• Second and Final Term?

    As a former politician, I have often lamented the journalistic tendency to treat politics as a matter of personalities rather than policies. But there are times when political personalities – and their interaction – can provide an insight into what is really happening.

    Just four months into his second term, it is already apparent that the Prime Minister is a very different John Key from the one we learned to know and (at least for some) love in his first term. The relaxed and amiable friend to everyone has – as John Armstrong has pointed out – somehow transmogrified into a tougher and much less accommodating political leader. The whole tone of the government’s approach is now very different.

    The John Key of the first term showed a remarkably accurate sensitivity to popular opinion. He avoided controversy wherever possible and built an enviable popularity by unerringly identifying where the political centre of gravity on any given issue could be located.

    Today, however, we see a different attitude from the Prime Minister. He is obviously now committed to an agenda that is increasingly likely to encounter opposition and controversy. He seems determined to pursue that agenda – for example, on asset sales – whatever public opinion may have to say.

    If the Prime Ministerial smile was the defining image of his first term, the second seems destined to be characterised by the Prime Ministerial shrug – a shrug that seems to say that he is determined to do what he wants, whether popular or not. What explains this sudden and apparently inexplicable change?

    What is now clear is that the goal of the first term was simply to win the 2011 election. The key to achieving that goal was to be the Prime Minister’s personal popularity – particularly with the politically uncommitted.

    That goal having been achieved, a quite different goal has now been identified. A Prime Minister who was criticised in his first term for being lightweight and not making a difference seems now to have set himself the task of making his mark and leaving a political legacy.

    The second term, it seems, will be used to push through an agenda of change which may commend itself less – or not at all – to the uncommitted, but which will deliver to the Prime Minister’s own closest supporters much of what they elected him to do.

    It is, in its own way, quite refreshing to see a politician who sees the exercise of power, not as an end in itself, but as the means by which real change is to be brought about. But the Prime Minister’s change of focus warrants scrutiny on other grounds as well.

    If his goal is to use power now rather than merely prolong it,that inevitably suggests that he does not see his premiership extending beyond the next election. He has given hints in the past that he does not see himself devoting the rest of his life to politics; his apparent determination to go for broke now is the best evidence we have that he sees two terms as Prime Minister as being quite enough.

    That in turn means that picking up the pieces after the next election – whatever the outcome – is likely to be the responsibility of someone else. And that brings into focus the second major piece of evidence to support the proposition that we might be looking, in 2014, at a post-Key era – the likelihood that a similar thought seems to have occurred to some of those who might see themselves as being in with a chance of succeeding John Key, when the time comes, as party leader.

    The most obvious contender might seem to be Bill English – the Deputy Leader, and of course supported by a significant group of MPs who have already had success in projecting him into the leadership on a previous occasion.

    But there are growing signs of tension in the relationship between John Key and Bill English. There have been several recent instances when the two men have said – it seems quite deliberately – quite different things, to the point of embarrassing or directly contradicting the other.

    Take, for instance, Bill English’s startling admission that the estimate of the proceeds from asset sales was “just a guess” – something that no politician of his experience would have allowed himself to say by accident, and certainly not what John Key would have expected from a loyal deputy committed to this central element in government policy. And look at the direct disagreement this week between Key and English on the issue of whether a renewed boom in house prices is getting under way.

    These tensions do not arise by accident. The signs are that Bill English may know, or think he knows, about John Key’s plans for 2014, and may be distancing himself from his leader so as to offer a fresh start when the time comes.

    Or, he may sense that there are other plans afoot. He will have noticed with apprehension the rise of Steven Joyce, and the new Minister for Everything’s closeness to the leader. There is nothing more guaranteed to engender a sense of angst than the sight of a rival being promoted. Watch this space!

    Bryan Gould

    19 March 2012

    This article was published in the NZ Herald on 22 March.

  • Can Labour Win Next Time?

    There are never any final battles in politics. No one should begrudge John Key his moment of triumph on Saturday, but – as he will be well aware – the campaign for the next general election has already started.

    A 48% share of the votes cast was, on the face of it, an outstanding achievement. But we should bear in mind that fully two-thirds of New Zealanders eligible to vote did not give their support to National, either failing to register or vote, or voting for someone else.

    This was not, in other words, a coronation. Not everyone loves John Key. Yet we can already see the “elective dictatorship” syndrome in John Key’s claim that he has a mandate for asset sales, despite the incontrovertible polling evidence that the policy is opposed even by National voters.

    The election campaign was at times an unhappy experience for John Key. It revealed to his supporters, both amongst voters and in the media, a politician whom many may not have seen before. The images of an uncomfortable and defensive John Key, clearly irritated at being challenged and having to answer questions he would prefer to have ignored, will remain in the memory for a long time.

