John Key, Sunday Star-Times

JK — master sidestepper

I like John Key. He’s a nice guy, a great husband and father, and might just be the most astute politician any political party ever had.

He’s just not a good leader for our country.

You can tell this by the way he sidesteps and spins his way out of all the tough questions.

Now I happen to believe that when a citizen asks a question of his elected servant, that servant should do the citizen the honour of answering it.

And if he sidesteps the question, I think we should call him on it.

And if he keeps sidestepping, we should keep calling him on it until he learns to respect his employer. 

So that’s what I’m going to do in this post. 

In Sunday’s Star-Times, 50 New Zealanders, including me, were asked to put a question to John Key.

You can see my question below. 

And you can see how JK sidestepped it.

And not just my question. Also questions from Sir Colin Meads, Gareth Morgan, Don Nicholson, Oscar Kightley, Denis Dutton, Michael Laws, Peter Chin, Phil O’Reilly and others.

This PM, like the last one, has the sidestepping down pat.

So much so that it reminds me of that other famous JK, All Black John Kirwan. (For the culturally challenged, that’s him on the left.)

Here’s a selection of those questions and answers — punctuated by the interjections I wish I could have made.

1. Sir Colin Meads, former All Black: Do you think you are doing too much for the Maori people? Is it just to keep their votes?

We are putting our focus and energy into the settling of historic claims and the sense of grievance it conjures, so we can move on into the next phase of this country’s history. I think it would be a betrayal of Kiwis’ basic sense of decency to forget the past and the legitimate claims of iwi.

Sidestep. Everyone agrees about the legitimate claims. But what about the illegitimate ones? Like the recent half billion dollar payment to Tuwharetoa.

By all accounts, that iwi was so happy with their 19th century payout (for the then-barren Volcanic Plateau) that they dug up their late chief negotiator and propped him up against a tree for the celebration party.

But at the same time I am determined New Zealand will not become stuck in that past.

You mean like stuck with the temporary Maori seats you promised to abolish — a promise you broke to forge a totally unnecessary alliance with the Maori (sovereignty) Party?

 I am optimistic the next phase can be characterised by better race relations and an even more strongly united sense of our shared aspirations as New Zealanders.

Sounds idyllic. United? Sounds like One Law For All — a concept your predecessor promoted and you ditched to please your new mates.

7. Oscar Kightley, film-maker and comedian: Pacific heroes Michael Jones and Inga Tuigamala gave you their support, and that of their supporters, because they thought that, under National, Pacific people would be owning factories and not just working in them. When do you think that will happen?

Lifting New Zealand’s economic performance will help all New Zealanders, and I know that is also what Inga and Michael believe.

So why have you ruled out so many policies that would lift New Zealand’s economic performance?

Michael has said publicly it was my aspiration to bring all New Zealanders forward, including Pacific people, which convinced him to support us. I know our strong commitment to economic growth in the Pacific nations, including business mentoring, is important to New Zealand’s Pacific people.

Sidestep. Oscar asked “When?” 

10. Greg Fleming, chief executive of the Maxim Institute: Are there any issues you care enough about that you would be willing to lose all your political capital for them?

I have some bottom lines, and I care deeply about many issues, not least of which is education. I have said I would resign as PM if superannuation entitlements were ever cut. However, political capital is important because it is a measure of how well the public is receiving your policies. Democracy demands the involvement of voters in all the decisions you make,

You mean like with the anti-smacking referendum, where you ignored 85% of voters?

so it can be a balancing act.

Likewise, we have three support partners whose views must be balanced against our own.

I know we’re not meant to ask this, but: Why must the views of the Maori Party be taken into account? After all, their supporters gave their party votes to Labour.

Yet to feather your own political nest you:

a) broke the promise you made to the electorate to abolish the race-based seats

b) gave $500 million of our money to Tuwharetoa for land they’d already been paid for in the 19th century

c) bribed the tribes to get them to support the ETS (where you broke another promise not to lead the world)

d) secretly signed us up to a UN convention that opens a new track for the Treaty gravy train

e) gave away the foreshore and seabed to any iwi with a sense of grievance and a smart lawyer.

That is the nature of MMP government.

Maybe it’s time we got rid of it.

So you’re saying you’ve got one bottom line. You’d sacrifice everything else to keep superannuation payments from being cut.

Isn’t this just Winston Insurance — for when the Oracle returns and reminds his bewildered flock about National’s broken promise over the superannuation surcharge in 1990?

14. John Ansell, designer of the famous “Iwi-Kiwi” billboards for the National Party election campaign in 2005: If you’re genuine about closing the Tasman wage gap, why are you driving up New Zealanders’ power and petrol prices with an emissions trading scheme, when Australia and all other countries have deferred their climate taxes because so much of the science is fraudulent?

