Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Quit While You Are A Head

Well, well, the Great Kiwi Communicator has quit while still a head - of state - a decision that has taken all the political pundits by surprise and left them arguing about his political legacy or lack of it, or struggling to find enough superlatives to describe his ‘political astuteness’ and his immense personal popularity that’s apparently based on his embodiment of a ‘quintessential Kiwiness'.  (That no-one has yet managed to define that slippery little sucker of a concept does nothing to diminish its popularity in the media.)

Key is being lauded as the most popular PM ever, a man who built up enormous amounts of political capital through his clever management and political dexterity.  The question of the moment is not how he was able to do that but whether or not he should have invested more of his immense political capital in his political legacy - the things by which he will be remembered after people have forgotten what a nice bloke they once thought he was.

There’s no doubt that the polls show Key is popular with enough people for commentators and pundits to extrapolate that popularity across the entire country - a fact which aggravates the hell out of me given I feel a deep distrust of him and I know I’m not alone in that. I remain deeply worried about what that popularity says about my fellow New Zealanders - or at least about those New Zealanders whose opinions are routinely canvassed and counted.

So why is he popular and what has he actually done to deserve it?

Key is perceived by those who like him and quite a few who don’t - as being a good economic manager who will leave the country in a better state than he found it - despite the global financial crisis. The deglossed reality of that ‘better state’ remains to be seen but in the meantime, most in the media will continue to brush aside the fact that the GFC was precipitated by the very economic paradigm and political ideology which enabled Key to make his personal fortune and which he remained committed to, and wanted to reinforce via the TPP.

In a world in which Left and Right have become unreliable indicators of political ideology and place - in which fascists are rebranded as  ‘alt-Right’ and anyone who is vaguely liberal is deemed to be 'of the Left’ - Key is regarded as a 'centrist' which is deemed to be a good thing because, well it just is.   But if left and right are outmoded and inaccurate descriptors of ideology and political place, where does that leave the centre?

Key says he resisted rightwing pressure within his party to 'pull the rug out' from under vulnerable New Zealanders - ie. dismantle what is left of the social safety nets that stand between many Kiwis and destitution.  Presumably we are to be grateful to him for not allowing the rabid ideologues to finish off the vulnerable and be thankful he just presided over a widening gap between rich and poor, sold off state assets, froze the budgets of key government services, instituted unpopular education changes, allowed a dangerous housing bubble to form and homelessness to increase and - close to my heart - removed Cantabrians' right to vote for their regional authority.

There’s not nearly enough criticism of his prevarications and equivocations on the question of local democracy in Canterbury or on what many regard as his government’s mismanagement of the Christchurch rebuild. But - like so much else that had the potential to be unpopular - Key was a master delegator - always sharing the bonus of the limelight and kudos but pretty much avoiding the brickbats and infamy.

Browniee fronted the government’s response to the Canterbury earthquakes while Key did the high-vis PR shots; Parata fronted the government’s education changes and was detested for it; Tolley has carried the can and been roasted publicly for refusing a public inquiry into the appalling abuse of kids in state care; Kate Wilkinson paid the price for Pike River  - and so it goes.

And how about Pike River?  Key, the reassuring, affable, approachable presence, has not been held to account for the indescribably horrible reality of 29 miners - the youngest just 17 and on his first day at work - lying entombed in what was known to be a highly dangerous mine that was permitted to operate with inadequate safety measures and inappropriate equipment in the context of a depleted and defanged mines’ safety inspectorate.  It was a classic example of the operation of the state in the callous and short-termist interests of big business and to my mind shows Key’s common man act is skin-deep. That Pike River had a history going back to the 1970s and was granted access arrangements by a Labour Government is not an excuse for the Key government's failure to address weak regulations and inspection procedures that led directly to the deaths of 29 men.

It is fair to ask how much we owe the media for Key’s popularity.  Did they back off him because the pollsters said he was so popular, or did they help create and sustain his popularity by being easy on him?   If Key had been mocked and vilified or even consistently held to account for his gaffes, errors and equivocations with the intensity and viciousness that the likes of Cunliffe experienced, how would the PM’s much vaunted personal popularity have fared?

And there's the fact that alongside the affable, don’t take anything too seriously John Key stands the smiling assassin Key and the snarling, triumphalist and vicious put down merchant Key.  It’s said to be a measure of the man that he can lay into political opponents in the house with gleeful malice but have a beer with them in the bar afterwards.  Some argue that’s a good thing, that it means he doesn’t hold a grudge. It might also be said to be a measure of his essential pragmatism and of course pragmatism is a fixture and fitting of mainstream politics, but, let’s not forget that if you take pragmatism too far, it utterly destroys principle and starts to skirt the borders of sociopathy.

The people who form the foundation stone of Key’s popularity are mainly those who are doing very nicely thank you very much: the comfortable and the smug, the acquisitive and the heedless, the insensitive and the uncharitable - those sections of our society whose ranks have been swelled by the naked self-interest and individualism of the neo-liberalism that was introduced into NZ in the 1980s by the Labour Party - and which, to its electoral disadvantage and political discredit, that party has not disavowed or distanced itself from in any meaningful way. 

It's failure to do so makes it a hostage to fortune and has resulted in a disengagement from the political process by many of those who have been left behind over the past 30 years.  What price democracy when fully one third of those eligible to vote do not bother because they see no point in it?

The Mr Popularity title granted to Key throughout his tenure has survived scandals that would have sunk other politicians and the media has played a large role in that.  For example, his persistent pulling of a young woman’s pony tail was called a ‘goof’ or a ‘prank’ and condemnation of his actions was widely counter-condemned as political correctness or point scoring. At the end of it, as with Dirty Politics, Key came up with his popularity intact.

Last month, courtesy of Key’s far-Right parliamentary ally’s obeisance to the law and order brigade, a Judge was forced, by the three strikes legislation, to sentence a man to 7 years incarceration for pinching a prison guard’s bottom.  

A prisoner of the state who pinched a guard’s bottom and the most powerful man in that  state who persistently pulled a young woman’s pony tail against her wishes - how does one get to be a ‘goof’ or a 'prank' and the other deserving of 7 years in prison?

This example of a deepening inequality and a dangerous erosion of both formal and natural justice is part of Key’s legacy.  It’s an example of the double standards that run through this country like a social fault line and which he did nothing to change for the better.

The politics of appearance with its substitution of froth for substance, the influence of cults of celebrity, the dumbing down and diversion of significant sections of the first world, the destruction of the fourth estate and the rise of asocial media,  the oppression and hyper-exploitation of the workers and natural resources of the less developed world, the mass extinction of other species and damage to the planet itself due to some humans’ unbridled greed and wastefulness - these are not small things - they are the very stuff our future is made of.   If we are to measure John Key's or any politician's political legacy - it has to in that context. 

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