There’s actually only one John Key, just not the one on show

The combination of a National-ACT Government (if elected next week) and the current world financial crisis will result in New Zealand heading back into the sort of free market economic and social reforms seen in the 1980s and 1990s. This is the last thing that most New Zealanders want, which is why National has been working so hard to paint itself as friendly and centrist. But the middle-of-the-road packaging is untruthful. National’s election campaign has consisted of:

  • A presidential-style focus on John Key, that serves to keep people’s minds off the line-up of 1990s privatisers, deregulators and social service-cutters who would make up much of a National-ACT Cabinet.
  • Not releasing policy, not answering questions and not debating policy except when it suits them; and now, mid-election campaign, releasing “policy” that is little more than publicity stunts and too late for proper scrutiny.
  • An orchestrated campaign to knock Winston Peters and the New Zealand First Party out of the election, thereby (they hope) swinging the MMP balance in National’s favour. (Remarkably, there has been almost no discussion about where this campaign came from, why it is happening now and who stands to benefit from it.)

The heart of the National campaign is superficial impression management (‘friendly’, ‘relaxed’, ‘confident’ etc) rather than substance. For example, last week when National MP Maurice Williamson talked for a second time about commuters having to pay up to $50/week on private toll roads under National, the media reports talked of Key’s frustration at trying to keep “on message” rather than the reality of National’s plan to impose road tolls. There was even a tone of sympathy for Key’s problem of his colleagues going “off message”. But what do “on message” and “off message” mean? We are supposed to believe that the “on message” statements and policies are the truth and not just expedient election-winning behaviour. We are supposed to overlook signs of their real intentions (such as the deputy leader and finance spokesperson talking of privatising Kiwibank), because these are “off message”, someone’s “private view” or merely “a slip”. Unfortunately, the real National Party is the one we see in the slips and off-message moments. They are mostly the same people, holding the same beliefs, as when Don Brash was leader (only two years ago, after all). Many of the senior MPs are the same people who did deeply unpopular things to health, the electricity system and other public services in the 1990s. Surprise, surprise that in their unguarded moments they espouse the same hard-line policies that they pushed earlier in their careers. Key, in his short Parliamentary career, pushed similar policies (for example, backing “some form of orientation towards privatisation” in health, education and superannuation, including private investors for “not just roads, but schools and hospitals as well”) and attacked Labour Government initiatives until it became expedient to present himself as a moderate. The simple reason for this is that National’s leadership doesn’t actually have any other ideas. They reluctantly agree to Labour Party policies while wooing voters, but that’s not what they believe in. Returning to free-market reforms is the only philosophy most of them have. This is why whenever anyone goes “off message” the 1990s-style National Party shines through. Media reporting of the policy stunts (“life means life”), the scripted words (“I’m ambitious for New Zealand”) and the little stirs of the election campaign gives almost no useful information to the public about what sort of government National and ACT would create. But, taking a step back, the picture is clear. The centrist John Key is a fake and the National Party is attempting to trick its way to power.

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