National pride: great country, okay government

After a year of elision and mishap, John Key's government has hit its stride

I’ve found the missing Key to democracy. It seemed to get lost, for a while there; it’s good to have it back.

In other words, I’ve been thinking about the overall robustness of our democracy. For all its faults, we can and should be very proud. And for all our Prime Minister’s faults, I’m liking his performance better lately.

This was prompted by two things, the first of which is nothing to do with John Key: our open style of government. We’ve had the two Official Information Acts (for central and local government) for nearly 30 years, of course, but no less importantly, what I’ve noticed this week is e-government hitting its stride. There’s a wealth of information online these days, for anyone who bothers to look as I have been: legislation in all its forms, briefings, Cabinet papers, statistics … Not infrequently lately, I’ve been a child beneath the policy Christmas tree, loving the joyous ease of finding X, plus the unexpected bonus of Y and Z as well.

Second, something has happened, up there on the Beehive’s ninth floor. This government’s first year felt like our PM’s enunciation. We bumbled through it, with lots of elision and mishap, and it was a relief to get to the end. It has been a source of real bemusement for me, to hear Key lauded for political management. I decided he was mostly being lauded for being a jovial, likeable guy. I’m a big fan of vanilla myself.

But suddenly, what must have been evident to gallery reporters behind the scenes is publicly on display. We’re seeing actual savvy political management -- and, because the two things are not necessarily at odds, also democracy at work.

Here are three examples, with no other immediately obvious common thread running through them: tax reform, national park mining, and funding for Kiwirail. After the Prime Minister’s 2010 statement to parliament, we saw (and I participated in) some possibly quite wild speculation about tax reforms, including talk of alignment at 30 percent. After a week or two of this, evidently recognising that it risked big disappointment in May, Bill English clarified that alignment would more likely happen at 33 percent. Prodded further by Pundit’s David Beatson (wearing his Triangle Stratos hat), English gave those of us who enjoy seeing the political apple cart upset every now and again another happy moment: if anyone is disadvantaged by this tax package, it seems it might be those infamous “rich pricks”. A little later in the week, John Key outlined to Grey Power the shape of the pensioners’ package.

I can’t wait to hear what comes next.

It’s the kind of tantalising, drip-fed, no-surprises approach that I didn’t think this government was capable of, because such an approach would require them to know where they’re headed. Whether you agree or not with the mooted tax reforms, you do, for once, get at least some vague sense of direction and momentum. I find myself perversely, disproportionately grateful for this, because it is so belated.

National park mining is proceeding similarly. Radio New Zealand National broke a story last Friday about a watered down Cabinet paper. One figure used in their piece was transparently wrong, others are unconfirmed, but the gist of the story was that a proposal to remove 7 percent of the land from Schedule 4 had been revised to 7,000 hectares, which would be less than 1 percent of the 746,000 hectares added to the schedule by the previous government. This had, reportedly, been in response to public polling.

The more interesting question is, where’d that story come from? On Tuesday NZPA obtained some other, rather more equivocal, comments from Key, including that “the Government had done some polling on the idea around June last year”. This would have predated Gerry Brownlee’s “stocktake” announcement -- leaving one to think that, perhaps, this is not quite such a tidy story as RNZ had understood, although it may have been presented to them in a tidy fashion by way of another strategic Beehive release. It is, presumably, helpful to the government for everyone girding their outraged loins to know, or believe, that things could have been a lot worse, and also to convey that this is a responsive government.

I hope I don’t speak too soon, in predicting we are going to see ideologically surprising outcomes, that demonstrate Key does have a better grip on the pulse of this country than we knew -- or if not that, at least a firm grasp of the nature of his mandate.

A third example is this report that the government, as part of its national infrastructure package, is putting hundreds of millions of dollars into Kiwirail over the next few years, and considering further rail investment as part of its long term strategy. All senior Ministers involved (the PM, English and Steven Joyce) remain convinced Michael Cullen made bad purchase decisions on the trains, which is pretty much irrefutable, from a commercial perspective. He paid too much and, anyway, it was not what this government would have done, but they’re making the best of it -- no doubt consoled by the knowledge that it will be popular.

I’m still trying to figure out if all this is just the spoonful of sugar that masks the bitter pill -- in other words, whether I’m being politically had. I worry all the time about what the buggers are up to: what they’re doing, or not doing, as the case may be; what sort of big picture that will end up painting for the country; and whether they’re too short sighted to even see the picture. I’m confident they truly have New Zealand's best interests at heart, but I suspect their idea of “best interests” doesn’t sit well with my own.

I think there’s much truth in commentary about the loose ideological cast of this government, and that it principally likes to be liked -- as personified in its Prime Minister. When Key gets praised for his “political management” skills, I think commentators must just mean the art of compromise. If I might cheekily, with apologies to Mrs Key, use his own marriage as a metaphor, he’s good at making the stuff that he wants to do possible, by also making some time for his wife. Politically, he’s leavening a bit of the ideology with lots of other policies that are centrist.

I do wonder if the art of compromise is all that laudable, when it’s made easy by lack of conviction.

But for all that, what we’re seeing here is democracy. Notwithstanding a certain amount of anxiety, about what results might follow from asking New Zealanders what they think and then doing it, I like it, and I think it’s what we voted for. We called it “nanny state”, but really we were just tired of a certain person’s autocratic leadership style. I do think Key has grasped that, firmly and well.