The downfall of John Key

The question of the day is whether John Key mishearing, forgetting, or not wanting to answer questions about Cameron Slater’s bizarre text messages is going to be the nail in his coffin.

Bryce Edwards is asking it, and Bryan Gould is one of many people wondering what kind of dirt Slater must have on Key to make him, against all apparent political logic, refuse to jettison the alliance with the attack blogger.

The thing is, if you’ve been around the online world of NZ politics for any amount of time, it’s always felt fairly obvious that associating with a nasty smear merchant like Cameron Slater would have to blow up in Key’s face at some point. It had to, if there were any justice in the world.

Haven’t we known for years that Cameron Slater/WhaleOil was a vicious piece of work who built his pageviews on clickbait, spam, and personal attacks? Haven’t we known for years that he was, in one way or another, deeply involved in the National Party political machine? Weren’t people pointing out that his writing style changed markedly from post to post depending on the target, and that his targets were frequently people or organisations which were opposing the interests of key National Party players?

Wasn’t everyone saying when Dirty Politics was released that it just confirmed everything we already knew?

So in a sense, last week’s text messages, and the shifty-looking way Key has tried to avoid talking about them, doesn’t feel like much of a killing blow. If you were already looking at Cameron Slater and John Key and thinking “well we know something’s going on there” it’s not even the biggest, scariest piece of information we know about their friendship. For it to bring about John Key’s downfall, it would have to mean the wider situation had changed.

And maybe it has, with journalists feeling pretty pissed off – that Key doesn’t even try to hide the fact he’s dodging their questions, that Key gave his new cellphone number to Slater but not even members of the Press Gallery, and that all this is coming after it’s been made crystal clear that Slater has access to information, even help straight from the PM’s office to get that information, which they will never get.

On the other hand, the general election’s done. National could crash ten points in the polls overnight and it wouldn’t change the fact that we can’t recall Prime Ministers, and they don’t have an obvious, immediate replacement for Key who could hope to make things any better.

And in three years, who even knows if people will care about what John Key texted to that WhaleOil guy that one time?

Hiding the government’s failure on poverty

Three weeks ago I snarked John Key’s sudden desire to take serious action on child poverty.

Now, thanks to Radio New Zealand, we know that not only has Treasury been tailoring its advice to meet National’s prejudices, and not only has National got no real intention of changing the way it’s doing things, but they also really, really don’t want to be honest about it.

Radio New Zealand made the request for copies of the officials’ advice in May last year but the documents were only released early this month after repeated complaints to the Ombudsmen’s Office.

John Key has conceded the Government often delays information releases when it is in its political interests to do so. Delaying the release of this advice appears to confirm the Government is sensitive to debate about child poverty.

Before Mr Key became Prime Minister he talked about a growing underclass in New Zealand and his determination to reverse that trend. Information in the documents suggests the Government is yet to make any real impact on the problem.

Next week the Governor-General delivers the Speech from the Throne at the opening of Parliament and this will outline the Government’s broad programme for the next three years.

Just what will it say about lifting children out of poverty?

My guess is it’ll be more of the same: the usual right-wing hand-waving about creating jobs and “incentives” to work – which in practice means sitting back and doing nothing except make it harder and harder for people to actually access vital support when there simply aren’t jobs for them to move into.

John Key’s focus groups are telling him people care about inequality, so he has to go through the motions of caring. But he’s already rejected the recommendations of the Expert Advisory Group on poverty and leads a government which is doing its damnedest to drive down wages and kick people off benefits. Expect a lot of big talk and no real action for another three years.

What kind of government would National lead?

The choice for NZ voters is becoming clearer in the last days of the 2014 election. The irony is that after John Key’s persistent scaremongering about the “five-headed monster” of the centre-left, the two most likely options we have are a three-headed coalition of natural allies versus a five-or-six headed hydra of extremists and sworn enemies.

David Cunliffe has signalled today that he only sees three parties around the Cabinet table in his government: Labour, the Greens, and NZ First. All three parties have a good number of policies set out, with obvious overlaps – there are clear differences of opinion, but coming to a mature compromise is a key part of how MMP is meant to work.

Meanwhile, John Key has been forced into opening the door to Colin Craig’s Conservative Party thanks to the abysmal polling of his preferred ally, ACT.

Colin Craig is talking a softer game as he sees his poll results edge closer and closer to the magical 5% threshold. But neither he nor Jamie Whyte are men built to compromise their passionately-held extremist beliefs. So what will each of them demand?

Is Colin going to get binding referenda? Or the abolition of parole? Or a curfew for the “most promiscuous” young women in the world?

Is Jamie going to get his wish of scrapping the RMA and OIO so overseas investors can buy up our land and poison our rivers, or abolishing all school zones except the one around Auckland Boys’ Grammar (and all building regulations except the ones that keep Epsom leafy)?

And how can any of this possibly be workable with middle-of-the-road Peter Dunne (if he wins Ōhāriu, and that’s not guaranteed), with “not crazy”-conservative Winston Peters (who can’t stand Whyte or Craig) and with the Māori Party (who may have a thing or two to say about ACT and Craig’s anti-Treaty ways)?

If NZ First and the Conservatives both get over 5%, it’s going to be impossible for National to get its long-dreamed-of governing-alone 50%. They’d have to pull together four or five coalition partners who hate each other, and their closest ideological friends are frankly bizarre.

As that becomes clearer it’s got to be a huge turn-off for the moderate voters who have bulked out National’s support for the past six years – and a Labour-Green-Winston coalition is looking rock-solid-stable in comparison.

Looking at the big policy picture

(This was originally posted at The Standard.)

Despite John Key’s key message du jour, the parties of the Opposition are talking policy. A (totally unscientific) look at party websites reveals Labour and the Greens have put out hundreds of pages of policy information – compared to National’s 26.

But a word count isn’t really proof of anything more than a party’s ability to get someone to churn out copy. And even having a lot of policies isn’t proof of a real plan to improve the lives of all New Zealanders. When all you give is a few scattered bullet points detailing short-term quick fixes

So what do Labour’s policy releases to date tell us about their plan?

The Best Start package including extended paid parental leave makes sure every newborn’s basic needs can be met. Upgrading schools and extending free GP visits carries them through childhood, indrier, warmer houses which their parents can afford to heat thanks to lower power prices. They’ll be able to afford to go to university, or get a secure apprenticeship if that’s what they want to do with their lives. And once they start work they’ll be paid a fair wage for their labour, their basic rights will be protected, they’ll be able to afford a home of their own if they want one, and in time they can get support and take the time to stay at home with their own babies if they have them.

All this in the most beautiful country in the world with a strong economy built on skills and value-added manufacturing, low unemployment and low government debt.

The Greens want to help our poorest children by investing in health, education and supporting families directly in the early weeks of a child’s life. They’ll boost early childhood education, healthcare, give kids rivers they can swim in, and rebuild our economy through green investment, digital manufacturing, and upgrading our infrastructure and transport to meet the demands of our changing world. And yes, they’ve done the numbers too.

It makes a total mockery of John Key’s claims that the Opposition are focusing on dirty politics and avoiding the policy debate. Labour and the Greens are presenting smart, practical, but ambitious ideas which build a picture of a better, more prosperous, more caring New Zealand.

It certainly isn’t the left that’s running away from debating policies. Maybe the leader of a party deeply implicated in dragging our political discourse into the mud of tabloid attack politics should consider the beam in his own eye first.