National's campaign is hiding a front bench full of 1990s-style free marketers behind John Key's well-scripted one-liners

The combination of a National-ACT Government (if elected next week) and the current world financial crisis will result in New Zealand heading back into the sort of free market economic and social reforms seen in the 1980s and 1990s. This is the last thing that most New Zealanders want, which is why National has been working so hard to paint itself as friendly and centrist. But the middle-of-the-road packaging is untruthful. National's election campaign has consisted of:
  • A presidential-style focus on John Key, that serves to keep people's minds off the line-up of 1990s privatisers, deregulators and social service-cutters who would make up much of a National-ACT Cabinet.
  • Not releasing policy, not answering questions and not debating policy except when it suits them; and now, mid-election campaign, releasing "policy" that is little more than publicity stunts and too late for proper scrutiny.
  • An orchestrated campaign to knock Winston Peters and the New Zealand First Party out of the election, thereby (they hope) swinging the MMP balance in National's favour. (Remarkably, there has been almost no discussion about where this campaign came from, why it is happening now and who stands to benefit from it.)
The heart of the National campaign is superficial impression management ('friendly', 'relaxed', 'confident' etc) rather than substance. For example, last week when National MP Maurice Williamson talked for a second time about commuters having to pay up to $50/week on private toll roads under National, the media reports talked of Key's frustration at trying to keep "on message" rather than the reality of National’s plan to impose road tolls. There was even a tone of sympathy for Key's problem of his colleagues going "off message". But what do "on message" and "off message" mean? We are supposed to believe that the "on message" statements and policies are the truth and not just expedient election-winning behaviour. We are supposed to overlook signs of their real intentions (such as the deputy leader and finance spokesperson talking of privatising Kiwibank), because these are "off message", someone's "private view" or merely "a slip". Unfortunately, the real National Party is the one we see in the slips and off-message moments. They are mostly the same people, holding the same beliefs, as when Don Brash was leader (only two years ago, after all). Many of the senior MPs are the same people who did deeply unpopular things to health, the electricity system and other public services in the 1990s. Surprise, surprise that in their unguarded moments they espouse the same hard-line policies that they pushed earlier in their careers. Key, in his short Parliamentary career, pushed similar policies (for example, backing "some form of orientation towards privatisation" in health, education and superannuation, including private investors for "not just roads, but schools and hospitals as well") and attacked Labour Government initiatives until it became expedient to present himself as a moderate. The simple reason for this is that National's leadership doesn't actually have any other ideas. They reluctantly agree to Labour Party policies while wooing voters, but that's not what they believe in. Returning to free-market reforms is the only philosophy most of them have. This is why whenever anyone goes "off message" the 1990s-style National Party shines through. Media reporting of the policy stunts ("life means life"), the scripted words ("I'm ambitious for New Zealand") and the little stirs of the election campaign gives almost no useful information to the public about what sort of government National and ACT would create. But, taking a step back, the picture is clear. The centrist John Key is a fake and the National Party is attempting to trick its way to power.

Comments (18)

by Ian MacKay on October 30, 2008
Ian MacKay

Thanks Nicky. It is hard for we troops to identify just where the problem lies. You said:"But, taking a step back,...." ironically is just the way that John Key tackles tricky questions and avoids answering. I liken it to a 3 point turn in your car. Stop. Back up ("lets take a step back") and then head off in a different direction. A few commentators have picked up on this tactic but seem powerless to pursue an answer. So the real answers are missing in action. Pity we didn't get to meet some of the National Spokesmen or women.

by Aaron Kirk on October 30, 2008
Aaron Kirk

Thanks Nicky, definetly this post resounds a loud chime that's been ringing in my ear since the election date was set. Unfortunately for John Key and National, I ain't bemused by the tactic. Which is essentially what this is about for them. Great post.

by Aaron Kirk on October 30, 2008
Aaron Kirk

I'd like to recall a comment made by Herald columnist John Armstrong in which he says: "he's (John Key) a product of what the Labour Party policy seek to achieve and he seems to be Mr Clean and a really very hard to attack for that reason".

by Christopher Bishop on October 30, 2008
Christopher Bishop

Nicky - your comment that 'Not releasing policy, not answering questions and not debating policy except when it suits them; and now, mid-election campaign, releasing "policy" that is little more than publicity stunts and too late for proper scrutiny" is totally untrue. Check out:

And compare it with: which mostly has a list of things that Labour has done, and policies from the 2005 election.

