Hard News by Russell Brown


What the people want to hear

This morning Michael Cullen's office emailed out this clipping from the Northern Advocate newspaper, whose sister paper originally quoted John Key as saying "we would love to see wages drop" in response to a question from the local business association president about relative wage disparity between Australia and New Zealand.

Key has given a variety of explanations for the comment -- he can't recall, it never happened, he was talking about Australian wages, it was just a joke -- and questioned the professionalism of the reporter (or "young guy taking notes") who was present.

The paper has responded with what it says is "the question and answer as recorded and transcribed":

Carolyne Brooks-Quan: There's been a lot surrounding the exodus of people to Australia that are lured by higher wages. There's some calls here for employers to pay more. What's your take on that?

John Key: We would love to see wages drop.

The way we want to see wages increase is because productivity is greater. So people can afford more.

Not just inflationary reasons, otherwise it's a bit of a vicious circle as it comes back to you in higher interest rates. We really want to drive that out.

I don't for a moment think that National will campaign on a policy of wage reductions, but I think this is an example of Key doing what has served him wonderfully well in the past six months: saying what he thinks people want to hear. The "people [who] can afford more" in this case are employers, because he's talking to the representative of a business association.

He may well genuinely not recall what he said, but some of his subsequent evasion about it has been quite distasteful. After a week when the Labour government tied itself in knots over what people did and didn't recall about Owen Glenn, it seems fair that a little pressure should go on Key.

Cullen also published this release last week, subsequent to Key's weekly chat with Wammo Wallace Chapman on Kiwi FM. I don't have a transcript, but Key is quoted as saying, in response to a question about the likely level of tax cuts under his government "That sort of 2 - 3 hundred dollars a month that we would be delivering to them will make a real difference."

As No Right Turn points out, if Key is promising that level of tax relief to the majority of income-earners, this is just crazy talk.

$3,600 a year is actually more tax than almost half of us even pay … And if it was distributed evenly in that fashion, the cost would be utterly staggering: $11.5 billion - almost half of core output expenses (that's your basic government ministries in Wellington), or more than the entire health budget. Not even ACT would be that insane. So what's Key playing at?

Just this: keeping the people, whoever they happen to be at the time, happy. The Southland Times carried another striking example on February 15, after Key's visit to talk to meat producers in the region:

While the rain, albeit minimal, would have been welcomed by farmers, they would no doubt be even more heartened by Mr Key's promise of a financial umbrella to kick-start the Alliance Group's proposed mega meat company.

Standing in a parched paddock at Rohan Horrell's Ardlussa farm, north of Riversdale, Mr Key said it was obvious the status quo, even in a good year, was unsustainable.

"I think everyone sees the need for change." National would look at a suspensory loan to provide capital for the establishment of the new company, Mr Key said.

When National Party finance spokesman Bill English ambled across the paddock, Mr Key quickly told him "I've just committed you to a suspensory loan".

Apparently unfazed, Mr English replied: "As long as it's under $200 million I don't mind".

As Jim Anderton was quite to point out, this sounds a lot like an export subsidy. Weren't we supposed to be over all that?

Labour's problem is that, as its ears ring from a fusillade of deadly poll results, the time may well be past when advantage can be gained from attacking Key's credibility like this. There is no indication that Glenn was actually offended by the silly game of hide and seek at the Auckland University business school opening last week, but the attempt to manage the news and avoid a potentially troublesome photo-op backfired into another round of unflattering headlines. If these people really do want another term in government, they may have to recognise that business-as-usual is no longer appropriate.

It was Richard Griffin on Morning Report today who said that they need to start highlighting vision and talent -- Cunliffe's assertive ownership of his new Health portfolio was the example he gave -- rather than simply trying to reduce risk.

Will they get the press onside? Probably not, Colin Espiner's call to turn the blowtorch on National over its own, hidden donors notwithstanding, the narrative is not running that way. There are similarities to the last, can't-take-a-trick year of the Shipley government, although I'd argue that the present outfit is doing vastly better at the business of government.

But it might actually serve the public to simply and pointedly get on with governing. Tom Frewen has a good column in the current NBR in which he rails against the Parliamentary press gallery's obsession with "The Race" and its consequent lack of attention to what is actually being done in government, which matters. It's a familiar complaint from Tom, but I think he's right. The it's-all-a-game school of Parliamentary coverage isn't just irritating, its corrosive.

Who knows? Maybe we can get shot of the year's most fatuous meme: that John Key is Barack Obama. Yes, they both represent change and a feel-good factor. That's where it ends. Obama's vision is but the summary of a notable career in law, community organising and politics. He has written (and well, too) a memoir and a book outlining his ideas, and has an impressive legislative record. Would that we knew as much about Mr Key.

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