People won't change how they vote because some spies over-stepped the mark. But the Dotcom-GCSB saga still poses a threat to the government, one it can't afford to ignore

As I've been watching politics over the years I've started building up a few rules that seem to apply regardless of party or circumstance – and with just enough exceptions to prove them. I must start writing them down! But there's one that I've been banging on about for years to anyone who will listen. And if John Key isn't careful it could start coming into play for him.

Watkin's Political Rule #1: That which they love you for in the beginning, they will hate you for by the end.

In other words, your strength becomes your weakness over time. Helen Clark's strong tough-mindedness became nanny state-control freakery. Tony Blair's charisma became smarmy. Bill Clinton's X factor became, well, X-rated.

I've written before that one of the core reasons for National's win in 2008 was that they weren't Labour; New Zealand wanted a change of shoes. Another old rule applies there: In New Zealand parties lose elections, they don't win them.

(Of course there were numerous other factors – Key's skills, the party having jettisoned some of its unpopular baggage etc. But let's not get bogged down).

Politicians are never really three dimensional in the public eye. They are defined by key attributes. Those key attributes are amplified by the spin doctors and to some extent by the media to win favour. Cometh the hour, cometh the attributes (and policies) we prefer that time, and voila, you have a winner.

But humans get bored, especially of two-dimensions. So we grow tired of the things we once admired.

John Key was anything-but Helen Clark. Warm and easy-going. Ordinary enough in his talk and manner, but extraordinary enough to be very, very rich. Relaxed and certainly no control freak or micro manager.

Back in Opposition there was the quote about him 'jumping from cloud to cloud' – a joke, but a telling one. In the early days of government he spoke of trusting his cabinet ministers to get on with their jobs and running the ship of state like a CEO; he'd only get into the details if his people screwed up.

But every coin has a flipside. The the other side of relaxed is loose.

And so we come to this week and the Government Communication Security Bureau spying debacle. The Prime Minister's own department broke the law in spying upon internet billionaire Kim Dotcom. The only public oversight of our intelligence agencies comes from the PM, the Inspector-General (whose office amounts to himself and his P.A.), and a parliamentary committee that according to sources sits little and hears less. Yet Key did not seem to bother to ask especially searching questions. And neither, for that matter, did his deputy when he was handed rare documents to sign off.

Is this a sign of Key's relaxed style starting to unravel? Remember the Tuhoe cannibalism joke? That was his relaxed nature leading him into politically dangerous territory. But a popular first-term PM can ride out such hiccoughs.

Now, not so much. Key's demeanour has seemed more weary for a while; this week he was understandably grumpy. On Close Up on Thursday he was grim. But if the charm fades, the risk is the looseness is what people will see. This is a Prime Minister who's currently refusing to read a police report that shows the story told by one of his ministers is at odds with several others, who have given statements to police.

This only matters so much. I don't think voters change how they vote because some spies trampled on the rights of a new and very rich New Zealander, however much of a folk hero he has become. The real risk for the government comes from Christchurch schools closures, job lay-offs and the like.

Another old rule: People vote from their hip pocket.

But what National needs to be wary of is losing their aura of competence. Therein lies the risk Dotcom offers. That the likeable and oh-so competent Prime Minister shows a grumpier and more bungling side of himself. His relaxedness becomes looseness, and Rule #1 starts to kick in.

Comments (19)

by Fiona on September 29, 2012

New Zealand should have the recall system like they have in America. If we did maybe the epsom voters could then recall banks and revote.

by Andre Terzaghi on September 29, 2012
Andre Terzaghi

There's a big gray area between "letting people get on with it" and "wilful dereliction of duty". Key (and the rest of his team) are starting to look determined to personally explore every bit of it.

by Tim Watkin on September 29, 2012
Tim Watkin

Andre, to be fair there's always going to be grey area when it comes to secret intelligence. A reasonable person could argue it looks like he wasn't asking the right... or enough... questions. But another reasonable person could say he can't ask about what he doesn't know. And you don't know what you don't know. That's why the system needs to be rigorous, balancing the usefuleness of covert intelligence with public accountability.

