Oh my ... I do declare all this nastiness is giving me a case of the vapours!

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!