Editorial: Can Turnbull Compel Key to debate beyond the banal and assume the reputation offered him?

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Editorial by Selwyn Manning.

In a week where Malcolm Turnbull relieved Australians of their elected prime minister and, as new leader, delivered a lift in the polls for the Liberals – it’s time to consider whether he can coerce his New Zealand counterpart to reach beyond the banal and truly assume the reputation offered to him.

For the record, in his first press conference on taking back the Liberal Party leadership, Malcolm Turnbull singled out John Key’s leadership style. He said:

“John Key has been able to achieve very significant economic reforms in New Zealand by doing just that, by taking on and explaining complex issues and then making the case for them. And I, that is certainly something that I believe we should do and Julie and I are very keen to do that again.”

In reply, John Key said this week:

Both he and Turnbull were both moderates and at the centre of their respective National and Liberal parties. They both came from an investment banking background. (ref. NZHerald.)

Labour leader Andrew Little sounded rather peeved. He said:

Key had presided over seven deficits, growing public debt, and an economy that did not have much to show for seven years of National Government. “If that’s Malcolm Turnbull’s ambitions, then I pity Australia.” (ref. NZHerald.)

Standing back from it all, I see John Key’s magic is his common touch. He can mix it with people in the street. Have a bit of a laugh one-on-one, and, also successfully deliver a good comedy routine to a live crowd.

He is no technocrat, he’s intelligent but avoids intelligent debate. If challenged, or if confronted with rational robust inquiry, he can demonise the messenger, relegate them as having political motives. He has been known to use ridicule using the weight of his prime ministerial power.

Key’s success is also due, in my opinion, to an ability to shrug off criticism, move on from an issue, to render his opposition impotent by taking effective elements of their policy. This is especially so when he detects a public mood for change on an issue, Key will remove the opposition from the space, pluck the popular aspects of their policy, rebrand it, dominate the debate, and claim the solution as his own.

It is slick politics. But it so often misses the mark at being effective.

Consider:

The Key Government’s hands off approach to foreign-based speculation in the Auckland housing market;

What solutions has the Key Government developed in response to the devaluation of the white-gold economy?;

The Key Government’s inability to deliver solutions (or even respite) for families living in those state-owned homes that are simply mouldy damp, toxic slums;

How the Key Government was reluctantly dragged to the alter of human reasonableness over the global response to Syria/Europe’s mass refugee disaster.

John Key’s magic is not what Malcolm Turnbull suggested. It is not due to delivering economic reforms in New Zealand by taking on and explaining complex issues and then making the case for them.

For example, centre-right voters and developers have long demanded the National-led Government reform the Resource Management Act. Key’s government has tweaked the RMA but after seven years in office, it has not delivered reform to the satisfaction of that key voting bloc.

However, the Trans-Tasman leadership relationship, the bromance, is likely to thrive. Both prime ministers are as Key rightfully suggested, representatives of the more moderate elements of their respective National/Liberal parties.

And one would hope, that the intelligence and commitment that Malcolm Turnbull brings to robust debate, and to the Australian prime ministership, may rub off on our prime minister – this at a time when comparatively New Zealand has lost its zest for discourse beyond infotainment.

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Selwyn Manning, BCS (Hons.) MCS (Hons.) is an investigative political journalist with 23 years media experience. He specializes in reportage and analysis of socioeconomics, politics, foreign affairs, and security/intelligence issues.
Selwyn has extensive experience as a commentator and has provided live political analysis to a wide range of television and radio organizations broadcasting in New Zealand, Australia and globally including the BBC (Five Live, London) and BBC (World Service). He is currently a correspondent to Australia’s FiveAA radio, and is a regular live-on-air panelist on Radio New Zealand’s The Panel with broadcaster Jim Mora.

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