Fiona, we only have three year terms so a recall system may a bit too ask (and they're messy as hell). But one thing we could import from America are the congressional hearings, or something similar, that allow more oversight of our intelligence agencies. Mightn't that improve the system, protecting us a bit more from mistakes and political pressures? And maybe giving the Inspector General an investigatory staff?

by Shaun on September 29, 2012


After writing "That which they love you for in the beginning, they will hate you for by the end" as Political rule #1, you state "every coin has a flipside".

If this rule were itself a coin, is it therefore fair to say "That which they hate you for in the beginning, they will love you for in the end", and that this flipside is applicable to David Shearer's leadership style since becoming Leader of the Opposition?  

Obviously. both rules cannot apply simultaneously.

It appears to be a matter of context, since Mr Shearer may not live up to expectations based on traditional conduct, yet is developing his own style (based on his own background) which critics have yet to see the value of?

by jack on September 29, 2012

I can remember when a couple of news investigative reporters brought down a President of the United States.  That's when the msm was not involved making history.  Mr Watkins, your excuses are shallow.  The hard questions are never asked and hence, they don't have to be answered and again Key will get away with another lying scheme.  Do I have to prove that  Key is lying.  The msm shold be doing that for me to keep your government clean.  There is none of that.. For what I just read in your article are excuses.  Key was lying.. there is no way he can be a victim here and as far as English not telling him, Key should fire him but insead everything goes on as usual.  Key should resign as a minister of secret services and as Prime Minister.  Russel Norman has a good question, why is it an inquiry should be instigated by Key about the tapes when now none will be about spying on  The inconsistencies are blaring, mate.  Perhaps Key should just go back to the states and live planet Key there.

by Tim Watkin on October 01, 2012
Tim Watkin

Shaun, I'm not sure what you're on about. Which rules can't both apply? Yes, some politicians can be disliked at first and grow into a role. I never said otherwise; to some extent all politicians grow in the public's mind as we see more of them. But most political careers end in defeat – the thing about that job is that few are loved in the end!

Shearer? Who knows. He's struggling, no doubt, but I've never written him off. He may yet grow. His party may yet decide on some policies so that he has something to talk about, which would be one simple way to help him stop looking so indecisive. He may simply be lucky with his timing and lack of alternatives.

by Tim Watkin on October 01, 2012
Tim Watkin

Jack, assuming you're talking about the Watergate story, that was newspaper journalism at its best, no doubt. It had hundreds of staff, resources, young reporters with a brain and little to lose, a brave editor, a bold publisher, a great source and a fair amount of luck. But beyond that you're not making much sense to me.

Which hard questions aren't being asked? Give me a few examples. I can give you a couple that haven't been answered – one that I really want to know is when the GCSB first realised it had broken the law. Did they realise shortly after the raid in January? When Wormald was in court? Or only just before they briefed Key on September 17? There are others. But just because that question hasn't been answered yet doesn't mean it hasn't been asked or it won't be answered.

But your biggest problem is that without proof you're assuming the PM is lying. Ask the questions and be as skeptical as you like, but keep an open mind. Should everyone resign on suspicion? Or just the people you don't like?

And as for the ranty bit – this is some political analysis online, not an investigation and not even MSM (whatever you think that means). And you're tangled about Norman – Key can't instigate a police investigation, which is what he asked police to do around the tapes and which Norman is seeking now by laying a complaint. The inquiry call is something different.

by Richard Aston on October 01, 2012
Richard Aston

Its all good . The darker side of Smiley John is now showing. The deficit in real policy is revealed. The desperate attempts to find yet another an enemy to distract us all are becoming obvious.

But will the average voter register this ? My hope is they will but hell they voted for Peters and Banks and many still cling onto the hope that the National Party is the one true party of prosperity, abundance and freedom. No major backlash in the polls yet. 

Key and company are not the problem in my view, its the mindless non thinking voters who put them there.


by Tim Watkin on October 01, 2012
Tim Watkin

Such faith on democracy, Richard! The vox populi and all that...

by Shaun on October 01, 2012

To clarify:  if your political rule #1 has a flipside, whether it can be applied to David Shearer's leadership style.  What both parties seek is to display is the aura of confidence you mention in your last paragraph, because this attracts votes.

He is criticised for his performance (eg., in the media),  yet his background informs his political conduct in such a way that in the lead-up to the 2014 election, he could break the mould of traditional 'confrontational' politics that his critics expect of him.  .

