Bryce Edwards’ Political Roundup: A Government that listens too much

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Dr Bryce Edwards.

Political Roundup by Dr Bryce Edwards.

Dr Bryce Edwards.
Dr Bryce Edwards.

On the anniversary of the election of John Key’s third-term government, commentators are asking whether National has fallen victim to third-termitis and whether the party still has any core principles at all. 

The rigours of government do not appear to have dampened John Key’s spirits, with the PM continuing to appear as light-hearted as he ever was. This is a topic of much discussion, not only in New Zealand but also globally – see Andrea Vance’s Joke or genius: is the PM a rock star or just off-Key? It’s a trend picked up on in an interesting editorial in Saturday’s Nelson Mail – see: John Key’s joke-writer deserves a payrise

The editorial discusses Key’s propensity to make jokes, pointing out that “bad jokes seem to have as much to do with brand Key as anything else”. Furthermore, “As he has evolved into a more comfortable political animal, his demeanour while telling these jokes has become more relaxed, more confident. They have become something of a signature of Key’s. If Key is not joking then you know something is wrong. Most of the time he is joking.”

The online editorial also contains two short videos of Key talking in Nelson displaying his sense of humour and candidly discussing his life and leadership. Much of this involves anecdotes about his family, and he mentions how, when he appeared on TV3 soon after becoming prime minister, his son Max gave his verdict: “you looked like a dick and sounded like a dick, and worst of all John Campbell thought you were a dick”.

Key also reflects on the media and social media: “There are certain commentators that I never read – because they’re just opposed to me…. I never read social media. And I’m not online. Other than I’m on Facebook and Twitter, but that gets handled by my staff… My son, bless him, he’s on social media and about 80% of what he gets is just ‘I hate your father, I hope he dies’… He says ‘Oh well I just ignore them… occasionally I agree with them’.”

The Prime Minister is obviously very aware of the dangers of his government becoming stale and arrogant – something he has talked about frequently. In the above video he comments on the need to be mindful of this tendency: “There is an inevitable shelf-life of prime ministers. I think it’s because their defence mechanisms get higher, and the ability to listen goes down. And I just try to remind myself that they have to be balanced actually.”

So has John Key’s government stopped listening? Or are they actually listening too much? This is explored in an article I wrote for the Herald on Sunday – see: A Tale of two governments. This presents both sides of the story about the state of Key’s government in its third term.

Both the political left and right allege Key’s government has become affected by third-termitis, complaining of an administration that is tired and lacklustre. For many on the left, it’s because Key and co have stopped listening to the public. But far more trenchant criticism is coming from the right who say the Government is listening too much. 

Matthew Hooton complains that the Government is now adrift without any serious reform agendas underpinning Key’s leadership: “his focus is now almost entirely on the flag referendum and his own international relationships. The continuing shift to the left, including the first increase in benefits since 1972, the $50 million U-turn on refugee numbers based on pressure from the twitterati and the silence on tax and RMA reform is not doing much for his reputation” – see: David Seymour fills political vacuum

He says that Key’s “high water mark is now well behind us. For the serious end of the business community, the tide went out on Mr Key long ago, when they realised he had no interest in a reform agenda and that his words, public or private, lacked the necessary relationship to government decisions to be reliable inputs for business ones. Those waiting for, say, a genuine infrastructure plan, the promised financial services hub in Auckland or RMA reform are still waiting.”

Ex-Act leader Rodney Hide has a very thoughtful and damning critique, complaining that “Policy is now made by public feel. Every decision is open to review and reversal especially if the pushback is from middle voters” – see: It’s polls, not policies, that count in politics

His must-read criticism of John Key’s Government is worth quoting at length: “We have never had a better demonstration of policy by public feel than with Mr Key.  There are no bottom lines. There are no decisions that can’t be overturned. There are no guiding policy principles or political philosophy.  It’s policy management, not policy reform.  It’s a recipe for the status quo and stagnation. There are no thrills and, more importantly, no spills. There is no achievement or lifting of the country’s sights of what could be. The political virtue is all in the ‘steady as she goes’ rather than the use of political power to improve the country’s lot”.

Democracy is worse off, according to Hide, for the extreme focus on the fickle opinions of swing voters in the middle of the political spectrum: “The polls matter. They are all that matters.  Middle voters by definition have no interest in political philosophy or principle. They have no interest in policy debate or argument. Their political support is fickle. Political power is decided by those who have the least interest and who are moved by the shallowest of reasons.”

