Island Life by David Slack


My way or the highway

One phrase from Don Brash's Orewa barnburner makes a cameo in the speech delivered today by John Key.

In 2004 Dr Brash pushed the alarm button on the "dangerous drift towards racial separatism."

John Key, being a uniter rather than a divider, has plumped instead for a cause behind which no right-thinking Kiwi would not rally. We are seeing, the speech declares, "a dangerous drift toward social and economic exclusion."

So far, so uncontroversial. If there is anyone in New Zealand who warms to the notion of families that have been jobless for more than one generation, or families destroyed by alcohol and P addiction, or kids going to school with empty stomachs, they're being awfully quiet about it.

It is, nonetheless, a sound enough political strategy for a leader of the opposition to identify a glaring problem and then excoriate the government of the day for failing to tackle it. The government "mish-mash" of policies, Key tells us, isn't working and naturally, the answer does not lie in "just throwing more money at the problem". In the best Simpsons style he gets in a Montgomery Burns line or two about those bureaucrats down in Wellington, and just to reinforce the Dubya persona as the outsider with no taste for politics-as-usual, he declares:

Yes, the government has a hugely important role in creating opportunities. But no government sitting on high will ever come up with the grand solution to all New Zealand's problems. After all, even the most experienced and intelligent Cabinet will still be made up of politicians!

But let's get a look, as they say in less refined circles, at the money shot. What will the leader of the opposition do that is better or different?

One argument seems to be this: perhaps businesses in the private sector and the non-profits can do a better job, with the support and encouragement of government (furnished, one presumes, by a better class of bureaucrat than the kind presently formulating a mish-mash of policies.)

The "mission of my leadership' he declares, "will be to invigorate and support us all to do our bit."

As far as specifics go, there are a few tasters: he suggests we could encourage some public-spirited businesses to help provide school lunches. Presumably not the ones who are presently running soft drink vending machines on school properties.

He likes Project K. He likes Big Buddy.

None of it is especially startling, but it may well be sufficient for his purposes. The strategy seems to be: damn the current lot as incompetent and wasteful, promise a better tomorrow as the motivator-and-aspirer-in-chief, and tip your hat to the talented people of the private sector as the people who can do a superior job of providing prosperity than you, a humble politician.

Overlying it all, however, is something more intriguing. The title of the speech is "The Kiwi Way." In defining this he talks first about how foreigners see New Zealanders:

They typically say we are friendly and modest people; we are inventive and empathetic; we are proud of the natural beauty of our country; we believe in working hard and getting rewarded for it; we think no one is born superior to anyone else and that everybody deserves a fair crack in life.

Developing this idea of a universal New Zealand perspective, he says:

As New Zealanders, we have grown up to believe in and cherish an egalitarian society. We like to think that our children's futures will be determined by their abilities, their motivation and their hard work. They will not be dictated by the size of their parent's bank balance or the suburb they were born in.

We want all kids to have a genuine opportunity to use their talents and to get rewarded for their efforts.

These, too are sound enough politics. Any good leader tries to find some common ground we can all agree upon. But there is a discouraging facet to it. The phrase 'The Kiwi Way' is then deployed through the speech as a kind of veiled threat. Disagree with this proposition and you are denying the Kiwi Way. In that respect, it has the same hegemony as the Mainstream New Zealanders argument.

This may in fact be the true distinction between the two major parties. On the National side, difference has been something to approach warily, with a sharp stick. They seem to fret about anything they perceive to be a threat to the cohesion of the nation. Labour, by contrast, has consistently championed diversity, identity politics and cultural variety.

This 'Kiwi Way' is all very well, but it seems dispiritingly similar in tone to 'My Way or the Highway'.

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