I have read John Key's speech a couple of times. "The Kiwi Way: A Fair Go For All" made me do a slight double take, wondering whether it was actually something Helen Clark had said, but I persevered.
I suppose that the headlines will be about the beneficiary bashing, but aside from that, the speech is an inoffensive take on what it means to be a New Zealander today, and an interesting jaunt down the sort of sentimental centre line of New Zealand politics. It does however raise some questions in my mind:
- This is Key's fifth year in parliament. The only policy suggestions he's come up with is school breakfasts, and accessible sports opportunities. They are both good ideas, but they are small-fry ideas, saying nothing really of the larger challenges the country faces. I'm not after detailed policy, it's too soon, but I am after an idea of the concepts he thinks need working on and the approaches National is looking at. Rhetoric alone really doesn't cut it after seven long years to have a think and a cuppa tea.
- The 'underclass' idea is connected up with the traditional middle class fear of a detached, gang ridden group in society, dependent on the state etc. But that group is smaller than it has been since the late 1980s due to economic success. Why is Key choosing that as ground to fight on? I agree it's an important issue, but it seems unlikely National is genuinely committed to doing anything about it. The lack of any suggestions at all as to what to do seems to support this interpretation. People already have work obligations while on benefits. I also wish he'd acknowledged some of his party's responsibility for the situation he is describing, though I guess this is politics and that would be a step too far.
- As alluded to above, it really does feel a bit like a "me too" - Key has not drawn any sharp dividing lines with Labour at all. This is the exact opposite of the tactic that propelled Don Brash to within a stone's throw of the premiership. More on this below.
- The speech does not really fill out a picture of how Key would like New Zealand to be, other than where it is now. This is surprising. Even Bolger had a fairly sharp critique, and it is clearly he who Key is modeling himself after in some important respects.
There was a vague tension for me in leading up to this speech. Was there going to be another seismic shake of the political world as happened after Orewa 2004? Would he seek to divide some Kiwis against other Kiwis, as his predecessor did?
The answer is no. Instead the broad tactic seems to be to neutralise points of disagreement with Labour, stress common ground, and try to present as a younger, unthreatening, new face to do much the same sort of thing. I credit him for taking that approach. We do not need divisive politics in this country, and it is to New Zealand's benefit that the divisiveness of the previous National leader is being buried.
The fact that I would struggle to disagree with much that is in the speech (other than the ritual swipes at beneficiaries, Labour and the public service, along with the code for school vouchers and privatised, opportunistic provision of school meals & sports) seems to me to be a slight misjudgement on Key's part.
A speech like this would be enough to shake the Labour core liberal vote, perhaps, without National's record in office, and if Labour had run out of ideas. There is a degree of wishful thinking though in that. The government continues to roll stuff out, and Helen Clark is still seen as a competent and reliable leader.
Further, Key has chosen to start using Labour's framing of political debates. He has deserted the more right wing framing of Brash's time as leader and is trying to come onto Labour's ground. The problem that this poses for him is one of authenticity. How convincing will it be to middle of the road voters, who have heard National speaking very differently for so long, and are used to Labour talking this language?
One of the challenges the Democrats faced in the US was to stop using Republican framing, and to start using their own. It is only when they got their heads around that that they began to come back into contention. Brash did the same in 2005 and came back into contention. Now Key is doing the opposite. Does he know something we don't about this framing gig?
I think it will take more than this soft of speech to dislodge Labour from government. What it might point to, though, is a political debate about values and vision for the country's future.
I hope both National and Labour do more of such speaking, through this year and beyond, and that we can have a genuine political contest about where best New Zealand should go next, instead of tax cut bribes and their affordability or otherwise.