Keeping Up Appearances: The verdict on John Key and the NZ Listener’s adoration of him



One puzzling question, for philosophy and everyday life is this. What is the relationship between essence and appearance? It could be one of manipulation and deception; how the social world appears may obscure an underlying reality. Some individuals may present themselves in disguise to hide their true character. Yet, how things appear cannot be disconnected from essence. If our political culture is pervaded by lies and propaganda then that is the essential truth of the situation. If someone is a master of deception then that forms part of their essence. Alternatively, it might be claimed,in a given situation, that appearances are not deceiving at all.

What you see is an essential component of what you get.

These different views of the essence/appearance relationship will inform my evaluation of John Key as a New Zealand Prime Minister. Adam Dudding in a recent Sunday Star Times feature recalled Key`s 2008 visit to McGehan Close in Owairaka , Auckland. He had labelled the street`s residents as a crime-ridden underclass, neglected by Helen Clark`s uncaring government. A few days later the new Prime Minister took a local Maori girl, Aroha Ireland up to the Waitangi Day celebrations. Dudding`s discussion with McGehan Close residents did not evoke fond memories. One described the earlier events as `a load of publicity bullshit`. Another opined that `I guess he can see there are homeless people ,but he’s not helping them`(`Key moments` Sunday star times December 11 A8-9).

For John Key such criticisms were less important than the appearance of concern and good heartedness. This indeed was a hallmark of his Prime Ministership. Fran O`Sullivan refers to `the permanent campaign which Key mounted- at what sometimes must have been an exhausting personal cost,fronting events and meetings around the country as well as fulfilling his beehive duties`. (`Strong economy a major bonus for brand Bill` NZ Herald December 10 pC2 ).

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This permanent campaign was a seamless combination : targeted polling , focus group tracking, fawning media coverage , Key`s televisual presence and his genuine affability. He performed as an everyman for every occasion and location; the beach, the barbecue, the rugby  gay and lesbian pride events. The whole operation was unbeatable, three terms comfortably won. Yet, this permanent campaign of appearances sometimes revealed its vacuity in retrospect.

Thus, the Pike River funeral now looks like a staged event which serves to highlight government inaction over management culpability for the disaster. And, John Key`s local, everyman persona was not extended to the bereaved families. Their request for even a limited mine re-entry fell on deaf ears.

The suddenness of Key`s departure from office also raises doubts about his authenticity. Only yesterday, it seems, he was at one with Kaikoura locals after the earthquake. Flying in by helicopter with Gerry Brownlee, Key spoke freely on the enormity of the slips, the likely financial effects on farmers , fishermen, tourist operators and publicly declared his commitment to rebuild infrastuctures. Now…in a puff of smoke he`s gone, not there for the long haul. Meanwhile, clearing the slips has been frustratingly slow and conflicts between the New Zealand Transport Agency and Hurunui local authorities over road access has angered local communities.

If the appearances of a leader are taken on trust by influential commentators and the general populace, then mythology will prevail. History will be fabricated rather than examined. The three widely propagated myths about John Key are; that he was not really ideological, he occupied the political centre and that he left no legacy.

The first two myths can be found in a recent Listener editorial (December 17-23 p3) . John Key is said to be `the most pragmatic, least ideological leader we`ve ever had`. On economic matters his record suggests otherwise.

Key was committed to neoliberal doctrine. In the 2010 budget he reduced the top personal tax rate from 38 to 33 per cent, a gift to the wealthy and upper middle class. The raising of GST from 12.5 to 15 per cent in October of that year disproportionately affected lower income earners. Key actively promoted the privatisation or part privatisation of Meridian Energy, Mighty River Power and Genesis despite clear public opposition (in the 2013 asset sales referendum). The Prime Minister`s enthusiastic endorsement of the TPPA reflects the neoliberal eschewal of economic and national sovereignty arguments. Transnational corporate interests were advanced at the expense of the public interest. The sale of Housing New Zealand stock under Key`s Prime ministership reveals the neoliberal aversion to tax funded public provision.

