This morning’s New Zealand Herald falls to it’s knees and frantically bobs it’s head up and down to praise the government on it’s one year anniversary – because after all, lavishing praise on politicians is what good journalism is all about, right? It’s ironic that it was the Herald that lead the campaign against Labour’s EFA on the grounds that it would have a chilling effect on free speech: now it reads like an edition of the People’s Daily under Mao. Check out this column by John Armstrong. It’s only a matter of time before Armstrong is reporting that Key’s blessing ends droughts and increases crop yields.
To Key’s leadership performance then. I believe we are watching an unusual prime ministership take shape. Key’s skillset is vastly different from what we’ve seen before. We’d possibly have to go all the way back to the entrepreneurial Julius Vogel in the 1870s to find an apt comparison. Vogel put in vital and much-needed infrastructure to connect New Zealanders with each other and then with the rest of the world.
The thing is, Key hasn’t actually done anything! That’s why he’s popular – he’s spent the year accumulating political capital but with the arguable exception of cancelling the tax cuts he promised in the election he hasn’t actually achieved anything significant. The most profound decisions made by this government so far have been:
- Roll back the ETS
- Cancel contributions to the Cullen fund
Emissions and superannuation are both really hard areas of government that need tough, unpopular decisions to be made. And Key and English have been reasonably upfront in saying that they are not the people who will make them – they’ve kicked for touch, left it up for some other government further down the line to solve. In terms of political and media strategy I guess that’s that’s very clever and everything, but it’s not transformational and it’s not changing New Zealand politics. Clark was also wildly popular at this stage in her first term, before she banned smoking in bars and legalised civil unions – like Key she had no effective opposition to worry about and the media adored her; I suspect the media honeymoon is lasting longer with Key because journalists aren’t afraid of him, while with Clark there was always a degree of intellectual intimidation so it’s a huge relief to spend the post-cab press conference confronting cuddly John Key.
Key might turn out to be a great New Zealand politician – he had the political coverage to introduce pretty much anything he wanted at the start of the year and could have used the recession as an excuse to relaunch the revolution. He didn’t and that indicates a degree of responsibility and good faith that New Zealander’s haven’t seen from right-wing politicians for a long time. But he might just drift along for another six years, avoiding the tough calls because he doesn’t want to drop in the polls, tinkering with various areas of the state sector and fiscal policy before drifting off into a happy and comfortable retirement while the next government raises taxes and slashes spending to solve all of the problems that he didn’t feel like fixing.