In case you hadn’t picked up on this already, the title of my speech tonight is firmly tongue in cheek. The title of Barack Obama’s first volume of memoirs is The Audacity of Hope. My facetious suggestion is that our own Great Pretender should call his memoirs The Audacity of Hype. Call me a cynic if you must , but it strikes me that John Key’s reputation and rise to political prominence has been enabled by fairly shameless marketing and spin.
You could say this is true of many politicians, but I think Key is a case worthy of special examination – mainly because he could be our next Prime Minister. Yes, all politicians are public constructs to a certain extent … perception being reality, as we’re so often and glibly reminded by political commentators, they contrive to present an electable persona based on aspects of their real selves and a grab-bag of focus-grouped viewpoints and talking points.
But Key seems to need the grab-bag more than most. This is a guy, recall, who when asked where he stood in 1981 on the Springbok tour, pretended he couldn’t remember. Now, I wasn’t even in the country in 1981 and furthermore I was in the middle of an adventurous phase of my life that involved the consumption of various substances both legal and illegal, and I can remember what I thought. What is Key’s problem that he is so palpably nervous about expressing a position without apparently first running it by the backroom boys for likely electoral appeal?
At times he simply plays to whichever gallery he’s facing. On the matter of his religious beliefs he has variously said, talking to students in Victoria University’s Salient student newspaper: “I’m not deeply religious, and I don’t believe in life after death.”
When talking to the born-again reactionary editor of Investigate Magazine: “I have lived my life by Christian principles.”
And to the readers of the Jewish Chronicle: “I will be the third Jewish prime minister in New Zealand.”
As the Labour affiliated website The Standard observed, this actually makes Key the Ken doll of Kiwi politics - he’ll be whoever you want him to be. The Standard went on to note that both Key and Ken were born in 1961, and opined that contrary to media wisdom, he has more in common with the plastic toy than with Barack Obama.
Something he probably also shares with Ken is a certain kind of innocence. Key is on record as claiming to have never taken drugs, even a puff on a joint. Now, that must seem to him to be a safe position to adopt, but really this is one issue he perhaps should have checked first with marketing. He’s exactly the same age as me as well as Ken, and let me tell you, it would have been pretty remarkable to get through the 70s and 80s of our youth without at least finding out what certain things were like, even if you ended up avoiding them for the rest of your life. I wonder how many middle-aged Kiwis would really be much concerned about the admission of a bit of youthful experimentation. I do know plenty who would look askance at someone so naïve and incurious as to have never even been tempted.
My point is, he’s either being disingenuous, or he’s inviting the obvious question: can we trust the country to a man so patently unworldly?
Key has routinely made himself out to be the blandest, least offensive, beige-coloured politician whenever questioned about matters of personal history or taste. As a friend of mine of similar vintage observed, our generation has now thrown up its political figurehead and he turns out to be a former forex dealer who likes Robbie Williams and owns a MacMansion at Omaha Beach. What have we done to deserve this?
Even Barack Obama has got away with admitting to a little drug experimentation when he was younger. Apparently, unlike the previous White House Democrat, he even inhaled! He’s also black, has an Islamic middle name and was linked to a firebrand paranoid preacher … and he’s still the likeliest next president of the USA. John Key can really afford to get a little more interesting.
But, apart from the diverting spectacle of watching early season episodes of the great American political reality show, are there any deeper lessons for us in all the arcane rituals of choosing a president? After all, we may have already chosen our next prime minister by the time the US finally gets around to its own electoral climax. And we have been told for years now that our own election campaigns have become increasingly “presidential” in style.
Sticking to the Democratic race for now, there’s a certain superficial similarity in the race between an older experienced woman and younger man peddling a message of “hope”. Hillary Clinton is very much Helen Clark’s vintage - not to mention sharing her initials - while Obama is exactly the same age as John Key (and Ken, and me). While it’s true that Key isn’t quite as black as Obama, he is very much trading on the impression of freshness and generational change versus institutional exhaustion and the corruptions of power.
Both elections will be low down and dirty, but negative campaigns are also a proven turnoff, so the other similarity will be the meta-messages designed to inspire or at least reassure. Labour’s may well be another version of the “don’t trust these bastards, look what they did last time” theme that was wheeled out in 2005, sugar-coated with appeals to Clark’s proven experience and competence (shades of Hillary there, too). In fact, I look forward to Helen’s version of Hillary’s famous red phone commercial, in which she asked her fellow Americans who they wanted picking up the hotline at 3am – the young untested dude or the trusted elder stateswoman. In Helen’s version I imagine her rolling over and saying, “Get that would you Peter …”
In some ways, though, Key reminds me less of Ken or Obama than of another prototype prefabricated politician. He’s gone now – and how suddenly! – yet the ghost of Tony Blair still haunts modern image politics. Some people liken Key to the British Conservative Party leader David Cameron – even younger than Key, by the way, but a man prone to making the same sorts of noises about being a “modern compassionate conservative” and the need to “create a new style of politics”. But Cameron himself is in turn a response to the Blair phenomenon, which was essentially a masterly act of party political re-branding.