Key did not declare his ideological convictions in the manner of, say, Roger Douglas, Richard Prebble, Don Brash or Ruth Richardson but that was because he didn`t need to. The neoliberal offensive of the late 1980s and 1990s was completed. Openly revisiting the political controversies of that era was tactically unnecessary. Key`s approach was to give the appearance of social concern, make piecemeal concessions to poorer families and to further advance neoliberalism, this time by stealth.

In this context the refusal to raise the age of superannuation entitlement was a very shrewd move. Keep soft National voters on board while appearing pragmatic and non-ideological. The Listener editorial also claimed that John Key `positioned National in the political centre`. This is a fallacy. Rather, Key performed a sleight of hand whereby his eschewal of moral conservatism and `iwi-Kiwi` racial prejudice obscured the fact that the whole party-political spectrum had shifted rightward on economic matters. John Key normalised this process by not drawing attention to it.

History was for others to fight over.

Mainstream New Zealanders just got on with life.

The third myth can be found in an article by Audrey Young (`No vision and no legacy,yet history will be kind to Key` NZ Herald December 10 A20). From this headline the former claim can be substantiated but not the latter. For Young, `a legacy is an achievement that will endure beyond the next leader and beyond different governments`. Well, if this is the threshold then John Key has bequeathed several legacies, none beneficial to the country. The first of these is neglect of infrastructure and social institutions. Our rivers and waterways have become more polluted and acquafers depleted as intensive dairying proceeds apace. Certain regions have experienced ,or will experience, a drinking water crisis; after Havelock North it will be Canterbury`s turn. The growing number of immigrants moving into Auckland are stressing transport infrastructures , stretching education resources and driving down wages and salaries and worsening homelessness.

The government has not caused these outcomes but it has no demographic plan for sustaining economic development.

The student visa scheme nationwide is a backdoor racket designed to entice and fleece new migrants. In our highschools NCEA is not delivering and the decile system of funding is well past its use by date. State prisons are bursting at the seams as private prison authorities turn a blind eye to open thuggery among inmates. Junior doctors work punishing shifts as non- urgent surgery becomes a near impossibility in public hospitals.

Although John Key is not personally responsible for these problems he never signalled their importance in a joined up way. No strategies were devised, no commissions of inquiry were set up no experts were deputed to examine the malaise. Just piecemeal responses and general neglect all round.

The second legacy will be polarisation of wealth and income.

Once again I`m not attaching all the blame to John Key it’s just that he refused to recognise the manifestations of this tendency.

Housing is a central example . Since 2008 the number of homeless people in New Zealand has risen from 33,295 (0.8 per cent of the population) to 41,075 (1.0 per cent). In November 2008 the average house price was $375,408 nationally and $494,136 in Auckland. Those numbers are now $622,309 and $1,045,207 respectively (Dudding, Sunday Star Times December 11).

The problem here is not simply housing supply, for three terms of National government a steadily inflating property price bubble has priced thousands of new Zealanders out of decent housing. There has been no attempt to adress the situation, even in a small way ,say, by removing tax deductibility incentives for property speculators. Such inaction belies John Key`s everyman image.

John Key`s third legacy is , and will be, the weakening of our democratic system. I have discussed this point before but it bears repeating.(see `A critical deconstruction of John Key- whats behind the façade` Daily Blog July 28, 2014). For a neoliberal politician John Key`s advancement of executive state power at the expense of democratic processes has been remarkable. The 2010 dismissal of Environment Canterbury`s 14 elected councillors, the usurpation of Christchurch city council authority after the September 2010 and February 2011 earthquakes, the 2010 rewriting of New Zealand employment laws at the behest of Warner Brothers, the 2013 collusion between the government and Sky City over the building of a convention centre,the introduction of the draconian GCSB Bill and the Telecommunications Interception Bill- all of these initiatives will be hard to roll back.

From the preceding analysis my verdict on John Key is as follows. Tactically, he was the master of appearances who deflected attention from an ideological commitment to neoliberalism and wealth defence. Strategically, there was no specifiable vision for the country beyond a failed flag branding exercise. These were the essences of John Key`s Prime Ministership.


