The conventional wisdom is that when you’re in a hole you should stop digging. But the Government appears to favour an alternative route: tunnelling its way out. Much of its recent activity falls squarely into the vote-loosening category. From the new version of youth rates to the Prime Minister’s knicker-waving tour of Hollywood studios to the blatantly insincere water-rights negotiations with Maori, National seems to have set itself on a crash-through course between now and the election next year.
The new ethos is that it’s worth sacrificing some short-term popularity in order to make the big economic gains that cement long-term popularity. Well, that’s the theory. After a do-little first term, National was beloved by a serious chunk of voterdom, but it’s now generally agreed to have been an excessively timid reign. In a roundabout way, this explains how John Key came to drop the ball so appallingly in the Kim Dotcom affair. Or rather, how he appears not to have even seen the ball in the first place so he could pick it up. There’s a much-used saying in the Beehive these days: “Will this make the boat go faster?” Ministers measure their policies in terms of likely growth and jobs value. Anything that won’t save money and/or generate business activity in some meaningful way is generally put back in the pie-warmer for some other day.
So it’s easy to imagine how Key, treated to a PowerPoint presentation on the doings of our external intelligence agency, might genuinely have paid scant attention. Spies don’t make anything go faster. And the details of how we helped another Government’s court case about some intellectual property dust-up doesn’t really float Key’s boat. And let’s be honest, you could render the Charge of the Light Brigade on PowerPoint, and it would become about as exciting as your auntie’s slide show of the last Easter holiday in Havelock North, with the details of her bunion trouble. Key has rightly been castigated by all-comers for not exercising proper governance over the external intelligence agency. It alone faces no select committee, and is immune from Official Information Act or other oversight, check or balance. The Prime Minister and the agency’s inspector are the only things standing in the way of its running amok if it chooses. Key has been lackadaisical to say the least. And his denials of any knowledge of the self-caricaturing German billionaire living noisily in his very electorate simply beggar belief.
But the Government’s determination to see, hear and speak no evil in the Dotcom case (and in John Banks’s case, to accept donations without apparent impact on any sensory faculty) is at least explicable within its “make the boat go faster” mania. Kim Dotcom is a distraction, and not one of the Government’s making. Asked by the United States to assist with an extradition procedure, it could hardly have declined. It would have been entirely improper for any minister to intervene in police, Crown Law or intelligence agency operational business, but the conduct of the case could not have been made less ham-fisted by anything a politician did or did not do – though a better outcome could have been produced if the operation had been contracted out to a singing telegram company. The Government’s mistake has been to think it could three-wise-monkey its way out of the mess. Too many awkward questions have been raised, and the coincidence of Key’s various schmoozings – with the US Secretary of Defense and then the Hollywood elite – the timing of the Dotcom disclosures and the overall pro-US politics of the thing now look extremely shabby.
The brute politics of it is this: the Government has co-operated fully with the US’s attempt to protect Hollywood’s increasingly non-viable commercial model, because, at least for the short term, this country stands to make a buck out of it, too. It would be a relief if Key just admitted this; there’s not all that much shame in it. New Zealand has widely coveted film expertise, great locations and – let’s not be coy about this, either – cheap labour. We also need to get business wherever we can. The money moviemaking brings in is not negligible. That, after all, is what the faster-boat ethos is setting this Government up to be judged on. Another recent initiative – Act-derived, so presumably aimed at making Banks’s cabbage boat go faster – is the Starting Out wage. This is either a 20% subsidy for cafes, supermarkets and the like, paid for by teenagers, or a much-needed leg-up to employment for young school-leavers – depending on one’s world view.
There is also the planting of umpteen new landmines in the benefit system, designed to chivvy people off it and into jobs. And there is feverish activity to crack the whip on roading, irrigation and mining exploration, the sweetheart deal with SkyCity to build Auckland a new convention centre, to say nothing of the for-pity’s-sake-just-doze- it-and-rebuild approach to Christchurch. Perhaps belatedly, National has put on its armadillo plates where public opinion might be a bit iffy at the margins. Sucking up to the US, letting SkyCity have more pokies, kicking the chocks away from the Resource Management Act – the plan is, if you crack on briskly without stopping to argue the toss with the media and the left, the blur of activity will obscure petty objections. It’s an approach reminiscent of Sir Roger Douglas’s heyday. However, Sir Rodge’s favourite saying was, “Let the dog see the rabbit” – voters being the dog, and the rabbit being shiny baubles like suddenly deregulated imports, lower taxes and the like. In this post-GFC world, the dog has trouble remembering what a rabbit looks like. In fact, there’s a rumour that rabbits are now extinct.
THE BIG QUESTION
Governments worldwide can no longer practicably whip out treats at election time. They are now being
measured, favourably or unfavourably, not by what they can give people, but by how little they can manage to resist taking away; what they do to voters rather than for them. How much less bad is unemployment, the cost of living, indebtedness, wage growth and so on. The big question, then, is will National’s faster-boat approach result in a triumphant 1995 America’s Cup-style finish next election – or more like the 2003 effort when vital bits fell off and whole expensive enterprise started to sink? Currently, the general obsession is the strength of the dollar, which the Opposition rightly points out is busy eroding the benefits of export growth and steadily reducing the prospect of struggling businesses.
The Government is, in line with current practice, pretending very hard to ignore the dollar’s inconvenient strength, and carrying on as if this is something we can simply work around. This is rather like pretending you could still breathe if, say, Kim Dotcom were to come and sit on your chest (which must be a bit like how John Key feels). In a sense, the dollar debate is pointless because, despite Labour’s argument that there are other economic levers that could be pulled, and the Greens’ that we could simply expand the money supply, the Government has made it plain that it won’t do anything because it doesn’t believe anything we could do would work. In the midst of its stoically blinkered crash-through can-do campaign, here is a lone instance of fatalism – and a strange conundrum. At what point will a faster boat wearing a permanent drag anchor simply come to a standstill – or even go backwards?