I believe human-induced climate change is happening.

Why? Why are you now a Climate Scientologist when you were one of the first to conclude it was a hoax? (A view now clearly shared by our biggest trading partners.)

Further, by refusing to implement the ETS proposed under the former Labour government, we have halved the fuel and electricity costs facing businesses and households.

Oh great. So we’ve progressed from Dumber all the way up to Dumb.

New Zealand, as a responsible international citizen, and as a country that values its clean, green environment, must act to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.

Why, when…

a) there’s hardly any of them.

b) it won’t change the climate in the slightest.

c) it won’t help you achieve your goal of catching Australia — since even Aussie’s Labor government isn’t dumb enough to punish their people with a tax on the breath of life?

However, this must be in ways that result in the least cost to society and the economy.

Sidestep. You didn’t answer my question. So here’s another one for you…

Which has the least cost to society and the economy:

a) A 5-10% power price rise plus a 4-8c a litre petrol price rise?

b) A 0% power price rise plus a 0c a litre petrol price rise?

15. Peter Elliott, actor: How difficult is it to reconcile the recent success of New Zealand’s ideological stance on nuclear issues with President Barack Obama, when the National Party vilified and ridiculed the instigators of our anti-nuclear policy?

Just days after becoming leader of the National Party in November 2006, I announced my unswerving support for New Zealand’s anti-nuclear legislation. I said then that under my leadership the anti-nuclear legislation will not change, and it won’t. New Zealanders are proud of the anti-nuclear policy, and it is iconic. As I said in 2006, I believe in that position and see absolutely no reason for change.

Translation: “Where Helen stands, I stand.”

(Will you be going to the UN too, in return for promoting the opponent so many of us worked so hard to defeat?)

20. Roger Kerr, executive director, Business Roundtable: Unlike your predecessor who famously said, “The government’s role is whatever the government defines it to be”, you have endorsed the concept of limited government. What do you regard as the proper limited role of government?

A vital role of government is to improve the living standards of New Zealanders. Sometimes it can do that by funding or providing services itself; sometimes by keeping out of the way of private enterprise. I am not overly ideological about the role of government; I believe in what works.

We look forward to the next OECD GDP per capita rankings to see whether your policies are taking us up or down. Will you take us ahead of the hapless Greeks or be overhauled by the clever Koreans?

I note those same policies have already widened the Tasman Wage Gap.

25. Peter Chin, mayor of Dunedin: When will the government be required to meet the same levels of transparency it demands of local government – especially since the increasing costs of such central government imposed compliance (annual plans, consultation etc) become a further burden to be met by ratepayers?

Central and local government are not directly comparable, but the process of accountability and transparency seems to me to operate in a similar way. For example, both central and local government are subject to the Official Information Act. Through that, expenditure by government – no matter whether it is central or local – can be scrutinised publicly.

Sidestep. Peter was talking about annual plans. How come local governments have to submit annual plans and central government doesn’t?

And how come a prime minister can get away with saying he’s got a plan for achieving his stated goal, when he hasn’t?

26. Don Nicolson, president of Federated Farmers: Do you categorically know if our assumed “clean-green” and “sustainable” brand is a primary reason why consumers in the growing markets of Asia, the Middle East and Africa buy New Zealand food products and if not, why not?

As I said in a speech to Federated Farmers last November, we ignore environmental concerns of our overseas customers at our peril. I said then that environmentally aware consumers across Britain and Europe were increasingly demanding higher environmental standards for the food they buy.

America’s largest supermarket chain, Walmart, is introducing a Sustainability Index. It includes factors such as the impact on natural resources, energy and climate change in the manufacture of its products. I believe consumers in other markets like the ones you cite will increasingly become sensitive to environmental concerns. I do not believe we can differentiate between those types of markets.

Sidestep. The question is not whether Walmart has a Sustainability Index. It’s whether a large percentage of their customers base their buying decisions on it.

As I said to the conference last year, regardless of your view about the environment or climate change, the opinions of your consumers will ultimately decide how well your products sell.

Do you really think our exporters need to be told that? If our professional marketers don’t think it’s a problem, why should the government get involved?

27. Ruth Lim, Sunday Star-Times reader, Christchurch: You went through the public school system and seem to have fond memories of your time there, as evidenced by your recent visit to Burnside High. You have also done very well in the business and political world since. What are your reasons for sending your own children to private schools?

I believe all New Zealanders should have the freedom to make choices, especially when it comes to issues like education and healthcare. New Zealand has excellent schools and one of the reasons for that is different schools are able to cater for students’ various needs. My children enjoy their schools – they’re a good fit. As all parents know, if your children are happy at their school it makes a big impact on their all-round wellbeing.

Sidestep. John, you once said our private schools were no better than our state schools.