    Nor is it the case, as some have suggested, that Labour’s poor showing means that the next election is already a lost cause. We should not forget that, in 2002, National’s share of the vote dropped to just 22%, yet three years later, under the leadership of that “strange fellow” Don Brash, National very nearly pulled off a win.

    None of which means that there is any disguising the mountain Labour has to climb if it is to mount a real challenge in 2014. The first casualty of their failure has been their leader – rough justice in a sense, since Phil Goff emerged from the campaign with an enhanced reputation.

    The lesson that Labour must learn, though, is that elections are rarely won on the strength of a four-week election campaign. Labour worked hard through the recent campaign but they made virtually no progress in undermining the image that John Key had projected over the preceding three years.

    The truth is that Labour lost the election because they were, for most of the parliamentary term, an ineffective opposition. They did not work hard enough. They left their run, such as it was, far too late.

    Labour’s new leader needs to think hard about the politics of being in opposition. If they are to do better this term than last, there has to be a carefully planned, developed and staged strategy so that, by the time the next election campaign starts, the groundwork has been properly laid.

    The first objective must be to help voters to look behind the smile and the photo opportunities, and to ask the hard questions about exactly what the government is doing, what it has achieved, and – above all – whether the Prime Minister can be trusted to tell the truth. The goal must be an electorate that is ready to examine John Key’s words much more critically, and media that do their proper job of ensuring that voters are properly informed.

    A classic example will arise early in the life of the new government. John Key has so far avoided giving a straight answer to concerns about the foreign ownership of the assets that he intends to sell – concerns that are hardly surprising in a country that has already sold a higher proportion of its assets into foreign ownership than any other developed country.

    He hints that he will somehow ensure that shares in those assets will remain in New Zealand hands. Yet John Key knows (and Bill English has tacitly admitted) that the trade agreement with the United States and others that is currently being negotiated in secret is almost certain to make it illegal to discriminate against foreign investors when those assets are sold.

    The task of an opposition is to make sure that, on this and other similar issues, the Prime Minister cannot simply smile and shrug – and make up an answer that doesn’t quite mean what it seems to mean.

    The Labour front bench must also think harder about how and when to launch policies that are needed but contentious – policies like a capital gains tax, raising the retirement age, and extending the emissions trading scheme to agriculture. Policies like this should not be launched at the last minute, leaving little time for them to be properly understood.

    The policies that should appropriately be launched near or during the election campaign are those that will have a wide and immediate popular appeal – policies like raising the minimum wage or using the dole to subsidise youth employment.

    There are, in other words, three stages in a successful campaign. First, changing – through hard work and relentless pressure – the public perception of John Key as a leader who can be trusted. Second, taking enough time – well before the election – to build support for policies that opponents can easily misrepresent. And third, launching vote-winning policies so as to generate momentum through the election campaign.

    A new leader and a strategy like this could make for a very interesting election in 2014.

    Bryan Gould

    28 November 2011

    This article was published in the NZ Herald on 30 November

  • The Dangers of Dominance

    In 1980, I brought my young family for the first time to New Zealand to visit my homeland for a holiday. At the time, I had recently lost my marginal seat in the House of Commons and was working in current affairs television.

    One of my clearest memories of that enjoyable holiday was the shock of discovering how much New Zealand was in thrall to a powerful – not to say domineering – Prime Minister. Robert Muldoon was at the height of his powers – and, as a student of both politics and the media, I was amazed to observe the excessive deference with which he was treated by the New Zealand media.

    I particularly remember seeing him being interviewed in a television studio. One camera showed the interviewer addressing a question to him, and a second focused on the Prime Minister who answered the question by speaking directly into the camera – and therefore directly to each individual viewer – thereby ignoring the interviewer altogether.

    No self-respecting studio director would have allowed a politician to get away with this. A simple two-shot would have shown the Prime Minister looking ridiculous as he talked to an empty space – at right angles to the person with whom he was supposedly having a conversation.

    Muldoon was of course unusual in his ability apparently to terrify colleagues and opponents alike. But, how do we fare in 2011, when we have a Prime Minister who is, by virtue of his constant presence in the media, in some ways equally dominant?

    John Key is of course a very different personality from Robert Muldoon. He is by nature a conciliator and seeker of consensus. But – just because he is nicer – that does not mean that he does not in his own way pose an equally serious threat to a full reflection of what should be a serious political debate.

    There are times when it seems that nothing can happen, either internationally or domestically, so far as our media are concerned, unless the Prime Minister is on hand to comment on it or otherwise certify by his presence that it is indeed news. He seems to serve the roles, variously, of national leader, moral guide, social commentator, sports journalist, pub drinking companion, comedian – and even politician. There is scarcely a television news bulletin which does not feature his appearance at some point in one or other of these roles.

