Russel Norman dared to (gasp!) compare John Key's approach to politics with that of Robert Muldoon! Have you ever heard anything so outrageous (since the exact same comparison was made in relation to Helen Clark)? 

Russel Norman's speech to the Green Party's AGM in the weekend caused a bit of a splash - not so much for what he said, but how he said it.

[Full disclosure - in his speech, Norman makes reference to my criticisms of both the Government's decision to include an ouster clause in the legislation permitting payments to family carers of disabled people and its failure to pursue the Electoral Commission's recommended changes to MMP. Three points here:

  1. I didn't know he was going to do this and had no communication with him or anyone else in the Greens about it;
  2. The critiques he quoted were made publicly (via this very blogsite);
  3. He also quotes Prof Philip Joseph from Canterbury Law School regarding the decision to remove the elected members of ECAN. 

So if after reading the above you still wish to accuse me (and, I'm assuming, Philip Joseph - which would be funny!) of being shills for the Greens, then that is your prerogative.]

I can understand why Norman's language and tone got the attention that it did. It is a bit like if Steve Nash decided to start throwing elbows in the middle of a game, or Gary Lineker did this. We are, after all, accustomed to seeing the Greens as being the nice guys 'n gals who "play the ball, not the man" irrespective of how they themselves are treated. So when they start acting against expectations, then of course people are going to comment on it.

But I also can understand why Norman chose to come out swinging. Danyl over at the Dim-Post has what seems to me to be a pretty sensible interpretation of the motives behind the decision: 

Part of Norman’s speech is just standard opposition stuff. Lots of people on the left think that National has taken a rather sinister and anti-democratic turn, and opposition leaders are supposed to articulate these sorts of concerns and present them to the wider public. That’s the job.

The other element is the personal attack on Key. I think there’s some real-politik here. Key’s been attacking the Greens very vigorously: his research probably tells him that voters in the center are apprehensive about them. And if a party just lies back and takes that kind of abuse without responding it makes them look weak in the eyes of the voters. People don’t vote for weak.

When the leaders of two parties who aren’t trying to attract one another’s voters attack each other in public like this it often works out well for both of them. In this case Key gets to scare voters in the center off defecting to Labour while the Greens try to peel away left-wing Labour voters who are dissatisfied with the current leadership ... .

However, being pretty sensible about politics isn't very much fun. And so a lot of commentators, both on the blogs and in the "real" media, took the more dramatic route of being shocked - shocked - at Norman's equating the behaviour of John Key's Government to that of Robert Muldoon. Here's the relevant section of Norman's speech:

But we have seen this all before, this is what a traditional National Party government does. Robert Muldoon would recognise this Government as one after his own heart, but with better spin doctors and a smilier disposition.

John Key came to office with a message of unity and inclusiveness. He worked with the Māori Party, he worked with the Greens. But John Key has now become a divisive and corrosive figure in New Zealand politics, hostile to rational debate, intolerant of opposition, irritated if we are not all grateful for him generously agreeing to be PM. He may not look like Muldoon but he sure as hell is acting like Muldoon.

So next time you see John Key smiling, remember he's not smiling because he likes you, he's smiling because he's giving favours to his mates while undermining your democracy.

It's a pretty trenchant critique. And as with any comparison, it's open to disagreement - nothing is exactly "like" something else, and so you can either say they are "the same" by focusing on those aspects they share, or "different" by pointing to those that they don't. So, yes, Key loosed the Police on the media over the "Tea Pot Tapes", his Government did all the bad things that Norman listed in his speech, and Key himself has repeatedly dismissed those who criticise his Government's record in personally demeaning ways. But, by the same token, Key by all accounts is a nice guy to work for and be around, his Government has done a good job on Maori-Pakeha relations, and he resisted turning the same-sex marriage debate into a wedge issue (imagine what Muldoon would have done with that particular topic!)

For my own part, I think making the comparison in the terms Norman did was ill-judged and I would not do it myself. But then again, there are others (such as Bryan Gould back in 2011, albeit for reasons different to Norman) who see some validity in linking the two figures. So it is what it is.

What I do find somewhat amusing, however, are the howls of outrage that have greated Norman's equating Key's name with Muldoon's. So, The Press opines:

The memory of the toxic nature of much of what happened under Muldoon is still strong to those who lived through it, and to many who heard of it later. And they know perfectly well that nothing done by the present Government can remotely be compared.

The Dom-Post states that "to suggest Mr Key's personal style is akin to that of Sir Robert is to do nothing but betray ignorance." John Armstrong says the comparison "verges on the ludicrous. Sir Robert Muldoon was without question our most belligerent, abrasive, polarising, dictatorial and vindictive politician." And that's without getting into the blogosphere's churning waters (see here, or here).

Well ... really? Highlighting the current PM's more authoritarian aspects and equating them to this particular bogey-figure from our past is "ignorant", "ludicrous" or similarly beyond the pale? Well, why weren't we told so sooner?

I mean, when Mike Moore wrote one of his rambling op-eds saying "I'm expecting a cartoon of Helen Clark to appear, morphing into an angry Robert Muldoon", there wasn't exactly a tidal wave of criticism of him for the analogy. Instead, we got a chin-stroking editorial in the Herald on Sunday saying "the man has a point". With David Farrar citing "a number of commentators" who "have suggested that the tactics and style of government practised by Helen Clark has started to resemble Muldoonism at its worse", before concluding that "the mud smearing of the last week [by Labour] was too much for [Moore] to stomach, having endured it himself from Muldoon."