Clues to the New Zealand National Party’s rebranding strategy can be seen in the way Key has tried to court the younger voter – by which I mean younger than the youngest baby-boomer, who is in his or her mid 40s by now – and in his recent DVD marketing exercise, in which he declared himself “ambitious for New Zealand”, which we’ll get to shortly.
At 2007’s “40 Below” event, youngish modern conservatives, compassionate or otherwise, were “invited to celebrate New Zealand’s future” at an Auckland hotel. Incidentally, the hotel is called the Rendezvous, which always strikes me as sounding unfortunately like the kind of place where you can rent rooms by the hour, which may or may not be appropriate in the context of the National Party.
Event publicity read thus: “The National Party is trying to woo younger voters by inviting celebrities and socialites to meet leader John Key and other National MPs. They are being asked to join them at an event that is being billed as a chance to ‘Groove into the future with National’.”
Now, the etymological dynamics of the verb “to groove” are more complex than might be assumed at first glance. Probably deriving from the grooves etched into vinyl records – only some under-40s would actually have such folk memories, I guess - the word evolved into a slang term for the act of enjoying popular music, and more generally a certain attitude or response to anything considered, well, groovy.
After the 1970s, however, “groove” as a colloquial term became outmoded, associated with an era of music and culture now deemed passé (the Austin Powers effect, in other words). Later it took on an ironic usage, which in turn made “groove” groovy - but only in the right hands. Or mouths.
Context is all when it comes to the lingua franca of hipness, and in the context of the New Zealand political centre-right there are definite caveats attending its use.
The correct time and place for the contemporary usage of “groove” is subject to a shifting code of coolness (another term that needs to be used advisedly). Deliberate self-referential retro awareness? Fine. Unintentionally patronising fauxness? Not so great. In short, if Jeremy Wells asks you to “groove into the future” you would laugh and “get it”. When the National Party does it, the effect isn’t quite the same.
Yet it’s a sensible and probably essential tactic for Key, who needs to back up his non-Don brand and disconnect the perception of his party as still the natural home of grumbling old codgers or whiny young fogeys. But as fans of Tony Blair discovered once the hype of “Cool Britannia” died down, cocktails and canapés with Oasis and Ben Elton did not miraculously herald a new dawn of switched-on government.
So is New National’s policy mix sufficiently in the same groove as its intended X and Y audience? There’s little doubt in my mind that a strain of reflexive ideological orthodoxy does run through the generations raised on Rogernomics, many of whom are the genuine social liberal/fiscal conservative hybrid Key seems to know he needs.
As luck would have it, a big study of “Generation Next” (18-26 year olds) by the US Pew Research Centre found young Americans to be, among other things, unprecedentedly tolerant in their political attitudes. They were also more likely to identify as Democrats than Republicans, while at the same time a majority said “getting rich” was their main aim.
Will their Kiwi counterparts buy into Key’s “party for people in their 20s and 30s with an interest in New Zealand’s future”? I’d say the auguries are good - one of the 40 Below event sponsors was local vodka company 42 Below, recently bought to great media acclaim by a foreign liquor giant for a tidy sum. Let’s see - an essentially colourless, flavourless substance transformed by clever brand marketing into a saleable commodity ...
Semantics aside, Key’s positioning is very deliberately an Obama-esque claim to being a break with the past and - more importantly – offering a new but fairly fuzzy vision of the future. Given that the main planks in both party platforms differ merely in grain these days, and that a tax cut auction may neutralise the hip-picket vote, he will be busy describing the New Zealand he wants his children to still want to live in.
Indeed, he’s been plucking this string for a while now. It was the major theme behind the contrived folksiness of the afforementioned “Ambitious for New Zealand” DVD last year, and it crops up routinely in interviews, including a charming soft-focus open home he and wife Bronagh granted the Australian Women’s Weekly. Styled and groomed in smart-casual hues, Key waffled genially about his life to date, his happy marriage and his dream of making a “positive difference, especially with the tragic situation we have of young New Zealanders who simply don’t see themselves as having a long-term future in this country. Our brain drain is the worst in the developed world.”