Former UK Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson once famously observed ‘that a week was a long time in politics’ and John Key must be painfully aware of that observation at the current time. It has been a week in which Key has effectively gone from ‘hero to zero’ as a consequence of him having a simple ‘cuppa’ with ACT’s Epson Candidate, John Banks. A ‘cuppa’ which, although being held in full media glare in a cafe in Epson, had an unwanted addition, as on the same table, unnoticed by either Mr Key or Banks, sat an inconspicuous little black bag containing a switched on recorder, which was quietly recording their private conversation.
Over the past week, the revelation of what might be on that recording has seen the Prime Minister deny any wrong doing in relation to comments which he made in the course of the ‘cuppa’. He has questioned the integrity of the journalist whose bag it was and then accused the New Zealand media of acting like the ‘News of the World’ and UK tabloid journalism in securing the recording. He contacted and laid a complaint with the police about the recording, he has walked out of press conferences, and he has made bizarre comparisons of the recorded conversation with suicide. The entire thing would be completely laughable, if it did not have the potential to seriously undermine Key and National’s campaign and effectively kill ACT in the process.
Key walking out of a press conference and avoiding comments about the matter provoked Labour leader Phil Goff to comment that he could not have imagined any other Prime Minister back to Muldoon, acting in such a manner. I would have to concur. Certainly, one could not imagine Sir Robert Muldoon acting like John Key. Muldoon would not have dodged any media ‘bullets’ and he certainly would not have run from a press conference. Instead, one could imagine Muldoon meeting with John Banks in an office (probably his office in the Beehive, as cafe’s were never his ‘thing’), bluntly laying down the terms for any political concessions and then, later, equally bluntly facing down any journalist who dared question him about the situation.
But, Key is not Muldoon. Muldoon was a person of many attributes. He was a polarising and aggressive figure. However, Muldoon could also be bluntly honest. Key is completely different and that perception of honesty is one of the key (no pun intended) factors in this matter. After all, what can be said about a man who opinion polls are now saying that a significant proportion of New Zealanders like, but don’t really trust.
However, what is really different about Key to me is that he has always appeared as a media creation. As a result, one of the principle interests of the ‘cuppa’ saga has been it effectively taking the ‘shine’ off the Key persona.
In the past a number of political commentators, including myself, have tended to compare Key to National’s last long serving Prime Minister, Sir Keith Jacka Holyoake. ‘Kiwi Keith’ was perceived as having the ability to rise above political disputes. Moderation and consensus were the key terms of Holyoake’s administrations in the 1960s. Key has tried to project himself in that mould.
However, the real comparison to Key is not Keith Holyoake. It is, rather, former UK Labour Prime Minister, Tony Blair. Key, like Blair, is supposedly media savvy – as are his ‘minders.’ Key, like Blair, carefully cultivated the media to bring across a particular image. Like Blair, that image was of Key being an approachable, amiable, likable everyman who had a ‘realistic’ programme, which was divorced from the ‘old’ ideologies which dominated New Zealand politics. Simply, Key wanted to appeal to mostly everyone. He wanted to be liked. He wanted to be ‘cool’.
Yet, despite his attempts to appear, like Holyoake as a progressive conservative; as a mediator and a moderator, as a ‘cool’ person, Key’s Government has undertaken a number of extremely right wing and ideologically motivated decisions – welfare reforms, tax cuts, and changes to employment law amongst the number. In addition, Key and National have also suggested a number of future policy changes should he and they be re-elected, such as asset sales. That is because, Key, like Blair, is actually very ideologically loaded and like Blair, Key has attempted to downplay and minimise these policy changes, by suggesting that they are necessary and ‘sensible’ reforms – when in fact, they are not. However, Key, like Blair, has been (largely) successful in this course of action as he has been aided and abetted by a compliant media.
The ‘cuppa’ fiasco is trivial and in any functioning, politically aware democracy it would not be worth comment except for a few lines in the paper or a few seconds on the news. But, in New Zealand’s ‘New Idea’ focused, politically unaware democracy it has become central to political debate. Yet, this is not just a failure or comment on the status of New Zealand politically unaware news media this is also a failure of Key and his media minders. Not just because, Key has massively stuffed up the situation, but, because I believe that initially it suited Key and National to have the issue centre stage as it effectively deadened debate and discussion during the latter half of the campaign. Key and his minders actually thought that they could initially ‘spin’ it. But, they were wrong and the problem, thanks largely to Key, is that this issue has now taken on a life of its own.
One of the factors that combined to bring down Blair was the media turning against him. In the end all Blair’s years of skilful and careful media manipulation were for nought. Blair, like the Emperor in the famous Hans Christian Andersen tale, was revealed to have no clothes. With the police now threatening to raid key media outlets such as TVNZ and Radio New Zealand for copies of the recording, Key has effectively isolated himself from them and the media at large. Unfortunately, for Key it has also meant that this entire issue will continue to play out for a considerable time to come – right up, possibly, to Election Day next week.
As Wilson went on to observe…” and, a fortnight in politics is an eternity.”
Why a ‘Cuppa’ with ACT is problematic for National
Guyon Espiner has written an interesting opinion piece about the dangers of National sitting down for a quiet ‘cuppa’ with ACT. Espiner feels that such a sit down and chat over a cuppa could place National in some difficulty and actually hurt its chances at the polls. He comments that the vast majority of voters simply don’t like or trust ACT mostly as a result of the various actions of its MPs over the past parliamentary term. However, I think that National is caught between the ‘Devil and the Deep Blue Sea’ on this issue.
It appears to me that National has two options. Firstly, to go for a majority government which would mean that it needs to get over 50% of the popular vote. Although the polls are suggesting that it might achieve this, it needs to be remembered that this has only happened, as far as I am aware, three times previously (1938, 1946 and 1951). While, polls can provide good snap shots, the final poll that counts is on the day itself. In 1996, National just managed to hold onto Government despite polling well throughout the year. In 2002, Labour, despite good poll results previously, only gained 41% on election night and was forced to put together an unlikely coalition comprising Peter Dunne’s United Future Party and Jim Anderton’s Progressive Coalition.
This leads to option two, which is to ensure that there is a suitable coalition partner in the event that National does get under 50% of the popular vote. If past election results are any indicator, it appears more likely that while National will emerge with the highest percentage of votes and as the largest party in the House. But, it may lack ‘suitable’ coalition partners, especially, those parties prepared to back its economic programme – even the Maori Party is not open to the idea of asset sales and the economic and social restructuring that is being suggested by National. Therefore, the only party that National can count on in terms of being open to its ideological agenda is ACT.
To sit down with Brash over a cup of tea (The Devil) may lead to the outcomes that Espiner is suggesting – as he notes, 99% of people don’t like ACT and the spinoff of such a deal could be bad for National along the lines of voter cynicism toward National and a corresponding decline in its vote. Plus, there remains no guarantee that National voters in Epson will vote for Banks, given the enmity toward ACT in the electorate. Even if Key endorsed Banks, Goldsmith could still win.
However, not to endorse Banks and ACT could lead to National being forced, in the event that it does not get 51%, having to put together a coalition (or being a minority) Government in which its key economic and social planks are scuttled (The Deep Blue Sea).
National has painted itself into a corner – it needs to get 51% or it needs ACT in parliament.