    New Zealand is of course a small country with nothing like the range of media enjoyed by a larger country like Britain. When I was a senior British politician, the number of media outlets was so large and their appetite for comment and interviews so voracious, that I would habitually do two or three significant interviews every day – and many more as an election approached.

    We cannot hope to have the depth and coverage of news and analysis they provide. But New Zealand’s political media have compounded the problems arising from their small numbers and limited resources by treating the Prime Minister as virtually their sole determinant of what is news.

    Surprisingly, it may seem, the Prime Minister’s own colleagues may be among those who share that concern. As the Herald pointed out last week, his Cabinet colleagues have difficulty in shining when the Prime Minister is constantly available to take over anything newsworthy from them.

    The consequences for our political system are more extensive than may be thought. It is not just members of the government who suffer from being denied a voice in the media. In a properly functioning democracy, politicians from all sides need to feel that they have a well-tried and reliable way of getting heard.

    If that access is available only occasionally, both sides of the transaction get used to doing without it. Expectations are lowered. Understandings of what might be newsworthy are adversely affected by both media and politicians. Those who find that they are not regarded as worth listening to give up trying.

    My own experience in the year or two before a general election in Britain was that I would be involved almost daily in a press conference – not just commenting on the news but trying to set the agenda and make the news as well. Both media and politicians got used to this. The result was a rich and varied diet of political news and views that helped to promote a healthy political climate.

    With three months to go before our own election, I look in vain for that kind of debate. The deficiency is likely to get worse during the World Cup. It is not good enough to say that opposition politicians are not heard because they have nothing to say. How do we know?

    No one can blame John Key for using his charm and likeability to the best advantage. The concern is whether the media have become so used to it that they are now constrained by it as well.

    No one needs persuading of John Key’s value to his party and government, and it is inevitable and right that he should play a major part. But a strong and effective government needs more than a single foundation stone. The Prime Minister’s dominance, paradoxically, weakens his government and – by constraining the scope of the political debate – diminishes our democracy as well.

    Bryan Gould

    27 August 2011

    This article was published in the NZ Herald on 30 August.

  • John Key is Missing

    Concern is mounting over the whereabouts and welfare of the Prime Minister, John Key. He has not been seen on television or heard on radio for nearly two hours. Worried aides say that they have no idea where he might be. The Diplomatic Protection Squad have enlisted the help of the public who are asked to monitor their television screens and radio stations for any sign of him.

    “This is completely out of character for John Key,” a police spokesperson said. “There is no recorded instance since he became Prime Minister of his absence from the media for as long as two whole hours.”

    The Prime Minister’s office, however, says that there is no need for panic, and no evidence that anything untoward has happened. Their only concern is that Mr Key apparently suffers from a rare medical condition that means that – without the stimulus of a television camera trained upon him – he is prone to falling into a coma. “It is essential that we get him to a television studio as soon as possible,” an aide said.

    One theory as to why the Prime Minister has disappeared is that he had been upset when a camera malfunction meant that an interview he gave as he lifted weights at the World’s Strongest Man competition could not be broadcast. His office said that this was an unfortunate incident. “It’s possible that this triggered the onset of withdrawal symptoms.”

    The last confirmed sighting of the Prime Minister was as he disappeared – concealed as the back end of a pantomime horse – at Trentham racecourse. The horse was eventually recovered but the back end was empty.

    There was a brief glimmer of hope when he was subsequently seen on regional television dressed in a hula skirt but it was rapidly established that this was archive footage, taken from an hourly programme called Getting To Know Your Prime Minister.

    Television news broadcasters said that they were worried but the situation was not yet critical. They conceded, though, that if the Prime Ministerial absence continued into a second day, they would have to re-schedule their programming to take account of much shorter news bulletins. They also hinted that if the Prime Minister remained missing, there was the risk of some job losses among camera crews.

    The organisers of a popcorn popping contest in Auckland today said that if the Prime Minister was not available to judge the best popcorn, they had a stand-by arrangement that meant that Marc Ellis would step in. “We don’t think the children will notice,” one said.

    Organisers of other sports contests, children’s parties and charity events through the day had made no contingency arrangements, however, and feared that they would have to cancel. There was good news for some, though; the Defence Minister confirmed that if the Prime Minister’s whereabouts remained unknown, RNZAF pilots would be given the day off.

    The Deputy Prime Minister has called an emergency Cabinet meeting, so that Ministers can be advised on how to answer questions and make statements about their portfolios. “Ministers will need some special coaching,” he said, “since most will never have had the experience of dealing with these matters themselves.”

    There has been little impact on the stock exchange so far, and inquiries overseas have only just got under way. First indications are, however, that the Prime Minister is unlikely to have gone offshore. A White House spokesperson, asked if he knew anything about the whereabouts of John Key, said “Who?”

    Bryan Gould

    6 May 2011