If so, why do you and every other senior politician I’m aware of (Labour’s former education minister Mallard included) send your children to private schools?

You know private schools tend to be better. You lead a private enterprise party. Why not be honest and say so — proudly?

30. Denis Dutton, professor of philosophy, University of Canterbury: We continue to lose our smartest, most imaginative and entrepreneurial young people to Australia, the UK, and the US. New Zealanders have a tiresome repertoire of self-delusional excuses for this (“They will come back to raise families”, “We can replace them with Zimbabwe-trained professionals”, “If they are so greedy, who needs them”, etc). Our loss of university-trained citizens is near the top of the OECD. What three initiatives would you put in place to staunch New Zealand’s haemorrhaging of its best young talent?

Ensuring New Zealand remains a lifestyle choice for returning New Zealanders and new migrants means developing a package of initiatives which will endure.

Sidestep. Staunching the haemorrhaging means convincing our  kids not to leave in the first place.

These include an attractive tax system, incentives for businesses, and world-class health and education. New Zealand will always see its young people doing an OE. While many come back home, there will always be those who settle into a new life overseas, and we can’t begrudge them seizing those opportunities. However, we can continue to develop a suite of policy initiatives to ensure we can compete with other countries to attract not only our own best and brightest, but the very best in the world.

The question asked for three initiatives. The answer provided none.

42. Michael Laws, mayor of Whanganui: One of the primary reasons Labour was voted out of office in 2008 was a perceived political correctness that dominated its political thinking. Is the National government not guilty of the same – with its decisions on parental smacking, the spelling of Whanganui, the repeal of the seabed legislation, its embrace of Whanau Ora and its relationship with the minority Maori Party?

One of the government’s priorities this year is to make significant reforms in social sectors like the welfare system, education, the justice system, health and state housing, to deliver better results. All New Zealanders deserve a future with less unemployment, welfare dependence, crime and all the social problems that go along these. To secure this brighter future, we have to get to grips with some of the big issues in these areas which have long been left unaddressed, and we need to tackle these issues as a nation. If National, with its confidence and supply partners, can make headway in these issues, then all New Zealand will benefit. But I don’t believe it’s something National should do alone – having the support of our political partners and New Zealanders across the spectrum is crucial. One thing I believe strongly is that there is no room in New Zealand for separatism. And, although there will be bumps along the way, we need to acknowledge that this is the only way forward.

Sidestep. 169 words and not one on-topic. Never mind Kirwan, that’s Bryan Williams territory.

43. Gareth Morgan, economist and investor: What is the single most important policy advance, to your mind, if NZ is going to have any chance of closing the income gap with Australia?

I have always maintained there is no one silver bullet. It will be a raft of policies that lift New Zealand’s economic performance. Reforming our tax system in a fair and equitable way is one. Reducing red tape, boosting infrastructure such as broadband, electric rail and road networks, driving better performance in the public sector, and encouraging innovation, particularly in science, are others. This will be an ongoing programme, year-on-year.

Sidestep. Gareth asked you for your signature dish, not the whole menu.

44. Phil O’Reilly, chief executive, Business New Zealand: We’re a nation of small businesses, but we really need to develop more global-sized firms like Fonterra to secure our economic future. What are the two most important policy levers you would pull to increase our chances of growing more global companies?

To grow more successful companies in New Zealand, we have to be a better place to run a business. And that doesn’t happen with just two policy levers – we actually have to do hundreds of things well as government, so businesses have the confidence to invest, grow and create higher-paying jobs.

That’s why we have been busy in a whole lot of policy areas from the RMA to trade agreements, to tax to transport, to science to electricity, to education to capital markets, to local government to broadband, and so on. With action in all those areas we increase our chances of growing more successful, internationally competitive, bigger businesses.

Sidestep. Phil didn’t say there should be only two policy levers. He asked for the two most important.

47. Selwyn Pellett, businessman: In business a CEO is hired who knows his craft, understands his chosen market and knows how to extract value from it in the interests of all his shareholders. The corporate goals are almost always achieved with a clear inspiring vision that all stakeholders buy into it. If this is the prescribed business wisdom for success (strong, strategic and inspiring leadership) and you are the head of our business party, do you think that New Zealanders should also demand this of our prime minister?

Running a business is one thing, running a country is another. There are obviously some similarities but it is the job of a prime minister to articulate a vision for where the country is heading, why we want to get there, and how. Voters demand that of political leaders, and that is what I am focusing on.

Wrong. The job of a prime minister is not to talk about getting there. It’s to get there.  

You articulate a vision of closing the Tasman Wage Gap. That’s good.

And you articulate why you want to close it. Also good.

Then you fail to articulate how you’re going to close it. Not so good.

And as a result you’re failing to close it. Bad.

