Island Life by David Slack


National Landslide, or Key-Fuelled Rage?

When supper time came the old cook came on deck

Saying fellows it's too rough to feed ya

At 7PM a main hatchway caved in

He said fellas it's been good to know ya

Old songs take you back. So can new headlines. I have been reading about the widening polling margin between National and Labour, or perhaps that should be: John Key and Helen Clark, and it takes me back to doomed days on the 9th floor of the Beehive in 1990 when we tried in vain to avert the sinking of the good ship Labour Government IV.

The similarities are many.

In 1990, the Frontline programme asked questions about political patronage as it pointed the cameras into the dining room of Vogel House at a gathering of knights of the realm and captains of industry taking tea with senior Cabinet ministers.

Mortgagee sales were on the rise; the property market was in the doldrums.

Television was full of dross.

People weren't sure if Winston Peters would support the leader of the National Party if they were to win the election.

And with just months to go, Margaret Wilson quit.

I liked working with Margaret Wilson very much. She is smart, and she is a realist.

She would no doubt look at the list I’ve just recited and point out significant differences.

The issue that outweighed everything else in that election was unemployment. More than 10% were out of work; worse yet for Maori, for whom the rate was nearer 25%. Economic prospects looked miserable.

You could say that LGIV was punished, in the end, for doing too little in the face of enormous problems. This lot looks likely to be turfed out for doing too much about problems that did not warrant the attention: the so-called social engineering issues. Such legislation has been but a small part of the business of the last three terms, but it has served to mark out Helen Clark and her governments as intrusive and meddling and them voters, they don’t like it up ‘em.

It’s a broad phenomenon, he said, turning to personal anecdotal experience. A friend who is immune to the hysteria of political fashion, broadly liberal, but an independent thinker all the same, declared over drinks a few weeks ago that he had reached his limit at a TV ad imploring him not to drink and fry. For God’s sake, he said, we’re grown ups.

Mind the gap. It's now about twenty polling points, and widening.

The fashionable political meme has become: there is a disconnect. The phone is off the hook and the electorate is not responding. I doubt that people stop listening altogether, and I doubt that they form an opinion that can't be unmade, but it certainly takes something quite unexpected for political leaders to be cast in a new light. The idiot son in the White House, for example, notwithstanding his thoroughly unheroic initial response, was made a great man by two planes hitting the twin towers. If it takes an event of such proportions, let us hope there will not be a fourth term. Having said that, unless the man who would be Prime Minister can become a little more clear in his thoughts or at least in his technique of conveying them, one rather hopes for a cataclysmic circuit breaker that might take place without anyone getting hurt.

I spoke this morning to Greg Robertson of the Bay Report, who has been fielding many media inquiries about a story he ran just before Christmas that offered the remark by John Key that “we would love to see wages drop.”

The story has become a he said/she said did/didn’t trail of confusion, and it may well be Mr Key’s good fortune that the tape recording has not survived the two months that elapsed between publication and the sudden flurry of interest in the exchange.

According to Robertson, he invited the president of the Kerikeri business association to sit down with Key in a local cafe and put some questions to him. Robertson recorded the exchange and, he says, the results were transcribed accurately and verbatim. The words yielded by the tape were these:

Another point raised by Ms Brookes-Quan concerned the exodus to 
Australia by New Zealanders, lured by attractive wage compensation, 
and the recent call for employers to pay more.

Mr Key would like to see the opposite occur.

"We would love to see wages drop," he says.

"The way we want to see wages increase is because productivity is 
greater. So people can afford more. Not just for inflationary reasons, 
otherwise it's a bit of a vicious circle as it comes back at you in 
higher interest rates."

I think the sentence that Jon Stewart would repeat, before meaningfully pausing, would be "The way we want to see wages increase is because productivity is 
greater." I can’t help feeling that this would have made more sense if Milton Friedman had been trying to explain it, or even, dare I say it, Don Brash.

We could really do with a good debate about productivity, both about how the spoils of that are shared and how we achieve it in the first place.

Now would be good. Let’s just hope the incumbents won’t be too busy bailing water to take part.

The Captain wired in he had water coming in

And the good ship and crew was in peril

And later that night when his lights went out of sight

Came the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

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