(ie., what has been 'hated' about him, may yet come to be respected).  If your rule #1 applies to John Key, and what Richard writes (that the darker side of John Key is now showing) is true, then New Zealanders will need a viable alternative.

I agree there are rules that apply 'regardless of party or circumstance'.  Is it possible for these rules to have a flipside also, without being contradictory?

by Cushla McKinney on October 01, 2012
Cushla McKinney

With respect to hard questions, it is very obvious now that most ministers avoid National Radio, especially Morning Report, presumably because they don't want to face anything difficult   (although to be fair Key *did* front on the DotCom issue the other day, if only to say "told you there was nothing to investigate").  What a pity most listeners are presumably Left intellectuals and so not the Govt targwt audience anyway...


by Tim Watkin on October 01, 2012
Tim Watkin

Shaun, absolutely possible. Interesting you're contrasting Key with Shearer on this point, because in many ways they're similar. Key was meant to have broken the confrontational mode of politics by being so non-ideological and relaxed.

When Shearer was elected, some spoke positively about him being Labour's John Key. I've always thought that if that's true, Labour's in trouble. There another rule in there, not quite precisely defined, about these things coming in cycles. If parties lose elections, it's in part because people go off the PM and want someone quite different. For Labour to beat National, it will need a leader distinct from Key, not like him.

In other words, Labour needs to be anticipating where the political market is going and what it will demand next, not what it's demanding now. Can Shearer be that next new thing? Don't know yet.

by Tim Watkin on October 01, 2012
Tim Watkin

Cushla, that might be true if Morning Report used hard questions, but at the moment it's as soft as I can ever remember it being. Key does front pretty regularly across most media, to be fair. In times like these when he's in the gun personally he limits his appearances – which from an accountability point of view ain't good. But most of the time National would rather he fronted just about every issue because he's so much more popular and composed than most of his ministers.

As for hard questions, well, given I produce a programme that frequently gets criticised for being too hard, I think he and most ministers get a stern time on Q+A at least. I mean, I would say that. But I don't think it's fair to say that no-one asks him hard questions or that he seldom fronts to answer them.

by stuart munro on October 01, 2012
stuart munro

It's certainly a reasonable generator of discussion, but any rule plus its opposite is going to be long on explanatory power but short on falsifiability: a + ~a = the universe.

I'm with you Jack. Key has shown no competence, no loyalty to NZ or NZ interests, and nothing to suggest that he is being, or has ever been candid. The msm in New Zealand are pretty toothless. Gordon Campbell attributes this to horse-race journalism, in which journalists depend on relationships to pickup crumbs of information from 'insiders'. Key wants a pass from the msm, and lo and behold he has one. Compare his spying to the treatment of the journalist who taped the cup of tea - legal threats, investigations, police visiting all and sundry.

No justice in this country - and not much journalism either.

by Judy on October 02, 2012

Speaking of Q and A, just when I thought it was becoming quite gutsy with Greg Boyd bringing an air of objectivity and intelligence to the questioning, you bring back Paul Holmes.  Very bad form, sir. 

Now it will be back to immature one-liners and bias in favour of National. I can't wait for Key, Holmes, et cetera to go off into the sunset clutching their tarnished Sir titles, hopefully somewhere off shore; better still another planet...



by Eric Dutton on October 02, 2012
Eric Dutton

Who was it (and when) who first commented "John Key - great antennae, no compass"

by Tim Watkin on October 02, 2012
Tim Watkin

Eric, it was someone he used to work with in his trader days, from memory.

by jack on October 04, 2012

Tim, maybe I am too harsh on the main news media(msm) and the hard questions might have been asked. Did Key know about the servailances?? He says no not before Sept 17.   And that's it. Everyone should believe Key.   If the present msm were back in 73, Nixon would finished out his second term.   Another example would be South Canterbury Finance.. why were they allowed to renew their guarantee scheme when Treasury was alerting Key on a daily basis what their financial status was.  Key gave the ok to renew it.  There was not one question asked as far as I know on main media about this.   Just call me paranoid, but it is a healthy paranoia. I voted for Key in 2008 but it is because of Key I didn't vote for National in 2011.  I do have an open mind.

by stuart munro on October 04, 2012
stuart munro

Well it's out now. Key was informed repeatedly beforehand. He has misled parliament - he should be gone.

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