IN HIS MEMORABLE holiday-home encounter with the host of Campbell Live, the Prime Minister, John Key, did not rule out running for a fourth term. Were he to be successful, the long-standing record of Sir Keith Holyoake (11 years and 2 months) would be surpassed and the title of longest-serving National Party Prime Minister would pass to the incumbent. How tempting it would then be for John Key to set his sights on “King Dick’s” (Prime Minister Richard John Seddon’s) crown of 13 years and 2 months. Just imagine that – a fifth term! By then the youthful Jacinda Ardern would be 41 years old!
Some will dismiss Key’s musings as yet another example of his celebrated political bravado. But there is another message to be drawn from his speculations concerning a fourth (or even a fifth) term. The Prime Minister’s suggestion that he and the National Party are good for another two or three election wins may also be read as his pledge to the electorate that any government he leads will be moderate and restrained in its policies.
Sir Keith Holyoake could not have governed New Zealand from November 1960 until February 1972 as anything other than a consensus-seeking prime minister. By indicating that he is not adverse to such a lengthy term of office, John Key is signalling to us that he, too, is a consensus politician.
This is significant, because consensus-seeking is not the modus operandi of the rest of the current crop of English-speaking conservatives. David Cameron, Steven Harper and Tony Abbott seem hell-bent on dividing and embittering their nations by pursuing policies that pit the well-off against the poor; the native-born against the immigrant; and the employer against the worker.
The British, Canadian and Australian iterations of contemporary conservatism are all distinguished by a vicious Social Darwinist determination to aid the strong by assaulting the weak and stripping them of their rights. The forthcoming Australian Budget promises to put an end to “The Age of Entitlement” by radically reducing social expenditure. The British Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, through his ruthless austerity programme, has already resurrected the “two-nations” (the Rich and the Poor) conservatism that the Conservative leader, Benjamin Disraeli, battled against in the 1860s and 70s.
Among these conservative leaders, Key stands out as a politician who, far from wishing to divide his country, strives hard to hold at least the biggest part of it together around a core of largely pragmatic political, economic and social objectives. In his role as the Kiwi “Everyman” he has cultivated the image of a friendly, practical and decidedly non-ideological leader. In this respect, he is very much a twenty-first century Holyoake – and seems determined to remain so.
Which is not to say that the National Party caucus is all of the same mind. Many who sit on the Government benches are cut from exactly the same cloth as Cameron, Harper and Abbott.
At present, the most effective exponent of the latter’s brand of “nasty” conservatism is the Justice Minister, Judith Collins. Her political behaviour embodies the disturbing propensity of nasty conservatives to not only subject the poor and the marginalised to deliberate institutional cruelty, but to then represent that cruelty as the “tough love” its victims so obviously require. It is precisely this ability to do evil with a clear conscience that makes Collins and her ilk (Social Development Minister, Paula Bennett, Labour Minister, Simon Bridges) so dangerous.
Fortunately, the nasty conservative faction of National’s caucus is politically constrained by the more moderate pragmatists surrounding Key. While the Finance Minister, Bill English, and “Minister for Everything”, Steven Joyce, continue to call the shots, the “Nasties” capacity to inflict harm will remain severely limited.
So, why hasn’t Key taken advantage of Collins’ gross breaches of the Cabinet Manual’s Conflict of Interest rules to deprive the Nasties of their leader?
Principally, the answer lies in the oldest rule of politics: “Keep your friends close – and your enemies closer.” Collins cringing under the Opposition’s constant fire is preferable to Collins sitting on the back benches like a Black Widow spider plotting her revenge – especially in an election year. Should he win a third term, Key might find the image of a demoted Collins a lot more appealing.
There is also what might be called the “Hilaire Belloc” factor. Belloc is famous for writing a series of hilarious “cautionary poems” for children. In Jim, who ran away from his Nurse and was eaten by a Lion, the reader is advised to “always keep a-hold of Nurse, for fear of finding something worse.” As “something worse” than John Key, Judith Collins is pretty hard to beat!
In a more serious vein, however, Key’s reluctance to move against Collins may be more diplomatic than political. So tight is the Chinese embrace of New Zealand at present, and so assiduous have Chinese businesspeople been at insinuating themselves and their companies into the political fabric of the country, that punishing Collins might well run the risk of unravelling an economic relationship that New Zealand politicians – on both sides of the House – have spent years knitting together. There may now be simply too many faces to save for the Prime Minister to give Collins the punishment she so richly deserves.
Were the boot on the other foot, Collins would not hesitate to deliver the coup de grace, but then, Judith Collins is never going to be a serious contender for the sort of political longevity John Key is contemplating – and may yet achieve.