So here’s his full, fascinating column. I don’t actually agree with him that it is as significant or maybe inevitable as he writes, but who knows. And remember if you want to read Trotter every week, you can do so by subscribing to the Independent Financial Review (free plug in exchange for copyright breach 🙂
Key seizes the moment, and the country?
The Independent Financial Review – 25 APR 2007 : Page 015
In one inspired moment last week, John Key may have cemented his claim as prime-minister-in-waiting.
YOU CAN almost feel the country’s political metabolism changing. The excitable passions of the late 1990s have subsided, along with all that post-Orewa racial tension.
In fact, putting the angst over Section 59 [of the Crimes Act, 1961] to one side, the past six months have been a period of ideological relaxation. There’s a subtle shift in public perceptions of the Opposition, and a cautious reassessment of its motives. Faster than many observers believed possible, the electorate is reconciling itself to the prospect of a John Key- led National Government. The final consummation of this new relationship has yet to be enacted. But it isn’t far away.
And no one should take more credit for bringing about this alteration of political affections than Key himself. From the moment he assumed the mantle of Opposition Leader, Key has worked tirelessly to refashion the electorate’s opinion of National. And he’s succeeding.
Under Brash, the party had come across as elderly, awkward and opaque: a bunch of rich old men in expensive suits, flashing the sort of smug “we know something you don’t know” grins calculated to convince the “punters out in Punterland” (as Brash insisted on calling New Zealand’s enfranchised citizenry) that they were somehow being conned.
Key has ditched the suits and ties in favour of T-shirts and jeans, instantly signalling “young,” “casual,” “relaxed” and “approachable.” And if he hasn’t quite managed to rid himself of the Tory smirk, an impressive percentage of the electorate has allowed itself to be seduced by the Key smile. For the first time in years the women’s vote is favouring National.
Every move Key makes bears testimony to a clear strategic vision, coupled with a singular flair for tactical improvisation and boldness. From the spontaneous volleyball match at Ratana, to the walkabout through McGeehan Close, to Aroha’s big day out at Waitangi, Key has gone out of his way to demonstrate to Maori and Pacifica New Zealanders, especially those living in the vast state-housing estates of the main cities, that he’s a very different sort of “Nat.”
The strategic objective is not only to show the voters a Kiwi who is comfortable in his own, and blind to the colour of his compatriots’, skin, but that over and above being a “good guy,” he’s someone who knows what its like to be on the outside looking in.
Pivotal to Key’s political persona is his upbringing by a solo mum in a state house. This constitutes the “central myth” of his political identity; the “founding legend” from which all the other stories spin off. Crucially, it reassures the poor and disadvantaged that the key elements of the welfare system are safe; that the state assistance required to give everyone a “fair shot” at success (subsidised housing, free health and education, family support) will not be threatened by a Key administration.
This solid political commitment, frees Key to preach the gospel of aspiration, self-reliance and responsibility. In this he is immeasurably assisted by his own life-story. His “rags-to-riches” career is living proof that growing up in a state house is no impediment to educational attainment, financial success or high social status.
As he never tires of telling his audiences seeing all the good things the other kids had when he was growing up didn’t make him envious, it made him ambitious. And if a driving ambition to succeed worked for him, why shouldn’t it work for New Zealand as a whole?
All of which suggests that a major ideological re-orientation is under way in the National Party. Key’s pitch to the electorate eschews the hard-edged neo-liberalism of Brash and his Business Roundtable backers, in favour of the benign, consensus- based politics of Sir Keith Holyoake (with just a hint of Bill English’s Christian social-conservatism thrown in for good measure). Rather than follow American and Australian neo- liberalism into the altogether darker and more dangerous territory of neo- conservatism and Christian fundamentalism, Key and English seem determined to follow the much more voter-friendly course of the British Conservative Party leader, David Cameron.
Keys speech to the Salvation Army’s “JustAction” conference on April 17 illustrated just how ambitious this re-branding exercise has become:
“There are those whose life stories would read very much like Louise Nicholas’s but who will never have their day in court and whose experiences were not confined to the provinces, or to the 1980s, and the perpetrators were not policemen. There remains a dark side to the experiences of too many New Zealand women and children at the hands of too many New Zealand men.”
This sort of language must send shivers up and down the Labour Party’s spine. A National Party leader who, even rhetorically, is willing to reach across the ideological divide and engage with the social justice aspirations of the educated middle class, is even more dangerous to the centre-left than a National Party leader who is happy to reassure state-house tenants that they have nothing to fear from a centre-right government.
But, when Key turned his attention to Section 59 of the Crimes Act, even more terrifying words lay in store for the Labour-Progressive- Green political condominium that has dominated New Zealand politics for the past eight years.
In a dramatic bid to define a broad parliamentary consensus on Sue Bradford’s Private Member’s Bill, Key argued all parties to the debate were agreed on its three central issues:
* To prevent violence against children being protected by the defence of reasonable force;
* Not to criminalise good parents who occasionally give their children a light smack;
* To lower the threshold for acceptable physical discipline.
“So today,” Key told his Sally Army audience, “I say to Helen Clark and Sue Bradford, if you are genuine in your intentions, then let’s get around the table and come up with a set of words we all agree on. Let’s replace the existing Section 59 of the Crimes Act with something that will meet the three objectives we all claim to share.”
Nothing Key has said or done in recent months comes as close to re- defining National in the eyes of the moderate centre of New Zealand politics as those crucial sentences. Through them, he has identified himself as a politician whose aim is to bring reasonable people of goodwill together, in the name of a less violent New Zealand. Not only that, they have cast him as a leader who is no longer willing to march in lock-step with the Helen-haters of the far right and Christian right. In short, Key’s address was the bold and inclusive gesture of a prime-minister-in- waiting.
Now all he had to do was make sure his statesmanlike offer didn’t degenerate into just another partisan manoeuvre. Somehow Key had to reassure the die-hards in his own camp there was more to be gained by diplomacy on this issue, than all out war.
Key knows that Labour is desperate to paint him in the colours of right-wing extremism. How else can it repeat the fear-driven, vote- pumping exercise which won the last election? He also knows that if he allows himself to be driven down the Muldoonist path of pandering to Labour’s blue-collar vote, he’ll end up captive to exactly the same sort of economic distortions. It’s the moderate middle-ground that he needs, and coming out for compromise and consensus is the only way to win it.
But, it was a near-run thing for Key. Backwards and forwards the press-releases flew. The Greens and Labour were happy to talk, but National was imposing unacceptable pre- conditions. Key, no doubt under pressure from his hard-liners, attempted to wring concessions out of Bradford and David Benson-Pope. For a moment, it looked as though the whole initiative might founder.
But Key kept his nerve: he knew that as far as the public was concerned, National had made the gesture, and if the Greens and Labour turned it down they would be the villains. By last Thursday, the skirmishing was over; a face-to-face discussion between Key and Bradford was scheduled for Anzac Day.
A more compelling demonstration of Key’s coolness under fire is difficult to imagine. Those years on the trading floor, where he honed his ability to identify an opening, make an investment and back his own judgment, are now paying significant political dividends.
Such moments are rare in politics. David Lange had one in 1984, when he reached out to Sir Robert Muldoon in the televised leaders’ debate. Clark had another in 1998, when she stood on the steps of Parliament and told the Hikoi of Hope that “enough” was, indeed, “enough.”
In 18 months, we may look back and see, in Key’s inspired offer to “get around the table” on Section 59, the moment when a National Party- led government in 2008 became inevitable.