John Key seems to be the envy of Aussies – those on the right of politics at least. He, Bill English and their Government have been praised again in Australia.
But is the New Zealand electorate averse to radical change? Or have we just not had anyone to lead it since David Lange and Rogernomics?
When Malcolm Turnbull tooked over as Australian Prime Minister last month he praised Key, and said:
“You have to be able to bring people with you respecting their intelligence. John Key has been able to achieve very significant economic reforms in New Zealand by doing just that: by explaining complex issues and then making a case for them.”
Richard Mulgan at the Brisbane Times picks up on this in New Zealand’s John Key can show Malcolm Turnbull how to lead a stable government.
Turnbull was repeating a point commonly made by business critics of the Abbott-Hockey regime. Key, in New Zealand, along with Premier Mike Baird in NSW, provided an alternative, more measured and ultimately more successful model of right-of-centre leadership, which the Coalition in Canberra could well emulate.
Key, as Turnbull remarked, is a highly effective communicator. He mixes easily with all types of people and is a constant presence in the New Zealand media.
Significantly, Key has managed to maintain his popularity while implementing a number of initially unpopular changes. In an effort to discourage ambitious Kiwis from leaving for Australia, his government cut income tax, particularly the top rate, and paid for it by increasing the rate of GST. Key had not flagged these changes at the previous election but relied on a comprehensive campaign of public information and advocacy
On the vexed issue of asset sales, Key promised no such sales in his first term, a commitment he kept in order to gain voter trust. For his second term, he announced a program of partial sale of assets, such as Air New Zealand and state-owned electricity-generating companies. The LFabour opposition campaigned against the sales but without success (a result similar to that in NSW).
It’s interesting to see how much an Aussie journalist knows about what’s been happening here in politics.
[Update: Mulgan should be familiar with New Zealand politics: “is a political scientist. He was on the 1985–86 New Zealand Royal Commission that recommended MMP (Mixed Member Proportional) representation for elections to the New Zealand Parliament. He was also formerly Professor of Political Studies at Otago and Auckland Universities.]
Effective communication and advocacy are essential but only part of the recipe for Key’s success. Equally, if not more important, are the substance and timing of the policies being communicated and advocated. Key has been deliberately cautious, implementing gradual changes over several terms of government. Since the searing experience of the 1980s and early 1990s, New Zealand political culture has turned firmly against sudden, radical change.
In this policy of gradualism, Key has been greatly assisted by his deputy and Finance Minister (the equivalent of treasurer), Bill English. English entered Parliament in 1990, in time to witness the public repudiation of blitzkrieg economic policymaking. He served time as party leader, leading the National Party to one of its defeats against Helen Clark’s Labour. After Key’s ascent to the leadership, English stayed on to become the back-room powerhouse behind the Key grin.
English is the main architect of Key’s fiscal strategy, which saw New Zealand weather the global financial crisis and set out on a path for budget surplus. He is also a keen reformer of social policy, aiming to retain a reasonable safety net while better targeting the welfare dollar, and has taken a keen interest in public service performance. Leaving Key to look after the politics and win the elections, English has been content to work on a number of medium-term policy strategies.
Mulgan looks at what Turnbull and his Government could learn from this. Then he goes back to the New Zealand experience.
The New Zealand experience points to the value of incremental change that has been thoroughly explained and justified to the voters.
This lesson should also be evident from the brief and sorry history of the Abbott government. Abbott and his treasurer, Joe, Hockey allowed themselves to be seduced into a radical crash-through approach, which involved ditching major election commitments. They never recovered from the political damage of their first budget. Present-day Australians have no more stomach than New Zealanders for sudden and unheralded reforms.
Key and English certainly seem to have learned the lessons and risks of sudden major changes in direction and policy.
And this may be where Labour is making a fundamental mistake, trying to promote major changes like control of the electricity market and proposing a Capital Gains Tax.
Is the New Zealand electorate really averse to radical change? Or is this an inaccurate perception?
Some claim that the main reason for Labour’s slide and their struggle to recover is more due to a perception of turmoil and incompetence, despite proposing policies that are largely popular (CGT) and opposing unpopular policies (like the partial asset sales).
If a strong, credible, charismatic leader lifted Labour and promised major changes would they succeed?
David Lange was sort of like that and his government was the most radical in my lifetime.
Could something similar happen again? Or is the New Zealand electorate to wary of radical change to risk something like that again?
It could be that despite what a few hard left activists think New Zealand is chugging away ok and doesn’t need or want a revolution.