  1. Spot on. Totally agree. I wince when I continually see the three myths about John Key being endlessly repeated – i.e. – that he was not really ideological, he occupied the political centre and that he left no legacy.

    He was deeply ideological (the chairman of the IDU for peats sake!), he was hard right and his legacy is a trail of destruction and issues for future generations.

    The other thing Key has left as his legacy is the increased ability of tax avoidance which is a stealthy part of globalism which was virtually unmentioned until the Panama papers. Key introduced the 0% tax haven status in NZ now under investigation from the EU and also made gift duty zero making it easy to hide and transfer money and assets around without any taxation issues.

    A lot is said around taxation of property, indeed you could be forgive to think that zero tax is paid on that when in fact every home owner pays approx .05% of capital each year on their property as rates. There is both a speculator tax and a capital gains tax, but they can be easily manipulated because they are linked to taxable income.

    The constant debate on property takes attention away from where the real tax avoidance is under globalism, asset stripping, ghost profits and transfers. This is why the richest often pay zero tax and the NZ top 20 companies paid only 1.8 m on 10 b of profit.

    Kiwisaver managers for example have historically taken 20% yearly of the average profit of each Kiwi in the scheme.

    Property is used as a red herring to divert from where under globalism the biggest taxation avoidance is coming from – and it is the miss use of companies and trusts that as entities have more rights and benefits and less accountability that normal workers and home owners could even dream of.

  2. And then there is the greatest legacy of all – eight years of stalling and opposing any attempt to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

  3. Like Blair, Key missed his creative calling. They would have made popular TV sitcom actors.
    As for The Listener, it’s only worth buying for the programmes, reviews of these and the puzzles. The slushy flummery of female so called journalists are the biggest turn off.

  4. “Thus, the Pike River funeral now looks like a staged event which serves to highlight government inaction over management culpability for the disaster. And, John Key`s local, everyman persona was not extended to the bereaved families. Their request for even a limited mine re-entry fell on deaf ears.”

    And that will be the legacy for which Key is remembered; betraying the families of 29 dead men.

  5. “the weakening of our democratic system”

    It’s a great pity he and his didn’t give this limping mockery its coup de grace.

    We do not have a ‘democracy’. We are not trained or encouraged to participate or use a ‘democracy’.

    Once every three years we get to tick boxes beside the names and parties most of us have no knowing of or affiliation with.

    What we say or want – ya, boo, sucks. Majority rules. Biggest bully takes all.

    And we have the cheek to flaunt this tattered ghost of suffrage and paticipation in front of more blatantly abused countries. ‘You, too, can give under the heel of earless greedies.’ Yeah, nah.

    Time for a massive clean out, top to bottom, and start expecting citizens to participate because we’re taught from early on, kindy and primary school, how to run things for the greater good of all, including all that makes life delightful.

    ‘Democracy in NZ’? Bah! Humbug!

  6. Thanks Wayne, your contributions here are always cherished, never far from excellent reflections on the realities we face.

    The day will come that the New Zealand people will learn, why Key really took off so swiftly. If we had any competent MSM, we would know by now, but they are as stupid or misled as most out there, blinded or gullible beyond belief.

    The man leading the government since 2008 must have got some real cold feet all over a sudden, and I think I know some reasons behind it. I cannot reveal this as yet, same as Martyn will not reveal some stuff he may know about Key.

    History will always catch up with such snake oil salesmen kind of “leaders”, after the years public records get made available, so perhaps it may even take a generation for the full truth to come out.

    I can only ask people, stop being stupid and start asking questions, never believe the BS that you get told by MSM and the operators in charge, there is much more behind all we hear, read and see, just much of it is very unpleasant, at least for some, that is why it is kept behind closed doors or gets swept under a carpet.

