Polity by Rob Salmond


An Orwellian Alice in Wonderland

This week John Key attempted to engineer a farce in our parliament, to obscure his own weakness in standing up to Australia’s new, shabby deportation policy.

Aided – whether deliberately or not – by a confusing and inconsistent set of rulings from Speaker David Carter, the result is that New Zealand is yet again an international laughing stock. I can hear John Oliver warming up right now …

The part that will disappoint Key the most is that his dead cat gambit didn’t entirely work.

The gambit works if people both start talking about your outrageous remark, and also stop talking about the issue that forced you to throw the dead cat in the first place.

Certainly people talked about Key’s offensive remark, as they should. People who say offensive, derogatory things should be called out on it.

But Key didn’t achieve his second goal. From revelations that Key was wrong about what kind of offenders on Christmas Island, to the breaking of ranks by the Maori Party and Peter Dunne, people are still talking about Christmas Island, its New Zealand detainees, and Australia’s cruel new policy.

People are also still talking about Key’s weakness in criticising Australia’s policy, and his inability to get it changed. That’s actually quite a big risk for Key – among international leaders, he looks like the guy people are happy to hang out with, but not listen to.

Did Key’s friendship with Stephen Harper get us a TPPA concession on dairy? Nope. And now his friendship with Malcolm Turnbull seems to have got us nothing regarding these detainees.

Not only did the gambit fail to distract people, it came with collateral damage to National, too.

One of the issues with the dead cat strategy, and a reason Crosby almost certainly preaches caution before deploying it, it that it makes quite a mess. Key’s made two messes this week.

The first mess is Key’s status with middle-class women, many of whom swapped from voting for Helen Clark to supporting him, and are central to his ongoing success. Many women, all too often due to previous personal trauma, also react vehemently to any suggestion that rape is being used as plaything in a Parliamentary parlour game, or that their position on Australia’s policy has anything at all to do with their support for rapists. As Rob Hosking (paywall) has pointed out, that damage will take some effort to undo.

The second mess that Key and Carter face is having to explain their many contradictory or illogical comments. Toby Manhire has a starting selection.

We can analyse the logic or illogic of Key’s and Carter’s statements all we like, and it is a fun sport, but the point of the exercise from National’s perspective wasn’t to be logical, but to be distracting.

National’s goal was to stage an Orwellian Alice in Wonderland, right in the middle of our parliament.

Certainly they failed to be logical, and certainly they failed to effectively stand up for the interests of New Zealanders – here at home and on the Island. But they also failed to distract New Zealand from those important issues around justice and community safety. That’s why they failed.

Will this be kept alive when parliament resumes next week? My guess would be no, because John Key’s not in Wellington next week. The next time Key faces the House is 1 December, by which time we’ll have probably moved to other matters.

The one caveat to that comes from the UK. A 51-year old British citizen, who moved to Australia 50 years ago, is being deported back to Britain under the new rules. His crime involves a scrub fire.

It will be very interesting to see whether David Cameron displays the same weakness in accepting this policy. For Britain, this new policy is history in reverse, and I expect they won’t take kindly to it. If Britain applies pressure, it would place new, embarrassing acid on John Key to explain his lack of a backbone.

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