Rodney Hide also elaborated on some of these arguments in his 39-minute Sunday morning panel with RadioLive’s Jessica Williams – listen to: Rodney Hide and Selwyn Manning. Similarly, Williams interviewed Grant Duncan, who explained how National has been swerving towards the left and right at times and Colin James who sees more aspects of rightwing reform.

On the left, there’s also an increasing awareness of just how poll-driven this government is. On The Standard, Greg Presland reflects on how the Government deals with problems: “When a crisis erupts National looks messy. It takes a few days for them to take soundings and work out what politically is the best line to take.  This also describes National’s second problem. They look like they are opinion poll driven fruit loops. Everything seems to be on the table as long as it may be popular as opposed to right” – see: Twelve long months

The idea of this Government being consumed by the need for popularity is also examined by Danyl Mclauchlan in a blog post in which he suggests “this is now a very odd-looking National government” because it doesn’t implement much reform, and where it does so, it’s mostly of a progressive nature, which means “In some ways the third-term Key National government has been one of the best left-wing governments we’ve ever had” – see: State of play

Mclauchlan says that policy is often botched by the Government, but it always excels at performing its core function of photo opportunities: “What’s happening here, I think, is that all the energy that normal governments put into developing new policies and implementing agendas is going into maintaining Key’s popularity, the perpetuation of which has become a goal in itself, not a means to an end…. because the core role of this government is to generate events like the Parliamentary announcement of the All-Black line-up or source adorable puppies for the leader to take selfies with. These propaganda pieces are never botched because they’re core business. And government policy is now a subset of this public relations machine. Rather than justifying policy it determines it.”

In the weekend TV3’s The Nation had a special looking at One year on from the election. This included the nine-minute interview: National’s Chief Strategist Steven Joyce. See Matthew Theunissen’s report on this: Key still ‘envy’ of most political parties says Joyce

It is telling that Joyce pointed to the “Government’s proudest achievements since last year’s election” with special emphasis on their more leftwing policies: “introducing free healthcare for under-13s and raising benefits to help children growing up in poverty”. The best analysis came in the eight-minute panel of Guyon Espiner, Tracy Watkins & Patrick Gower

The case for third-termitis has also been put recently by Tracy Watkins who points out that major gaps have been opening up between the Government and the public on issues such as the refugee crisis, Maurice Williamson’s speech debacle and the flag change debate – see: Flags, MPs, refugees – is the ground shifting under John Key?

Similarly, Duncan Garner points to the recent health and safety reform controversy, especially the strange categorisation of worm farming – see: National gets a case of the dreaded third-termitis

Possibly the most interesting discussion of the Government’s strong inclination to bend to the mood of the public is Tim Watkin’s blog post, Cure for third-termitis? A dose of the polls. He says “The big lesson from this past year of politics is that National under John Key (and Joyce) is willing to turn on a dime and do as many u-turns as polling tells them are needed, to stay popular. More than ever in its third term, National will bend like a Len Lye sculpture to match public opinion, even if it makes them hypocrites.  The trend has been building all year. National said no new taxes, then introduced a “brightline test” (a non-tax tax) and a tourism “levy” tax. The party that has long-mocked benefit increases, well, they increased benefits. Refugee numbers? They went from no way to 600 more in less than a week.  And now Lochinver. The crown jewel of all u-turns”.

Watkin points out that such extreme ideological flexibility may be criticised as hypocrisy, but in fact the public appreciate being listened to. Nonetheless, “This uber-flexibility raises all kinds of questions. One, how long is the party prepared to wear this lack of ideology before someone revolts? Is winning enough for National, when it’s brazenly stealing Labour policies and governing so far from its base? All the base is getting is the slow privatisation of social services. A huge change in itself, but thin gruel for red-blooded Nats.”

But not everyone is convinced that the Government is really that centrist – see Chris Trotter’s column, National loves the Right, not the Centre. He points out, for example, that “With affordable housing in unprecedented demand, would a “centrist” government advocate selling-off thousands of state houses?”

Finally, Audrey Young has catalogued not only the Government’s biggest moments over the last twelve months, but also its biggest challenges in the months to come  – see: A big year in the life of John Key.

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Dr Bryce Edwards is a political scientist and a lecturer in Politics.

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