In No Hurry To Change Horses: No more than in 2002, when, in the perilous times ushered in by 9/11, New Zealand voters opted to stick with the diplomatically savvy Helen Clark; the voters of 2011 are in no mood to abandon their commercially savvy Prime Minister, John Key.
SIX OUT OF TEN New Zealanders say they’re willing to back John Key’s bid for a second term. Four out of ten say they’d prefer some other combination of parties and politicians running the country.
We haven’t seen a gap that wide since 2002.
Back then, of course, the ideological boot was on the other foot. In the early months of 2002, just before the Alliance began the serious business of tearing itself into bloody little chunks, and well before Nicky Hager’s book, Seeds of Distrust, spawned the word “Corngate”, the Centre-Left gave every appearance of having taken out a mortgage on the treasury benches.
Could it be that Mr Key’s soaring popularity is being driven by forces very similar to those that persuaded Kiwis to again repose their political trust and confidence in Helen Clark? The forces erupting out of the tragic events of 9/11.
What happened on that fateful September morning changed everything.
It transformed an unpopular American president, shoe-horned into office by the US Supreme Court, into the symbolic leader of an embattled West. And behind George Bush, their briefcases bulging with geopolitical prescriptions of the most radical kind, crept a shadowy cabal of neo-conservative ideologues determined to pitch America into a state of permanent war.
New Zealand’s leader was also transformed by the events of 9/11. In a suddenly perilous world: where countries were either with the United States – or they were with the terrorists; New Zealanders quietly rejoiced in the fact that their Prime Minister was a woman whose whole adult life had been devoted to the study of international politics.
If anybody could bring New Zealand safely through the turmoil and travail of the “War on Terror” – it was Helen Clark.
Fast-forward six years to the general election of 2008.
Once again the world was convulsed. Not, this time, by Islamic terrorists, but by a collossal financial collapse that threatened to plunge the global economy into a second Great Depression.
And, once again, the New Zealand electorate counted its lucky stars that history had raised up an alternative prime-minister whose whole adult life had been devoted to mastering the ebb and flow of global financial markets.
John Key: raised in a state-house by his widowed mum; currency trader extraordinaire; self-made millionaire; married to his high-school sweetheart; father of two teenage children.
In the dangerously leveraged suburbs, where the governments of developed nations are made and broken, it was hard to imagine a politician better suited to the temper of his times. Truly, John Key was, as one waggish journalist noted, “the candidate from Central Casting”.
And he was lucky.
Though he and his party received scant thanks from the voters, Labour’s Minister of Finance, Dr Michael Cullen, had bequeathed the incoming National Government one of the healthiest sets of government accounts in the Western World. Dr Cullen’s surpluses enabled Mr Key and his Finance Minister, Bill English, to cushion New Zealanders from the worst effects of the global financial crisis.
Mr Key’s success cannot, however, be entirely attributed to extraneous influences and events. Politicians tend to be judged by their choices, and like his predecessor, Mr Key has chosen well.
Helen Clark faced the choice of joining, or staying out of, the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq. By fearing to tread where George Bush and Tony Blair rushed in, she amply confirmed the New Zealand voters’ faith in her political and moral judgement. Watching the unfolding nightmare of Iraq on the news, they quietly congratulated themselves for sticking with Labour.
The strategic choice which has defined Mr Key’s first term as prime minister is whether to embrace the radical neo-liberal policies urged upon him by his Far Right critics in 2009 and 2010; or, to hold fast to the policies of political and economic moderation which have secured his 2008 election victory. To his credit, Mr Key has steadfastly refused to abandon his moderate stance. Stratospheric poll results have been his reward.
In schweren Zeiten – in perilous times – the political trajectory of electorates is almost always towards the safety of the known and the reassurance of proven competence. Riders only change horses in mid-stream when they’re terrified their present mount will pitch them into the torrent.
In the perilous year of 2002, the voters were happy to let Helen Clark guide them safely out of the geopolitical flood. But, in the equally perilous year of 2008 they were only too happy to exchange Ms Clark’s tired red mare for Mr Key’s fresh blue stallion.
Much can happen in six months, but all the polls suggest that New Zealanders retain sufficient confidence in their National steed to dig in their heels and urge it forward to the farther shore.
It may cost them a few treasured possessions, but they’re not yet ready to mount anyone else’s.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 31 May 2011.