John Key has been the PM who cain't say no, playing the perky Noddy to Bill English's serious Big Ears. Yesterday, that began to change
I had planned to write today about the political skill John Key has exhibited during his first few months in power, carefully avoiding definitive positions on anything vaguely off-message. But yesterday's events signal a new stage in this government's evolution.
Since becoming Prime Minister, Key has radiated an eager pleasure at having achieved his childhood dream. His approach has been in stark contrast to the sombre Barack Obama and Gordon Brown. Some politicos call him Tigger, others call him Sunny John. But so far his natural enthusiasm has served him well in dark times.
Key has appointed himself New Zealand's Cheerleader-in-Chief, giving a sense of energy in stagnant times. A small business-owner friend of mine this week expressed his growing anger at the media's relentless negativity about the recession, and told me about his discussions with friends upset at how the media is talking down the New Zealand economy. I think my friend's friends couldn't be more wrong. The simple fact is that the global economy is every bit as bad as the local media is reporting; perhaps worse. The European and US media have certainly got their lower lip out further than the media in this country. If you want negative, check out this and this and this.
A couple of weeks ago I was on the Media7 panel with New Zealand Herald business editor Liam Dann, who said he agonised every day about getting the tone of his pages right, but if anything he erred on the positive side.
Still, the economic and business news unquestionably makes for grim reading these days. I'm looking at the Business Herald's lead today, "Company failures soar by 40pc".
So Key's perkiness is the perfect antidote for those wearied by what we're repeatedly told is the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. (An interesting development recently, is that some economists are now starting to add the coda, "and it could be even worse"). As Cheerleader-in-Chief, Key is talking up the solidity of our banks and the robustness of our economy; and that's just as it should be. He's his own little package of stimulus in a suit. The media's job to report the facts, however negative; the Prime Minister's is to talk up economy and encourage a worried nation.
The balance to Key's chirpiness is provided by Finance minister Bill English, who is Big Ears to Key's Noddy. While Key is running round beeping his horn, promising cycleways and shorter working weeks, English keeps a stern, seen-it-all-before look on his face and talks gruffly about the country's economic peril.
This political act has meant that in his first hundred days, amidst the worst economic crisis of our lifetimes, Key could get away with committing to nothing. Will he stop contributions to the Super Fund? He wouldn't rule that out. Would ideas from the Jobs Summit be funded from within existing budgets or with new money? There was "headroom" within the government's coffers, but perhaps new money would be needed. A joint bank/government fund to invest in New Zealand businesses? He was "open" to that idea. A carbon tax? Key would "consider" that. Bailout Fisher & Paykel? Well, he might. But no promises.
On and on it goes. Key has been like Ado Annie in the musical Oklahoma! He just "cain't say no". Or at least, he hasn't had to. In his first hundred days he clung to National's 100-day action plan like a baby to its blankie, knowing that he had a clear mandate for that and was safe if he stayed on-message. Hard decisions about emissions trading and Maori sovereignty have been parked in long-term reviews.
No wonder National's on 56 percent in the Pundit poll of polls. Everyone loves you if you never say no. The trouble only comes when you've got to commit.
When the historians look back to see when that trouble began, they're likely to pinpoint this week. No, Labour's hardly firing damaging shots, but this week National started to actually take some positions.
Key is still staying within the safety circle of his election manifesto, but private prisons and introducing competition to ACC are at the edge of that manifesto, the parts that were barely mentioned on the campaign trail. Compared to bonding nurses and re-writing the RMA, this is moving out into treacherous, ideological ground. Even with the scare-mongering, fee-raising threats being uttered, New Zealanders know they've got a good thing in ACC and won't welcome Australian corporates profiting from our injuries, while privatisation is a word with plenty of political punch left in it.
Add to that the clear embarrassment of playing a game of chicken with the Corrections CEO and losing, and you get the sense that this isn't National's week.
Key has been given a pretty clear run by the media – and, it has to be said, by the Opposition – but that should start to change now. 'Noddy' Key will have to step out of Toytown and face the real world. And as anyone who knows the Noddy stories will appreciate, that's when the trouble begins. Parp, parp.