Democracy at risk.
John Roughan from the Herald has added to his biography of John Key providing an account of why he resigned, but it doesn’t gel, perhaps for the reason it doesn’t attend to a decidedly alternative reason (being widely repeated) about the reason for his resignation.
But putting that aside, Roughan needed to go beyond the resignation, to ideas about Key, a Key minus power. How did this decidedly ordinary individual gain such a hold on us? How a Key minus power is significantly underwhelming?
No-one can sensibly argue against Key’s ability to garner votes. He communicated a particular brand of populism, one based on an easy personal charm and a crafty way of neglecting and scapegoating the poor and those in public education.
If you will excuse the pun, I call it right-wing populism in a minor Key. Targets to exploit and scapegoat, on which all kinds of populism depend, were in Key’s case the poor and public education. An important attribute in all his political dealings was an ability to lie with charm; he was, indeed, a fabulous liar. In the policy areas referred to, the ministers were liars as well, not so fabulous (leaving aside Hekia Parata perhaps), but just as habituated. Housing, climate change, and the environment, while not populist targets, were also sources of monumental lying.
Immigration was another way of targeting the poor: immigrants were allowed into the country in a close to unrestricted way (especially through the international student scam) with the government winning from the money brought in but the poor losing in housing, health, and education from the governments unwillingness to spend on infrastructure to keep pace.
In the long-term this will be found to have put democracy at risk.
The basis of lying, of never quite telling the truth, has done considerable harm to our democracy as a different kind of lying is doing to another democracy in a far grosser form of populism.
Key’s taking of a young Polynesian girl to Waitangi in his government car was a stunt of breath-taking proportions, and I think we knew it, but we were willing to go along for the ride, as we were in the years that followed.
We have been led by the nose to be careless of democracy.
The main way Key’s lies worked (and his ministers in support) was to use short term measurement of policies that dealt with matters long term in nature. This meant policies had no chance of succeeding, indeed, the short term measurement served to obstruct the undertaking of those policies (think of national standards), with the continual chopping and changing of policies and measurement covering up the failure, helped by straight-out lying and spin. And when a certain amount of failure showed through, this was responded to by suggesting that the problems the policies were designed to solve were beyond resolution anyway so why try too hard, once again to the detriment of democracy.
Our democracy has become riven with lying and the protection of lying. The government has been helped to get away with the lying by it being so pervasive that it became near impossible to encompass, so habitual as to become normal.
And our parliament under this government, especially since Lockwood Smith, has let democracy down, Key’s high-pitched jocular put-down, evasive shouting has been allowed by the speaker, David Carter, and copied by his ministers and government members. Question time in a particular has become a word game farce; the highest court in the land a travesty.
In July 2007 (‘National: Smoke and mirrors’ I wrote ‘National’s policies need to be seen in the context of a pulling back on social spending so that tax cuts can be offered at the end of each election cycle.’ This is a raw appeal to the wealthy to go along with cuts in social spending and gloss over the harm to those who aren’t.
In summing up I wrote: ‘In a nutshell, I see John Key as ingratiating and shallowly eclectic – when I see him on television I always have the feeling that just behind him, just out of view, there is a row of second-hand cars; others, I know, will see him as a genial fellow worthy of their trust. The useful thing for politicians about ragtag populism is that it is a lot cheaper than implementing a real and cohesive policy.’
But his hold on the population was inarguable. I was at a Rugby World Cup match in the Waikato, Key suddenly appeared on the field; there was an initial crowd noise the like of which has haunted me. It was an atavistic growl of recognition. He had a populist hold on the New Zealand population only paralleled by Robert Muldoon and Richard Seddon.
And then came his resignation.
I saw pictures of him holidaying in Hawaii.
Here was another chubby, undistinguished businessman.
We allowed this man with little moral or intellectual distinction to become an emperor; we allowed it to happen, we allowed to him to lie and charm his way to a dangerous populism.
We must be more protective of our democracy. It is our only hope and protection.