• The Voters Deserve Honesty

    When Don Brash failed by a hair’s breadth to become Prime Minister in 2005, it could be said that New Zealand dodged a bullet. Despite his undoubted intelligence, Brash would have been a disastrous Prime Minister, polarising opinion and splitting the country in the cause of extreme social and economic policies.

    I was certainly not alone in welcoming the advent of John Key, who struck me as a much more moderate figure who – though no doubt serving the interests of those who put him in power – I hoped would not do too much damage to New Zealand’s great traditions of social justice and equal opportunity.

    John Key himself was quick to understand the potency of an appeal to moderate opinion. He has courted an image as a politician who is difficult to categorise; we saw that facet of his political personality again in his announcement last week of plans to raise educational standards by paying top-performing principals and teachers to spread best practice.

    That initiative is typical John Key; on closer examination, it may well be asked whether this is the best way to spend $359 million and whether there is any established causal connection between incentive pay and improved educational performance, but it sounds good and is unlikely to cause any actual damage, and the Prime Minister was able to tout it as a step towards an egalitarian society.

    This occasional foray into his opponent’s political territory is all of a piece with the pragmatism shown by the Prime Minister in musing about potential allies if he seeks to form a government at the end of the year. It seems that the actual policies don’t matter; it is only the votes that count, provided they add up to enough to keep him in power.

    So, he is happy to contemplate a deal with the Conservative Party, about whom little is known other than the flaky views of its leader. Both Act and United Future remain in the frame, despite the problems both they and their leaders have endured – problems that should surely have disqualified them from any role in government. The Maori Party will again be welcome, notwithstanding the unhappiness of their voters, while the issues of principle that supposedly excluded New Zealand First have miraculously faded away when the parliamentary arithmetic demands it.

    So far, the voters seem not to mind too much that the Prime Minister gives such a convincing performance as a political chameleon, changing colour from one issue to another – indeed, depending on who he is talking to – from one conversation to another. For the moment, they seem ready to forgive him the ducking and diving; but there may come a time when they grow tired of the sharp tactics and demand something more principled.

    But, in any case, the flexibility – not to say slipperiness – apparently demanded by MMP politics conceals a very different truth. John Key’s carefully cultivated image as a pragmatist is a mask for a much more ideologically driven politician. It has suited him very well to pose as open-minded and ready to consider all options, especially by contrast with his predecessor, but in reality he is just as committed to partisan politics as Don Brash.

    Whereas Don Brash, however, ensured that anyone who would listen would know what his views actually were, John Key is much more circumspect. Perhaps he genuinely does not see himself as an ideologue – that he even believes, in the face of all the evidence, that his government really is a defender of an egalitarian society – but there is a growing gap between image and reality.

    It has surely become more and more evident, especially in his second term, that his starting point is always the same simple inquiry – what serves the interests of big business? This may or may not be described as an ideological bias, but it is certainly in practical terms a sure-fire recipe for ensuring that the interests of ordinary people, and of wider society, are always subordinated to those of business – and, for preference, of overseas business and the bigger the better.

    The result? An economy that is increasingly dependent on a single domestic industry (and the income stream even from dairying, too, is now passing into the hands of foreign owners), and on overseas mining and petroleum companies keen to dig up and drill for whatever they can find, leaving us to pick up the pieces when they leave.

    The price we pay is a polarised society in which increasing numbers of poor and dispossessed have to make do with the occasional well-publicised sop to give the impression that the government cares, while the proportion of national income going to profits (which are increasingly repatriated overseas) grows rapidly at the expense of wages.

    The Prime Minister’s apparent pragmatism conceals, in other words, a deliberate policy that has produced a widening and damaging gap between haves and have-nots, as destructive in economic as it is in social terms. He should stop dissembling and put that policy and its outcome clearly before the electorate; at least Don Brash ensured that voters could make a clear and properly informed choice.

    26 January 2014

1 Comment

  1. Bryan Gould says: March 1, 2014 at 8:36 amReply

    What makes you think I deny it? I don’t – although I don’t recall it.

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