My entering into the state education system in 1989 roughly coincided with the departure of the Education Minister as leader of the Labour Party, and thus as Prime Minister. I had been a troublesome child at kindergarten, but I had no idea word had reached such a height that the Principal’s Principal had put all other work on hold in anticipation. It was pretty bleak on the 9th Floor for a decade after that. Following David Lange we had Palmer The Ill Prepared, Moore The Month-Or-Two, Bolger The Backwater and Shipley The Stern. Who could forget Jim from Te Kuiti’s cultural chameleon routine, taking on the accents of whichever foreign dignitary he happened to be speaking to? At least three sizzling eggs on the ‘How Embarrassment?’ scale every time. The first two mentioned served terms so insignificant as to barely count, and Shipley’s Bolger Backstabbery was rewarded with an imploding New Zealand First caucus and inevitable electoral defeat in her first election as party leader.
All the mediocrity, severity and facepalmery of that list feel like they were from a different time. Even as I type this, I look in disbelief at the fact that the last of them were still in office by the time I had finished 5th Form (Year 11). Sure, there are a couple of things going on here. First, I’m not getting any younger, but second – and I would argue more importantly – between then and now we were served by a Prime Minister who revered and respected the role she had been elected to play. There was plenty about the 5th Labour Government I disagreed with, slavish commitment to ‘Free Trade’ neo-liberalism and their handling of certain Maori issues in particular, and I never gave my party vote to any of the parties in it. That aside, for nine years we had our leader at home, and representative abroad, who seemed to take the job seriously.
Oh, how we took that as a given back then! My Prime Minister was smarter than me and not ashamed to show and that was great because I want the Prime Minister to be smarter than me! I sure as hell wasn’t capable of setting domestic setting agendas and foreign policy platforms so best to defer to someone qualified. This is how people choose their plumbers, their surgeons, their mechanics. They recognise the job is beyond them, and find someone who has a track record of professional practice and hire them. Somehow, for a sizable portion of the population, this logic doesn’t hold when it comes to politicians. There, they’re looking for the person best suited as a guest at a backyard barbeque. The Fall Of Helengrad was due to a multitude of factors, but the framing of the 2008 election was clear; it was Populists vs Pointy Heads, and John Key and his pack of sizzlers became the 5th National Government.
Your old mate, John Key. Off-the-cuff, self-deprecating, playing the part of One Of The Boys for photo ops and friendly media faces. The desperation to fit in – a social version of Bolger’s vernacular foibles perhaps – sees the same man mincing down the catwalk at a Rugby World Cup event that would later mock rural radio hosts for wearing “gay red shirts”. He’s the Prime Minister that brought us lusting after Liz Hurley, three way handshakes, jokes about Tuhoe cannibals and planking. He delivered one of the most painful Top Ten lists in Letterman history. What a larrikin!
Each time his fans would guffaw loudly around the hotplate, and his critics would explode with impotent rage in their online echo chambers (myself included). Meanwhile, in the Beehive, he’s been quietly dismantling the state one welfare cheque, one state owned asset, one check or balance at a time. But that doesn’t raise any eyebrows at the barbie. They’re still arguing over how hot Liz Hurley is, and if they get anywhere close to the meat of the real agenda, just tell them three generations of dope smoking dole bludgers are living in million dollar state house up in Auckland. That’ll keep them busy for a while.
That’s been the way it’s been for more than four years now. The neighbours over the fence haven’t really stepped in and told them to shut up as well as they might have, but in their defence they have written to the local paper quite a few times, only to find out that the editor they were addressing was just a stones throw away, gobbling down another one of John’s famous snags. The other day though, after a hard day, Burn Your Bridges John came to visit and called them all knuckleheads, so they might not stop by so often any more.
I don’t agree with it, but I have no problems with believers in classical convervatism, neo-liberal fiscal theology and supply side economics being represented in our Parliament by politicians who think the same way. One of the Chicago School’s greatest paradoxes is that it is a pointy headed academic project that has been adopted and advocated for ever since by the very people that deplore this kind of intellectual exceptionalism. What we are then left with is a legion of followers who know the equations, but not the proofs, and you can’t argue against the reasoning behind an idea with those who don’t know what that reasoning is or could be. There’s another side to this, too, and that’s that like any social group, Key’s fan club take their cues from their most influential member, which is him. By casting himself as a King in Court Jester’s clothing, the Prime Minister gives off pretty strong signals that politics isn’t a serious business, it’s all a bit of a laugh, and we shouldn’t take the work of our elected officials all that seriously. The smoke screen for his austerity measures thus becomes toxic, and chokes the oxygen out of what little reasoned debate we still have. I fear we’ll be trying to resuscitate long after he’s out on the Celebrity Golf Circuit.
The question that remains, then, is whether the wounds the Prime Minister inflicts on society with his austerity economics will heal faster than the wounds he inflicts on our political discourse with his embarrassing buffoonery. Neither will be easy, so the sooner the job is filled by someone who takes it seriously, the better off the people of Aotearoa will be.
2014 can’t come soon enough.