Which actually is pretty mild stuff from DPF, in terms of comparing Clark to Muldoon. Here he is listing all the constitutional outrages she is responsible for (sound familiar?), declaring that these have turned him in favour of a written constitution, and stating: "If we ever manage to get such a supreme law, it should be dedicated to Helen Clark and Robert Muldoon. They have proved why it is necessary." While here he quotes "some good insights" from Colin Espiner, before opining  "As Colin says, one can’t even recall Muldoon at his worst attacking law enforcement like Clark has." (Actually, Espiner didn't mention Muldoon's name - DPF went there all by himself.)

Nor was DPF alone in channeling the "the PM I don't like is just like Muldoon (only worse)" meme. Here he preserves for posterity a Matthew Hooten post which claims "Constitutionally, [Clark] is far worse than Muldoon, who people like Chris [Trotter] would eagerly have called a fascist in the early 1980s." (To DPF's credit, he calls Hooten out on the fascist analogy ... but not the Muldoon one.)

And that's all without dredging up the long history of "Helengrad", complete with its linkages to Stalin and insinuations of dictatorial control. Remember how even Jenny Shipley, while still leader of the National Party, felt quite comfortable in deploying this term in relation to Helen Clark? Without, I note, any particular blow-back from the media for the term's connotations.

So by all means accuse Norman of getting it factually wrong. Accuse him of hyperbole and over-kill. But to imply he's crossed some sort of line of good taste in comparing Key to Muldoon; and, especially, to suggest he's done so because he's from Australia and so "doesn't get what Muldoon was like"?

Oh, please. Spare me the hysterics! 

Comments (14)

by Simon Connell on June 06, 2013
Simon Connell

As the reign of a NZ PM grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Muldoon approaches 1?

by Jane Beezle on June 06, 2013
Jane Beezle

I would be interested in your analysis, Andrew, of today's decision by the Speaker about the status of Peter Dunne in Parliament.  The intersection of the Standing Orders and the Electoral Act - a constitutional issue worth discussing, perhaps?

by william blake on June 06, 2013
william blake

New Zealand's own Godwin's Law.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Godwin's_law

by Andrew Geddis on June 06, 2013
Andrew Geddis

@william,

I think that was the gist of Simon's first comment.

@Jane,

Sigh. I spend all day battling a crashing computer to produce this, and you say you want something else? You're like my 4-year-old daughter at dinner time!

by Jane Beezle on June 06, 2013
Jane Beezle

Well, it sounds like you can leave that opinion to the Auditor General in any event.

I'm also interested in your comment that "For my own part, I think making the comparison in the terms Norman did was ill-judged and I would not do it myself".

Has Grant Robertson finally got to you?   Andrew Geddis for the next Attorney General ...

by Andrew Geddis on June 06, 2013
Andrew Geddis

Andrew Geddis for the next Attorney General ...

Ha! Not sure David Parker would appreciate that. But anyway, I'm with Sherman: "If drafted, I will not run; if nominated, I will not accept; if elected, I will not serve."

by Phil Lyth on June 06, 2013
Phil Lyth

Ha! Not sure David Parker would appreciate that. But anyway, I'm with Sherman: "If drafted, I will not run; if nominated, I will not accept; if elected, I will not serve."


Don't need to do the full Sherman. If you don't sign the relevant Electoral Commission form, that is enough that you cannot be appointed as A-G. Don't sign the bit of paper!

by william blake on June 06, 2013
william blake

@Andrew, as my Grandfather used to say " wheres my pants".

by Phil Lyth on June 06, 2013
Phil Lyth

I would be interested in your analysis, Andrew, of today's decision by the Speaker about the status of Peter Dunne in Parliament.  The intersection of the Standing Orders and the Electoral Act - a constitutional issue worth discussing, perhaps?


I too would be interested in Andrew's take.  My personal reading [view not my employer's, nor of the person I work for, etc]  is that people are reading far more into SO 34 & 35 than is actually there.  Not much of an intersection of SO & Electoral Act.  I've re-read the relevant portion of the 2011 report of the Standing Orders Committee.

Im my experience,  pollies are not great at systems design. They write Standing Orders and other rules and stuff to meet the immediate need, but are not great at looking at the overall result  -  whether all bases are covered.

I'd have to agree with Speaker Carter that the current situation is without precedent,

by Raymond A Francis on June 06, 2013
Raymond A Francis

You would have my vote Andrew!

 

by Phil Lyth on June 06, 2013
Phil Lyth

For completeness,  Speaker Carter seemed today to be invoking Standing Order 2, and that seemed to be justified.

by Rab McDowell on June 06, 2013
Rab McDowell

Oh, but he did cross a line.

It was the line between making an attack credible and cutting and making it incredible and ineffectual. Making a personal attack on Key by saying he was like Muldoon is laughable to anyone who new the different personalities and makes Norman look almost as bad as David Shearer.

Now if Norman had called Key Mr Smile and Wave and that he was continuing to smile and wave while the economy, or some other political isse, tanked then that would have worked because that is identifying a personal trait that people recognise and may come to despise..

by Andrew Geddis on June 07, 2013
Andrew Geddis

@Raymond,

That is perhaps the most terrifying thing anyone has ever said to me.

@Phil,

Im my experience,  pollies are not great at systems design. They write Standing Orders and other rules and stuff to meet the immediate need, but are not great at looking at the overall result  -  whether all bases are covered.

Yes. And it is (by definition) an "unprecedented situation". So I think Carter has punted for touch, hoping that when the facts on the ground change the problem will go away. But you've now got my and Edge's views on the issue.

by MJ on June 10, 2013
MJ

And all this before the Herald on Sunday columns...

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