There was an excellent article in the Canberra Times today about John Key and why New Zealand loves him, the online version is much abbreviated, but talks still about how Australian leaders need to take lessons, good on you John! I like the version so much that I am putting it in here in full, if you can access the print version I would recommend it
New Zealand’s John Key may have set a national goal of catching up with Australia’s level of income per person, but when it comes to politics, Australia is taking lessons from the NZ leader.
On first blush, the conservative Prime Minister seems an unlikely role model. He was a Merrill Lynch investment banker, an occupation exposed in the year he was first elected as more likely to be made up of looters rather than leaders.
And he was known to harbour sympathy for disgraced ideas which dared not speak their name after NZ’s searing experience of conservative ideologues in the 1980s. The dirtiest word is privatisation.
But Key was not only elected in 2008, he was re-elected with a swing in favour of his National Party three years later. He didn’t win an outright majority; since 1996, no government in NZ has, and its mixed-member proportional voting system makes that especially hard. But his approval rating holds up around 60 per cent, with disapproval around half that level.
And this was in spite of walking into office to be greeted by the twin disasters of the biggest global economic disaster in 70 years and the biggest natural disaster in NZ history as earthquakes slammed Christchurch.
NZ is still recovering from both. When Key took office, unemployment was 4.6 per cent; today it is 6.9 per cent. Only around a quarter of the number of the homes destroyed in Christchurch have been rebuilt. It’s a mammoth reconstruction task that is reckoned ultimately to cost 15 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product.
Key’s personable, breezy, everyman style has helped; his competence in handling disasters and running a well-managed government is a real accomplishment.
But he also is a case study of a prime minister who can conduct tough economic reform while taking the people with him, the holy grail of national leadership.
For instance, Key raised the goods and services tax rate from 12.5 per cent to 15 per cent in his first term – and got away with it.
And now Key is speaking the unspeakable. Privatisation of state assets is on the agenda as he pursues a budget surplus in 2014-15.
Australian conservatives have followed the Key experience closely. Indeed, his two election campaigns were managed by the Liberals’ electoral strategists of choice, Crosby Textor. Key is on close terms with Tony Abbott.
And Abbott’s shadow minister for finance and deregulation, Andrew Robb was at a conference in NZ at the weekend, speaking about the opposition’s plans but also seeking ideas.
”The main lesson of John Key is that he’s made a particular point of focusing only on things he said he’d do,” says Robb. ”First, he established a mandate for a policy program and assiduously not stepped outside it.
”But second, if issues come up, he says he’ll take that to the next election,” and establish a mandate for it. In a world of great uncertainty, says Robb, voters crave certainty and leaders need to deliver it.
It’s true that, on the great taboo of privatisation, Key has said he would take the proposal to the people before committing to it. He took the idea to the 2011 election, won, and is now moving to implement in time to bank the proceeds to support the budget bottom line.
You can see Australia’s Liberals emulating Key on their great taboo of the post-Howard era – deregulation of the labour market. Abbott has undertaken that, if elected, he will only make any significant changes to industrial relations after taking them to an election. John Howard did the same with the GST.
But on other controversial policies, it’s not true that Key has kept to his promised program. The biggest departure was his move to raise the GST; a direct breach of a promise, and he did it anyway.
How does he get away with it? He has a couple of big political advantages. First is the essential quality of public trust. His former life as a successful foreign exchange trader, rather than disqualifying him from high office, has actually been central to his success, for two reasons.
First, Kiwis accept that their country faces serious economic problems. Australians under 40 have no adult experience of recession; the country has come to expect that economic good times are normal. New Zealanders, by contrast, have not had the luxury of the longest boom in the developed world.The different conditions are evident in a fact threatening NZ’s national viability – a net total of more than 30,000 Kiwis a year leave to live in Australia, or about 0.7 per cent of the population.
John Key campaigned with an ad shot in an empty football stadium, raising the alarm. Still the outflow runs unchecked. The sense of national alarm is real.
So Kiwis are more apt to accept hard change, provided they are convinced it’s necessary. And Key has proved able to convince them.
His experience as a successful investment banker gave him the image of a man who understood finance and economics.
His net worth, estimated at more than $NZ50 million ($40 million) has established he does not need to be Prime Minister for the pay cheque. This means his motives are seen to be sound.
On top of that, he was brought up by his widowed mother in public housing. He may lead the party as the champion of the rich, but his family background wins him the trust of ordinary people.
Some of Key’s lessons of mandate and competence may travel to Australia, but he stands on a political platform neither Tony Abbott nor Julia Gillard enjoys – trust. Personal trust created by his life story, and political trust earned through competence.
Gillard has proved unable to establish trust, and, if he wins power, Abbott will have to earn his.
Peter Hartcher is the international editor.
So everyone, and I mean everyone, can see why John Key is so much more than ‘smile and wave’, why can’t Labour realise it and move on to producing productive and marketable strategies. If Shearer, Mallard, Fenton and the other lost
soles souls at Labour could put a decent opposition the might even stand a chance of stopping National walking into an easy third term.