National Party leader John Key is the leader of one of just two political parties in this country in which both the leader and the deputy are electorate MPs. He has often promoted himself as the man who was brought up in a state house by his beneficiary mother, but is now worth $50 million due to sheer hard work. The Helensville MP had a vision and a lot of self-belief, and he made it happen for himself. But is it possible for a former investment banker to understand the mindset of the underclass? Salient feature writer Dave Crampton takes a look at John Key’s policies and ideas concerning the state of New Zealand’s society.
John Key and I discussed a range of topics, from foreign and social policy, to whether he, the leader of the National Party, had smoked dope. Although he can outline plenty of ideas, there is a defi nite lack of clarity in how he would implement these ideas in terms of a policy framework. There is no apparent structure in his ideas in terms of formulating policy to make these ideas a political reality. He was, however, clearer on issues that are unlikely to be on his future policy agenda, such as religion and drugs.
Key’s first key speech of 2007, delivered earlier this year in the Christchurch neighbourhood he grew up in, focused strongly on New Zealand’s underclass. Key defi nes the underclass as long-term welfare benefi ciaries and others who feel excluded from society. In his speech, Key said that if he is voted in as Prime Minister in 2008, New Zealand’s long-term unemployed will be either looking for work, on training schemes, be working for their dole, or be in prison. He didn’t define exactly how long ‘long-term’ was, but has stated that welfare dependency is a real issue.
Key said that he wants to address such dependency, and has also stated that the biggest issue facing the jobless underclass is that they don’t have the security of knowing that they can pay their bills.
“They don’t have the ability to buy the things they want. We don’t want an increasing number of New Zealanders to live in poverty, which has been the case under Labour. We simply want New Zealanders to not only have higher standards of living, but know that there is a pathway to achieving that and a feeling that this can take place.”
That pathway? There is a lot of discussion over ‘work for the dole’ schemes, but one of the pathways could be community-based work-place schemes where long term benefi ciaries are enlisted on short term programmes for up to 20 hours per week. “We like the community-based workplace schemes that were set up in Australia which are often run by the private sector, and I think they work pretty effectively and they encourage people to get back into the workforce. I think workplace schemes are all about balancing up the responsibility of government to provide a welfare safety net, and the obligation upon people who receive the benefi t, whether that is looking for a job or getting better skills or ultimately putting something back into the community”.
Key has views on most issues and is not afraid to air them. Emphasis should be placed on the fact that these are his views, not his policies. That’s because National is still formulating policies on many of these issues. However, he has described one of the Government’s policies as “a shambles”; foreign policy. The comment was made after Duty Minister Jim Anderton compared Iraq to Vietnam, criticising George Bush’s decision to send an additional 21,500 troops to Iraq. Foreign Minister Winston Peters says the comments were ill-informed and regrettable. Key, who initially supported the Coalition of the Willing’s right to go into Iraq, described the situation in which one minister publicly calls another minister an idiot after he expressed a position contrary to the offi cial Government line as shambolic.
“It’s a shambles if you have one minister acting and speaking for the Government making a statement, then the foreign minister has to come out and say that the other minister has not only done something wrong but is an idiot as well, which is essentially what he said. I think if you have got two warring factions of a coalition, then that’s a fairly good description of a shambles.”
Unlike Anderton, Prime Minister Helen Clark didn’t criticise Bush’s decision to send foreign troops to Iraq. What does Key think of Clark’s position?
“Well, that depends on what you think Clark’s real position actually is. Clark is not saying what she thinks. I think Clark is quite deeply anti-American. I don’t think she is as pro as what she says. She has allowed (Trevor) Mallard to be dispatched to make very anti-American statements. She’s either deeply political and will do anything for political gain, or she is more anti-American than the public position she proposes.”
Given that, what scope is there for an improvement in the relationship between New Zealand and the United States without threatening our ability to maintain an independent foreign policy?
“Well there’s tremendous ability I think. Making decisions for New Zealanders in New Zealand by New Zealanders and in New Zealand’s best interests. One of the things I think can be in our best interests is having a strong relationship with America and I think that can happen on a number of fronts and for a number of reasons. Part of that is just simply the way that we treat them. The Prime Minister herself has had to write a grovelling letter of apology for her inappropriate comments to George Bush, which she won’t release.
“I think our Government will have a more genuine relationship with the Americans when we treat them with a bit more respect than the Labour Government has.”
