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.

Comments (8)

by Claire Browning on March 05, 2010
Claire Browning

Postscript, slightly expanding on the Kiwirail example: the news last night and this morning is about possible closure of the "small provincial" northern Wairarapa and Gisborne lines. But it was the good news investment story we heard first.

by stuart munro on March 05, 2010
stuart munro
  • The unemployment rate rose to 7.3% in the December 2009 quarter - its highest rate in 10 years. The number of people unemployed now stands at 168,000.
  • It is true that Key has better people skills than Clark, but that's just lipstick on the corpse of a decent society.

    by r0b on March 06, 2010

    Claire - I think you're giving the Key government far too much credit.  There's nothing democratic about what is going on in Auckland.  There's nothing democratic about the repeated abuse of urgency and select committee process.  There's nothing democratic in the arrogant and autocratic style of government that rolls out "national standards" without a trial and against all evidence and advice.  There's nothing democratic in breaking election promises and punishing low income earners by raising GST.

    How do you hold in your head the contradiction between this praise of democratic process and your own most recent post on the broken promise of privatisation / mining of national parks?

    by Chris Trotter on March 06, 2010
    Chris Trotter

    Jeez Claire! You and Therese Arseneau should get together and form a duo. You could call yourselves "Polyanna and the Glad Games".

    by Simon on March 06, 2010


    The other day Brian Fallow accurately described John Key's (and National's) "small-c" 'conservatism' as primarily being about conserving their electoral popularity. In other words, Key presents himself as non-ideological, is not firmly committed to any policies and frequently changes position. I am not sure I would see this as a sign that his political management represents a strength of democracy. He is accountable for his Ministers. For examples of poor democartic process, we don't have to look far. Brownlee, as Leader of the House, has misused urgency almost as a matter of course. Nick Smith, is responsible for the rushed shambles of process over the NZ emissions trading scheme, where the Finance and Expenditure Select Committee produced 5 minority reports. And Auckand.





    by Claire Browning on March 08, 2010
    Claire Browning

    Rob … and everyone else. What follows answers all of you, I think.

    You asked how I hold in my head the contradiction between this post, and my previous one. Two responses, one simple, the other less so.

    First, this government, like every government, inevitably does some things well, others badly.

    I’ve written long and often on Pundit about the latter - things it is doing, or not doing, as I wrote above - focusing particularly on climate change response policy (and related policies, eg, ETS, fuel efficiency), environmental policy (eg, dairying), bad faith in their relationship with the Greens … I also remarked on a comments thread about urgency, by the way, before anyone else was discussing it, although it enjoyed a little flurry round the blogs after that. Maybe you need to re-read your Pollyanna, Chris. I do worry about the danger of disappearing up one’s own orifices; and it's hardly Pollyanna-ish to want a little break from the shit from time to time.

    Sad truth is, that the polls show the views of you gentlemen on the left aren't widely held just now. Maybe, the voting public is (a) more stupid than yourselves, (b) not paying attention yet, (c) paying only enough superficial attention to decide that that very "ornery" PM on the telly makes nicer company in the living room than being scowled at and growled at all the time. But fact is, there remains, to date, something about Key’s government that they like, a lot. I don’t find it hard to see what that is, and feel a measure of qualified sympathy with it, and that’s what I wrote about. If you guys can’t deduce from the above post the size of my residual disquiet, you’d be better off spending your time re-examining your own comprehension skills.

    Second, both are highly contestable points of view, but still defensible points of view. On one, I went one way, on the other, the other, because that was what I judged at the time to be closest to the truth - and not inconsistent truths, either.

    BUT, writing both posts, I was and am still grappling with what I think of as “alternative truths” – or, the second side to every story. So, as far as democracy goes, I did have the two examples in mind that two of you have raised: use of urgency, approaching one-third of Parliamentary time, and Auckland local government reform. Nor am I happy, at all, at how they're picking and choosing on the implementation of the “mandate” - doing some stupid things just because they promised (eg, MMP referendum), whilst conveniently selective memory-wise about some other promises; invoking the "public mood" at some times (national parks) more than others, arguably even wilfully misinterpreting the public mood (climate change response). But I stand by what I wrote: there is improvement, in two respects. Better political management lately, than during the term to date of this government, and better listening to voters than in Labour's declining years.

    On "National’s parks", I worried for quite a long time, over how easily the lens could be turned around to make a different story, or even a non-story, particularly (after I had posted) in the light of the further RNZ information. There might end up being negligible change to Schedule 4; irrigation of Crown pastoral land might not happen and, if it was sought for dairying purposes, there are arguably enough other aspects of the Act that would act as obstacles to intensive dairying (eg, stocking, top dressing restrictions, soil disturbance by pugging); DoC withdrawal from tenure review might be at least partly attributable to what I judged to be non-controversial compliance with this strategy document. Nonetheless, I decided it was not only a defensible point of view, but pretty robustly defensible: a risk to which the government should be alive, whether in terms of perception, or possible downstream reality.

    Oh, and by the way, I just do not get this ongoing criticism of the government for wanting to be liked, "conserving electoral popularity", etc. Isn't the whole electoral cycle about persuading voters you deserve to be liked (therefore voted for) more than the other lot; once that truth no longer holds, out of office you go. Democracy, in other words.

    Good to see you’re all still awake, however, even if I did have to poke you with a stick to check.

    by Simon on March 13, 2010

    Claire, sorry I must have dozed off!

    Two things.

    Popularity and democracy may overlap, but I don't see them as equivalent. I prefer to think of popularity as a subset of democracy, and not the other way round. In one word, I can explain why I don't care for 'Popularity' ahead of 'Democracy'. That word is 'Muldoon'

    I had to look up 'elision' in my OED. Is that, like, when, John Key talks about building 'infwashtruckcha'?


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