National has a) far more policies released than Labour and b) they are far better presented, explained, and researched.

by Waikanae Kid on October 30, 2008
Waikanae Kid

In your opening paragraph you make the statement, "This is the last thing that most New Zealanders want." Is this a subjective or objective throw away line? Please provide evidence to support your statement.

by r0b on October 31, 2008

Waikanae Kid - it's an objective claim.  Why do you think National work so hard to deny their agenda?  Why are leaks and slips (like Williamson's) instant news, and instantly squelched by Key?  Why is such talk "off message"?  The answer is - because National's true policies are deeply unpopular, and everyone knows it, especially National themselves.

by Waikanae Kid on October 31, 2008
Waikanae Kid

Rob, like Nicky, you provide no evidence to support,"it's an objective claim." The fact is, it is not. It is subjective.

It is all to common for someone to claim that they are representing the view of the majority of New Zealanders when they are not.

Unfortunately it would appear that you and Nicky are merely reviewing your one sided views rather than taking an "objective" balanced view.

by Mr Magoo on October 31, 2008
Mr Magoo

The (temporary) selling out of National's core values (privatisation, deregulation and user pays) is so obvious it hurts. It is quite obviously hurting Lockwood and Co., because they can't keep their big mouths closed for even a few months.

Now for the small minority that actually agree with those values: good luck to you. Unfortunately it appears that John Key is being used as the sparkly, oily finish to fool the vast majority that do not. His slick sheen hides a party made up of the same old crew. The only reason people don't realise he is the same old crew (money market man that he is) is because nobody in that group had heard of him until just recently.

In fact, the two main reasons I have heard that people are voting National has absolutely nothing to do with National specifically at all:

One is that they will vote for "whoever gives me the most". That is fine, except their definition of "most" is so superficial and greedy it makes me want to tear my eyes out. In other words: tax cuts. Basically you are saying your vote is for sale to the highest bidder and you don't give a toss what else they might do.

The other is that they are "sick of aunty Helen". One of the disadvantages of actually being in power is that you have to deal with the reality of running a country under MMP, unlike John and his "say or swallow whatever it takes" attitude. I gaurantee you (evidence: every other time nation has been in power the last 2 decades) that these people will not be happy by the end of year two.

Maurice, Nick and Lockwood are obviously just seething below this thin vaneer. Anyone paying attention knows what is going to happen when those dead fish start being regurgetated. (employment contracts act, social reponsibility, user pays)

But unfortunately We will have to wait until after National is voted in (again) because of greedy lolly scramblers (again) and they reveal their true agenda. With our 4th week of holiday leave go? Will the public health system be brought to its knees again?

God help us all.


by Viona C on October 31, 2008
Viona C

"The centrist John Key is a fake and the National Party is attempting to trick its way to power."

Winston Peters on Radiolive with Willy Jackson and John Tamihare just now, talking to a caller, likened John Key's centerist muppeteering (my words) to a 'teaser pony', the pony that is brought out to excite the mare before the real mating takes place.

"Remarkably, there has been almost no discussion about where this campaign came from, why it is happening now and who stands to benefit from it."

Nicky, I am frustrated by the lack of discourse as well.  Winston Peters setting the record straight yesterday talked about ex National MP Bob Clarkson selling a $12 million dollar white elephant to Tauranga rate payers, saying

In the same paper that they ran the Owen Glenn story again they gave no more prominence to a story of alarm bells ringing around Tauranga City Council’s controversial deal last year to buy Blue Chip Stadium from Bob Clarkson MP for $12 million.