  7. The biggest problem is that so many “ordinary” Kiwis just love snake oil salesmen, they keep falling for all the tricks. Just watch the impunity of that insurance operator called Youi, I cannot believe such an operator even being allowed to continue in any other civilised country within the OECD. Before the courts, held liable to pay huge damages, and still running advertising, also willingly broadcast and perpetuated by leading MSM (who are apparently as corrupt as the businesses they advertise for).

    Welcome to NZ Inc 2016, soon to enter 2017, with little to change, that is perhaps, after a dose of reality check before the coming election.

  8. Well given your analysis it is fair to characterise Key as the most recent iteration of the emperor who had no clothes……

    And the exit timed to avoid the critical anayysis that is bound to follow the latest earthquake issues and the pile of social decay issues in plain view now.

    Mass raids on Christchurch dairies being a poignant manifestation of the reality now besetting the place.

    He went before it became obvious he was the shrinking man,
    PM…… his counterpart here in Australia Mr Turnbull has a similar terrain to navigate, if not harder but at least he is facing up to the bouncers he faces ….and largely from his own side mind you.

    The difference…. character lacking and in spades.

  9. Key was OK. His term in office got a few good things done. Incremental change being generally better than radical change.

    What kept Key and the Nats in office were the absolutely awful alternatives.

  10. Wayne; like many people you have forgotten the loss of democracy caused by the gradual, but ultimately major, changes made to the RMA under Key. Classic key gradualist politics this which has left most people unable to submit on development proposal due to new complexities and costs in the RMA process and other changes that simply, and cynically, prevent public participation.

  11. Thanks for your post Wayne.

    The media and Crosby Textor’s creation is celebrated because he was and is popular and stayed that way for eight tearful years.

    Such was that adulation that Key could get away with the worst of excesses because of the political capital he built with help during his time as PM.

    He did not create this see through idolatry, he just understood the tactics and how to play the NZ electorate and play most of us he did and still will now he has left the political scene.

    He had good economic luck that was artificial but helped create the illusion that everything was under control and no one need worry.

    He took everything the last Labour government bequeathed him and did not change anything despite his open distaste of communism by stealth as he put it.
    To dismantle or change it would have meant unpopularity so it was status quo all the way and all those polls commissioned by Farrar helped him steer his way around issues that would have been corrosive to his image.

    A more independent free thinking fourth estate without an agenda would have openly questioned and provoked serious debate( as it used to do with previous governments) and would have given the public a more realistic picture of this man who despite popular belief could not turn water into wine and would have left New Zealanders with some concern on what they were supporting and hero worshipping every week for eight years.

    Just to make sure the veneer did not crack and to ensure the status quo remained he allowed a serious dirty tricks campaign to discredit his enemy’s run by his own staff out of his own office and they loved him enough to see past this and vote him in again despite his clear involvement in the whole dirty business…unprecedented in NZ political history.

    This man was on his way to a fourth term and despite his ratings slowly easing away still dominated his political opponents and was well placed to make history that he was desperate to achieve.

    His credibility in my opinion is such that i don’t buy his reason for resigning at this point which means that all is not well on planet Key and i am convinced he was left with no choice as no PM ever gives away the office willingly especially one with god like status as Mr Key.

    Anything damaging released now wont make any real difference because our media is not interested in digging to find the truth and would rather bask in the sunshine of John Keys glow and are so compromised that they wont damage him personally they like The Listener sold their soul a long time ago.

  12. Listener – about 94 pages
    John Key – photos, cartoons, name in larger letters about 45 examples.

    Obviously, propaganda for a knighthood – whatever a knighthood used to mean in Sir Ed’s time, it is now a status goal for greedy scum.

    What is worse? – idiot NZers that believed what he and the media fed them. There must be a chromosome missing in these people. Surely Douglas and Richardson should have cured them of trust by the time Key turned up – surely.

  13. […] The worst part about Key leaving was having to put up with corporate pundits claiming that Key’s legacy was somehow moderate. That just sounds like a whole lot of privilege. Foe beneficiaries bearing the brunt of his draconian welfare policies, National are a nightmare that never ends. As our own Dr Wayne Hope so skilfully highlighted in his must read analysis of Key… […]

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