And then there’s Labour’s defence spending, which is just less than one percent of our Gross Domestic Product. Key says that defence spending is an important issue, given that the international instability seen over the past few years is not likely to change. Although National has not yet determined what the right level of defence spending should be, Key would like to follow the lead of countries like Australia and the UK and produce similar policy on the matter.
The policy issues surrounding international relations and defence, while important, don’t seem to be as important to the electorate as policies concerning our local economy. So, given that more people are in jobs, fewer are unemployed, and people are spending, that pretty much means our economy is pumping along rather nicely, doesn’t it? “No I wouldn’t necessarily agree with that. I don’t think that economic growth is all that strong. It’s not likely to be much stronger next year. We’ve got infl ation that has been at very high levels for quite a period of time. I think the Government has put pressure on infl ation through its own expenditure.
“New Zealand has been going through an economic growth phase that has been going on for the best part of 15 years, and I don’t think we have created that, we’ve inherited that. So I don’t think Labour can look back and say that it is sign of good economic management. I think they’ve been at the right place at the right time.”
Students are looking at Key to ascertain whether or not they will be better off staying in New Zealand should National take the reins of power next year. Some may want to enter the public sector, which Key would like to downsize. Yet Key has great aspirations for students – mixed in, however, with an emphasis on personal responsibility.
“Under a John Key-led National Government we (will be) all about not only trying to provide opportunities, we will be trying to provide the right incentives for students to believe that when they work hard, when they set up business, and when they take risks, that their education was worth it and they get something out of it.”
Meaning if you want to get ahead, you’ll have to work hard, but not necessarily in the public sector. Yet, despite his distaste for the number of bureaucrats, Key does want a healthy public sector.
“National supports the public sector. The question is how large should it be, and in my view it is a bit overweighted at the moment.”
So bloated, in fact, that he wants to see some bureaucrats get other jobs in the private sector. There may be some redundancies. But for now, how does Key plan to restore accountability in the public sector?
Well, he didn’t actually know. At least, he didn’t tell me. He said that I would have to wait for an answer “over the next 12 days and months”.
“The public sector is a big beast. You are going to see us over the course of the next months outlining a different philosophy for doing things that will answer that question for you. We are going to make policy changes that mean students face a different environment under a National government. We have an ongoing commitment to cutting taxes and I think we will be flexible around regulations and rules. New Zealand doesn’t have a debt problem, it has a growth problem and part of that growth problem is the inability to fund our infrastructure.
“I don’t think we need to run the second to largest surplus in the developed world.”
It is clear that Key had little of substance to say on policy. He was, however, pretty clear when asked about drugs. When I asked if he had smoked drugs, he said he hadn’t. I asked why not.
“Well, my mother smoked and I hated it. So I’ve never smoked marijuana when I was at university. Largely that was the drug that was available. So I’ve just never tried it – I’m scared of drugs, anyway, I don’t like them. They kill people. I don’t need drugs in my life. I don’t think the widespread use of drugs in New Zealand society has been a good thing. I found (drug use) in the fi nancial markets when I worked in there generally always ended in tears. Some stockbrokers lose their jobs and become unemployable. I don’t see how that helps people who have got a lot of ability, because they get dependent on something that they don’t really need.”
Key was pretty clear about his beliefs in God. At least, he was clear in stating what he doesn’t believe in, even if he did conflate God and religion.
“If you define God as some supreme being that when you die you go through the pearly gates, then I don’t believe in it. But I`ll argue that it depends on how you define religion.
“I take the same view that Richard Randerson has.” (Randerson is a retiring Anglican Bishop and an agnostic in the sense that he feels God cannot be proved one way or the other). “I’m not deeply religious, and I don’t believe in life after death.”
Yet he takes his kids to church.
“The kids go to schools that demand that (I go to church) as part of my parenting responsibilities. I go every time they go. It’s up to them to decide what role religion plays in their life. It might be none, it could be a lot, but it’s not for me as a parent to take a view on that and not give them the opportunity to at least understand what it is about.”
John Key wants to be known as a Prime Minister in waiting. At the end of this year he wants to be remembered as the leader of a credible alternative government going into election year – a government that a wide range of New Zealanders will want to elect in 2008.
That will depend not only on his party, on personalities, and on politics, but also on policies, how those policies are formulated, and whether the public will buy them. We need more than just words.