Financial disclosures on Tuesday show the stadium is losing $1.1million above the amount on which the council based its decision.


by Robert Robertson on November 02, 2008
Robert Robertson

The major issue with this election campaign has been the lack of journalist critique.

When Mary wilson on RNZ interviewed Key a couple of days ago she just let him go on and on he got off the subject and she didn't pull him up about his lack of truthfulness ie as to when he left elders?

He gets a free ride and this concerns me espesially if he is to be our next leader as I don't think he will stand up to true questioning and will probably let us all down in the end!

by goodz on November 04, 2008

Nicky - You may well be right about John Key. I look forward to your article making exactly the same criticism of Helen Clark. After nine years in power what is her agenda? The Labour strategy is similarly presidential and the message ('it's all about trust") carefully crafted. Perhaps a more balanced and general criticism of the political strategies of the main parties would have been more intellectually honest.

by Lindsay on November 07, 2008

Thanks again to Nicky.  Even though you could be painted as having a biased point of view to Helen Clark, I agree that we have not yet seen the true John Key and his troopers.  He is barking on about change but what change would there actually be? His front-benchers will not be young and fresh and I am not sure that I trust Bill English either.  Personally I feel Bill has his own agenda and as the National party has shown us more than a few times over the past decade or so, they are reasonably fond of leadership roll-overs.  I know the polls are pointing to a National-lead government but for that to happen they almost have to get a First Past the Post win.  What is wrong with a minority-led government like we have currently?  At least important and contentious issues are debated vigorously before being passed into law and we, the public, can have some confidence in the fact that these issues are well aired.  If we return to a majority government, then new legislation will be passed without any difficulty at all given party members are expected to tow the party line.  For me, I prefer to stick with the devil I know rather than the devil I don't know.  Helen has proven that she can hold a cobbled-together government together and no matter which party is in power, there will always be a degree of muck-raking and mud-slinging.

by Geoff on November 07, 2008

Good post Mr Hager. John Key is Don Brash with more hair. His agenda is hidden, his true backers are unknown, and his vision for the country is paper-thin. People will vote for him cos he's not Helen Clark , and because he's holding a tax cut in his hand. He may be the ultimate hollow man, but standing at his shoulder are a bunch of unreconstructed Thatcherites ready to pick up where they left off a decade ago. The damage that will be done here if they are successful will take years to rectify, if indeed it can ever be fixed. 

And those who think that National has "abandoned' its core values ..fear not. But for the rest of us ...take Hager's advice, get a memory, think back to the Nineties any area ( transport, energy, health, education, anything..) and get a sneak peak at the future. And cringe at the stupidity and the greed and the callous disregard. Then vote on your concience.   

by brendan kane on November 08, 2008
brendan kane

I was wondering if Nicky had some analysis or response to Christopher Bishop on the 30 Oct referring to Nat and Lab website policy statements. I'm a little frustrated by comments that amount to "I'm uneasy about what they might do"  - a sentiment I share - with memory of some mad stuff that happenend in the 90's. But I'm trying to be a little more rational and I'm yet to be convinced that my unease, which I share with many, is based on current reality and policy, or speculation about what I think might happen based on those memories.

Labours policy statements aren't any more complete than Nationals. But the natural advantage Labour has is that they're a known quantity - and the vagueness of their policy statements, is off set by the fact we can see what they've done and expect more of the same.  With respect to this National has a disadvantage which, combined with those memories of paying for hospital outpatient appointments, is a great breading ground for fear - and of course Labours strategy is to use this and it has worked well. I guess we'll find out soon how well . . . 

Thoughts anybody??

by Adolf Fiinkensein on November 14, 2008
Adolf Fiinkensein

I hope some of the partisan commenters here can now take a look back and in hindsight see how foolish they look.

About the only thing you've got right is that you ain't yet seen the real John Key.  Why don't you ring up Richard Harmon and ask him?  He has and it's not the one you think it is.



by Viona C on November 11, 2011
Viona C

It's almost like time stood still.

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