In other words, John, your non-plan is not working.

Now people may think this post is mean. Part of me really doesn’t want to talk like this. I’ve got friends in the National Party, and I have no personal animosity towards John Key at all. Quite the reverse.

But there’s a bigger issue here. The future of our country.

For the last 10 years, under two dominant leaders, New Zealand has been a parliamentary dictatorship.

Now, thanks to his unparalleled political skills, what JK wants, JK gets.

And what JK wants is popularity.

And that’s the wrong motivation. It wasn’t Don Brash’s. It’s not Roger Douglas’s. Nor was it Winston Churchill’s or Margaret Thatcher’s or Ronald Reagan’s.

Real leaders get out of bed in the morning hell-bent on creating a better country. Not just building a bigger majority.

That’s why real leaders like Churchill and Thatcher (and in New Zealand, Douglas) will be remembered long after mere politicians like Clark and Key are forgotten.

Where is the New Zealand leader who can talk straight?

One who doesn’t need to sidestep?

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5 thoughts on “JK — master sidestepper

  1. Oh dear, no crissy present nor invite to the Nats. party for you this year young man.
    Absolutely fair response and deserving of an answer. One that will not be forth coming.

    I notice I’m not exactly up to my ears in government advertising contracts. Can’t think why.

  2. I nominate this post for “NZ blog post of 2010”. This should be compulsory reading in every National Party gathering.

    Come on, JK. Are you going to be a Prime Minister? Or just “Smile and Wave”? That’s a huge list of people (above) that you have let down.

    And, well done, JA. I admire the “JL Sidestep” (as in Jonah Lomu) you have assembled. Demolished.

    Thanks David.

  3. In case of further comments, I won’t be able to acknowledge you until Saturday, as I’m driving north for a funeral and will be off the internet.

  4. Excellent work, John.The only thing some of us would query is your describing John Key as a good politician. I don’t like to see the word good cheapened – its meaning is important.By using it in this sense i.e. he’s a “good” politician because he has that dangerous gift of charisma…he smiles, is smarmy,autocratic, dodges the important questions and still manages to remain personally popular – you rather sound as if you approve of politicians who manage to lead the country by the nose even if/when acting against its best interests.

    Thanks Amy. I agree that the PM’s smile is an important weapon in his arsenal. I wouldn’t say he’s smarmy. Autocratic? Yes, he certainly uses his power to full effect in a way Don Brash did not. To that extent, I think we’re living in a parliamentary dictatorship.

    (Apparently Keith Holyoake once said he only got his way about 40% – or was it 60%? – of the time. While I think Key is in some respects another Holyoake, I suspect his percentage is much, much higher, and probably close to 100%.)

    As to your query, I think if you re-read my post, you’ll find I did not describe John Key as a good politician. I said ‘astute’. (Which I think he is.)

    Too much euphoria there – (e.g. How do you *know* he’s “a great husband and father”? You don’t live with the Keys? And what’s your definition of “a great husband and father…? This part isn’t analysis – you’re now only responding to the projected public image.)

    No Amy, I’m responding to what I saw when I worked for him. I was not there long, but did observe him being thoughtful to his wife, and also to his deputy.

    I have no reason to believe he is not also a good father, though perhaps ‘great’ is me succumbing to hype.

    I also admire the way he achieved his lifetime goal of becoming prime minister, and despite having left his employ by this time I felt sufficiently inspired to text him on election night to say so.

    Before that, of course, he had achieved other career goals, a financial fortune, and an admirable work/life balance.

    So I think John Key has made some choices in his life that have worked well for him, his family, and now his party.

    I just wish more of his political choices were being made for the good of the country.

    Yes, I recognise the irony but I still think a word like “good” is important. A choice of consummate – or accomplished – would be more appropriate, when reflecting how the the very concept of the “politician” has become understandably so little respected in New Zealanders’ estimation.

    I trust ‘astute’ meets with your approval. Astute is not too different from ‘cunning’ – a quality that doesn’t necessarily imply admiration.

    Perhaps we could redefine it as someone belonging to a profession whose members are not known for keeping their political promises to the electorate but regularly let down those who voted for them – and are regarded as preferring the practice of pragmatism and self-interest to the much more important honouring of principles.

    Indeed. Though John Key has never made a secret of his preference for pragmatism over principles, he gave his voters no clue that he would: a) promote Helen Clark to the UN and Michael Cullen to the Board of NZ Post, b) break promises to abolish the Maori seats and not introduce a world-leading ETS, or c) overrule 85% of voters in a referendum.

    Apart from this observation,your excellent dissection of the Prime Minister’s dodging of accountability by replacing obfuscation instead of direct answers should make him ashamed. Let’s hold our breath waiting for his apology. Thanks for a terrific blog.

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