Thursday, October 23, 2014

The power of the status quo

Rodney Hide's  NBR column is usually behind a pay-wall but this week it isn't so I took the opportunity to cut and paste in its entirety.

It was never thought possible MMP would deliver the power Prime Minister John Key now enjoys.
His National Party is one short of a majority but has three support parties. However, these lack both leverage and oomph. They have only one or two members. 
National controls Parliament. 
His caucus is quiet. There is no questioning of his leadership or judgment. National’s driving concern is not ideology or policy. It’s driving concern is winning. And Mr Key is a winner.
For National, everything is as it should be.
The Labour Party is tearing itself to bits. It is leaderless and directionless. The Greens are licking their wounds. Winston has gone to sleep. 
The government lacks an opposition. 
The press gallery is sheepish: it threw everything at the prime minister in over-hyping Nicky Hager and talking up Dotcom. It had no impact. Mr Key romped home. 
It’s hard to see how the media could attack Mr Key any harder than they have already.  
He begins his third term as the most popular prime minister in polling history. He commands the total apparatus of government and does so with full public support. 
Those who didn’t vote for him accept he won fair and square. He is admired and supported for coming through a campaign firestorm created by two unsavoury characters supported by a rabid media.
New Zealanders didn’t like it. They voted for Mr Key against Mr Hager and Dotcom. 
Mr Key can now do anything he pleases. 
There’s a dizzy array of possibilities. There’s so much that would make a difference to so many lives. And what does Mr Key choose? He sparks a debate about the flag!
I suspect that’s the most vacuous policy decision conceivable. 
I doubt the most ardent advocate would consider flag change the most urgent public policy matter.  But that’s what Mr Key chose as his signature policy at his most powerful.
He is not even choosing to change the flag; his policy is that we talk about it and vote. His only decision is to leave it to us.
His is an extraordinary lack of public policy vision.
His signature policy in his first term was the cycleway. He had nothing for his second. And now it’s the flag debate.
John Key is risking nothing. He’s blowing none of his capital. He’s also strategically positioning for 2017. 
Officials will no doubt recommend a two-stage process as we had with MMP.
There will be a postal vote for an alternate flag. It will be saying to people, “Well, if we were to change the flag, which would you prefer.” It loads the debate for change.
There will then be a vote to coincide with the general election that decides between the present flag and the favoured alternative.
The flag debate will dominate the 2017 election. There will be organised campaigns for the status quo and organised campaigns for change.  
The debate will snuff out the opposition just as Hager and Kim Dotcom snuffed out Labour and the Greens at the last election.
It will be a nothing debate to disguise the nothingness of the years of government. 
And that’s what we like. We like to grumble about the way things are. But we don’t like change. 
Mr Key captures the public mood perfectly. He’s giving us exactly what we want: nothing but the status quo. 
Politicians with ideas scare us. There’s no chance Mr Key will scare us. He has his power precisely because he does nothing with it.

NZ is relatively well-positioned in world terms. High in economic freedom, access to education, and health care. Crime is apparently dropping ( 7 deaths in West Auckland is not testament to that claim) and welfarism is reducing albeit painfully and tenatively slowly.

But...there is still an underbelly which lives outside of a positive value system. Violence is pervasive and tolerated so long as it stays within the underbelly confines. They are paid to have kids who lead awful lives by most people's standards. We have rural slums surviving largely on benefits and crime, and gang life seems unremittingly seductive to up and comers.

The ageing population and future taxation burden goes unaddressed. Child support and student loan debt remain symptoms of unsatisfactory systems. 

Too many people are carrying crosses that are the direct result of government policy.

I'd be happy with a do-nothing government once it was made small.

But I don't want a do-nothing, status quo approach while the government remains large and cumbersome.

Rodney's piece begins with an acknowledgement that predictions fail. So let's hope this one does too.


Kiwiwit said...

Very well said. Key's popularity is a reflection of the complacency of the average New Zealander. I really hope this country continues to have an easy ride because in John Key we don't have a captain for rough waters.

JC said...

I think Rodney is misjudging Key.

From Rodney's POV it is inconceivable that Key won't use the full power he has built up to make bold and significant change and indeed that's a common precept of the use of political power.. use it while you've got it.

But in reality Key has been using his power as those that don't live here tell us admiringly.. he's achieved more than his contemporaries around the Western world could do and retained his popularity in the doing. Like any good banker he both uses and astonishingly replenishes his power as he goes.

He can be like a weather vane on all sorts of issues but I notice he rarely moves away from financial orthodoxy on core things like the economy, debt, inflation, current account deficit, trade agreements, exporting, foreign relationships, taxes and so on.

When I take off my blue specs I still see the same thing in the core issues.. they fly beneath the radar but they are handled with orthodoxy and calmness whether it is the global financial crisis or earthquake and mining disasters.. its that understated stability that I and over half of NZ see and which appeals to foreigners as well.

If Key has any genius its in keeping his hands off all the levers of power, delegation, not pushing people further and faster than they want to go and showing little left/right ideology.. he does what works in a slightly fractious democracy under MMP.