap whore being sold at any old price.

    Yes, we were already one of the most highly-overseas-owned countries in the world – but still, so many golden handshakes; so much wealth and ownership transferred since just eight years ago that it would take a book to catalogue it all and one wonders what we actually have left. Certainly, had the TPPA gone ahead, our predicament would have been truly horrifying.

    You describe this appalling rout as a reflection of an ideology. It’s hard not to see it as a clear plan by which this little country that seemed so astonishingly well placed to ride an uncertain future was recognised as one of the last great uneaten troughs of goodies in the world, and too hick and naïve to notice the rats at work. Is methodical, progressive rape and theft really an ideology? Some would call it organised crime. And who are the rats, actually? How big are they, and do more than a handful of them actually live here? How many of them did Key get to know in the years before his curious decision to leave his $5 million a year job and enter politics? And what will be his reward, we wonder?

    Again, thank you for this piece. What is amazing is that so little of this is even now being said out loud, and in place of the biggest juggernaut of a scandal that ever hit us, in political circles talk still goes little further than pony tails. Barely a whisper from our official Opposition: “. . . only a strong and fearless Opposition can assure preservation of our fundamental freedoms” (Diefenbaker, 1949). Nobody else holds the mandate to do this.

    To fail here is also theft from the nation, by occupying a place and enjoying position power that could be held by people who will do the job that they are paid to do. The means are still there, the evidence is barely concealed, yet Labour even disowned Nicky Hager. Are even they so scared of upsetting the wealthy, or is this genuine ignorance? There is really no exoneration, either way, but I am still bewildered.

  8. Bryan Gould says: January 5, 2017 at 11:37 pmReply

    I think the Labour Party is still preoccupied with protecting its own record in government (which it is not my purpose to knock) and can’t see a way of attacking Key’s ideology without calling into question its own flirtation with neo-liberalism, Bryan

    • JohnG says: January 7, 2017 at 7:23 amReply


      • Bryan Gould says: January 7, 2017 at 8:22 amReply

        I am referring to the 1999-2008 government, not the Lange government.

        • JohnG says: January 8, 2017 at 9:58 pmReply

          Point taken.

          But I’d hold that subsequent (to Lange) iterations of Labour have been staunchly neoliberal.

          Just less publicly.

          Clark and Cullen never even nodded toward a full employment policy that I can recall.

          • Bryan Gould says: January 9, 2017 at 12:08 am

            I don’t disagree. Bryan

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