Sailing on the Centre

The announcement by Prime Minister John Key that there will be no tax cuts in this years budget, and no big increases in spending, signals the beginning of his election campaign. 

It has been a favourable start to the year for him with his only problems coming from his cabinet colleagues. He has done the right thing in not allowing himself to be shaken by the minor scandals, and to not react defensively to the opposition’s baiting. Today he said that any big spending increases beyond $1 billion will put pressure on the reserve bank to increase interest rates, and runs the risk of putting the government in the position of being ‘part of the problem’. There is a clear reference to Ronald Reagan and the neo-liberal ideology in that statement, which should ensure their continued loyalty, but the assurance of no tax cuts will reassure the swing voters who abandoned Labour in 2008 and 2011. Without those voters Labour cannot win.

Key has successfully set the boundaries of this election in so narrow a way that his advantage is obvious. Labour is still beset with internal difficulties and a leap to the centre runs the risk of alienating the more radical voters. National has a much easier task of keeping its voter coalition together by charting a course dead centre. There is no ‘mood for change’ to give the opposition a leg up – which gave Key an obvious advantage over Clark in 2008 – and unless something like the Global Financial Crisis erupts in the next term we may be looking at a four term government. Perhaps I am getting ahead of myself, but I do see all the signs of a government that is settling in for a long time. More than a dozen government ministers have signalled their retirement this year giving the chance for the National party to renew itself. Public opinion has certainly not hardened on the Prime Minister, and we would do well to remember that the PM does not have to be overwhelmingly popular to find themselves re-elected. Remember how polarising John Howard was after Iraq yet he still got through to a forth term. Gillard was also highly controversial in 2010 when she swung through with a minority government. 

I believe 2014 will be John Key’s high point, when he floated on the nimbus of his populism with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in tow – and their chubby little future King – the year he will look back on and think ‘where did it all go?’ What goes up must come down and if Key decides to stick around he will face the inevitable fall. The point I would stress is that he does not look likely to descend any time soon. He may not wait that long, I think he is far to smart – to much of a shrewd politician to wait and be condemned to convention. After all he did consider resignation over the Canterbury earthquakes. He is clearly not desperate to do the job, I think this may be why he is so effective, and can maintain his cool. I think he will resign once his popularity properly ebbs, and other ministers will be left to go down with the ship. Not the most honourable action, but he is not a man driven by honour, he views things realistically – crucially this is how he views himself.

What does that mean for us – the New Zealand public? It means that we can rely on a Prime Minister now tempered with two terms of experience, who will manage our affairs at home and abroad with efficiency and expediency. He is the modern day Keith Holyoake, a leader who manages the country for a long time (Keith served twelve years) but doesn’t attempt any big, fundamental changes. It should be remembered however that twelve years after Keith left office New Zealand went through a period of such dramatic change we have still not got over it. The extremity of the reforms of the fourth Labour Government and the fourth National Government were caused in part by the failing of governments before 1984 to recognise the need for change. We don’t want to slip into the psychosis of preserving the status quo when it means having to face more extreme shifts in the future. Keeping an eye on what is looming ahead is a good policy.

Keith Holyoake

Don’t be surprised if John Key lasts longer than Helen Clark

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