By John Boswell, Lecturer in Politics at the University of Southampton.
New Zealand Prime Minister John Key’s announcement of his resignation at the beginning of this week has been met with surprise. An historically popular third-term leader is leaving politics on a high. The reaction over this side of the world has been one of bewildered admiration. How is this possible? What was he doing so right? What is this magical secret to success in contemporary democratic leadership? As a kiwi who has followed things closely from afar, and as a card-carrying deliberative democrat—committed more to the procedural fairness of democratic contestation than to substantive policy outcomes—this fawning is a little hard to take. A very effective leader Key has been, but the descriptor democratic is not one that fits. Specifically, three main strategies that have underpinned his National-led governments have been corrosive to established democratic conventions and practices:
1. Procedure is for wimps
Right from the outset the Key government were ‘relaxed’ about established conventions simply because they had the numbers in the House (despite NZ having a proportional system, the make-up of Parliament throughout has included tiny and mostly compliant coalition partners and supporters). An egregious example was the use of urgency in Parliament. New and manifestly un-urgent Bills in the early days especially were passed under urgency, curtailing debate and contestation, and preventing opportunity for Member’s Bills to be heard. The rituals of scrutiny and opposition were painted as nasty politicking, getting in the way of the government’s rightful mandate.
2. Governments get to control the communications environment
A change championed in particular by National’s media guru, chief strategist and all-round fixer Steven Joyce (the so-called Minister for Everything) has been to turn government agencies into cogs in an impressive political communications machine. Joyce’s own (admittedly large) Ministry, for instance, employs over 50 communications staff. That’s as many media experts as most newsrooms in the country. These communications specialists—largely poached in fact from rapidly emptying newsrooms—seem to be employed chiefly for the purpose of not communicating, of stalling and misdirecting. I myself was rather miffed to be on the receiving end of one such run-around on a recent research trip back to NZ. My experiences were by and large confirmed by the academics and media people I spoke to: from Key himself refusing to front for Morning Report or Campbell Live (the most critical interview rituals in NZ), to mundane operational agencies neglecting to engage with people like me, a culture of shutting-up-shop reigns.
3. The advantage of being in government is one to be used politically
The most fundamental and disturbing change has been the one uncovered by investigative journalist Nicky Hager in his book Dirty Politics: an investigation that links the PM’s office to a right-wing attack blogger. This is the below-the-line, dirty, Nixon-esque abuse of the powers and privileges of office to hurt rivals. The most notable tactic has been using Official Information Act requests to coordinate attacks on political rivals (by tipping of this blogger and then processing his requests at lightning speed) and stall genuine requests. Key has denied the former but actually openly admitted the latter.
Readers will be quick to point out that none of this is unique to the NZ context, recalling the playbooks of John Howard, Alistair Campbell, Karl Rove and beyond (after all, NZ is famously 20 years late to the party on everything). The dark arts have always been part and parcel of democratic politics. But a key part of the story here has been the context that has allowed these strategies to breed so much success, in particular the precipitous decline in media coverage of politics in NZ. There are now (according to my sources) more government communications people than journalists. What’s indisputable is that they are more experienced operators who can, in the words of one informant, ‘run rings around the cadets’. This is important because the fourth estate is in trouble everywhere, certainly in spirit even if it survives in body. NZ, with its small, deregulated, almost entirely private media market, represents the extreme edge of a broader and seemingly inexorable trend.
So what might be picked up and taken from the kiwi experience to the current travails of Brexit etc? Key’s government has of course not been populist in the mould of Farage or Trump—indeed Key has annoyed critics on the right for being far too committed to preserving the status quo. Instead I fear he has set the mould for something much less extreme but potentially more enduring, what might be called a popularist leader: a pleasantly bland PM that people (not me, you might have picked) want to have a beer with —one at home in the All Blacks changing room, bantering with shock jocks, posing for selfies—whose views on anything controversial are deliberately obscured, and whose governments’ actions afford little chance of scrutiny and are geared toward damaging enemies and furthering a personal political brand.
I, for one, much prefer it over here where people still hate their politicians.