Hard News by Russell Brown


Dear John

You had to hand it to John Key, said my colleague over dinner last week: he's very good. But some of the people around him, "not so much". I couldn't disagree – the sometimes inarticulate and politically unworldly Leader of the Opposition has offered real management talent now that he's actually in charge. If he doesn't display the obvious intellect of Helen Clark, he has made good use of a quality that often eluded Clark – charm.

And the nation, says the polling, agrees. While some individuals in Key's Cabinet are showing themselves to be thoughtful and competent, it's the public comfort in the Prime Minister that provides the tailwind.

The government's weakness – the sense that while its leader sails gracefully on, some of his MPs may not be great team players, or may simply lack skill – has emerged through relatively minor matters: the bungled campaign in Mt Albert, the rugby rights shambles. Key's response in each case was instructive. He walked away from the first, leaving Melissa Lee to her defeat on by-election night. He suddenly switched his stance on the second, sensing that public sympathy lay with the Maori rights bid; and that a buggers' muddle from which all sides could claim victory was the least-worst option.

Thus do traders read the odds. He knew that the downside risk of re-opening the "smacking" debate with a law change was considerably greater than simply fudging the issue and ordering up a review starring Nigel Latta. Presumably, he has made the same calculation as to the risk of a nod towards the future taxation options he has been urged to consider. If he spoke favourably of a property tax, he'd own it henceforth, and he doesn't want to do that.

Another means by which Key's government has avoided risk is by avoiding process and debate. No Right Turn has a must-read post that demonstrates that National's use of urgency in its first year has been unprecedented not only in the sheer number of times urgency has been taken, but in its scope. Here is the list of bills that have been passed without select committee scrutiny:

Crown Retail Deposit Guarantee Scheme Bill
Education (National Standards) Amendment Bill
Electoral Amendment Bill
Electricity (Renewable Preference) Repeal Bill
Employment Relations Amendment Bill
Energy (Fuels, Levies, and References) Biofuel Obligation Repeal Bill
Local Government (Tamaki Makaurau Reorganisation) Bill
Parole (Extended Supervision Orders) Amendment Bill
Sentencing (Offences Against Children) Amendment Bill

No Right Turn also noted that under Gerry Brownlee's management, National has begun to take urgency almost as a reflex, even when it doesn't have the business to justify it.

Curiously, the New Zealand Herald, which spent most of last year blathering about an "attack on democracy", has had very little to say about this. Instead, on Saturday, John Armstrong was all about the game – treating the unfortunate TVNZ 7 promo as if it was really the most important thing about Bill English's job.

And John Roughan took refuge in the comfort of alleged common sense, hailing Stephen Joyce's disdain for transport planners, but not troubling himself with an assessment of the two billion dollar folly from Puhoi to Wellsford that Joyce has ordered up on what looks a lot like a whim. Roughan may also be the only commentator in the country to declare himself "in awe" of Anne Tolley's performance as Education minister.

Amid the Herald's buffet of commentary on National's first year, it's a column by a non-journalist, Victoria University's Jon Johansson. He reaches back to the "entrepreneurial" Sir Julius Vogel for a comparison for Key's "unusual prime ministership", but warns:

Key's major weakness is also a function of his professional socialisation. In politics one cannot lead a cohesive government with decentralised decision-making and control structures. The myriad examples of political mismanagement that have characterised National's first year in office will continue for as long as this structural flaw is not adequately addressed. He should take no pride in his Government's ongoing abuse of urgency in Parliament.

But to return to where I began, Key's larger context; his political vision has been quite parsimonious in my view. There is no overarching narrative that tells us where Key intends taking us or what policy mix will best maximise our future progress and choices.

Transforming education (surely the best incubator for our future economic prosperity), leading our democracy (think: the electoral referendum, the Treaty, republicanism), and how to best protect water, our most valuable strategic resource, are being managed, not led, in an entirely ad-hoc fashion.

In fact, the three 'Rs' announcement is so mediocre it barely constitutes an education policy, let alone being elevated as one of the six crucial policies to enhance our economic performance Bill English recently cited.

On the other hand, the ground must surely be shifting on the feet of Phil Goff. Goff is competent, experienced, principled – and so far apparently devoid of the gifts of popular leadership. While some of his caucus have begun to deliver on promise (Charles Chauvel) or been rehabilitated in the hurly-burly of the blogosphere (Trevor Mallard), Goff seems stranded. And unlike the All Black coaching team, he doesn't have a contract that guarantees him the job until 2011.

Thus has National been able to achieve its commanding position in the polls. The danger, of course, is that it will simply trundle along, enacting major changes without real scrutiny, attenuating reform where that seems necessary to stay on the right side of the public mood.

And we'll all get used to it. The Seabed and Foreshore legislation will be repealed, a great deal of the meaningful discussion will be conducted in private and there'll eventually be a bait-and-switch that will undermine the Maori Party's claims to victory. We'll hear "common sense" conjured as a means of diversion from troublesome advice – and perhaps we should be worried about that. Because sometimes "common sense" is the most dangerous thing.

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