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The Legacy of a Dismantled Prime Minister – Revisited

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Following John Key’s sudden (and largely unexplained) resignation on 5 December 2016, I wrote a piece lamenting that he had left no positive  legacy of significance;

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… much  has been said of Key’s “legacy”. Pundits have been scratching their heads, trying to figure out what  “legacy” can be attributed to eight years of a Key-led administration.

Despite screeds being devoted on the subject, it appears that little can actually be attributed to any form of Key “legacy”.

[…]

[Brent] Edwards contrasted Key’s administration with that of Jim Bolger and pointed out the latter’s legacies, which have had a lasting impact of New Zealand’s social and political landscape. The first was the advent of MMP which forever changed politics as it is done in this country. The second was Bolger’s courage to stand up to his party’s redneck conservatism and engage with Maori to address Treaty of Waitangi grievances.

[…]

In an era marking the rise of nationalistic political movements (Brexit, Trump, et al), Key’s “package of reforms” will be rolled back and many, like Charter Schools, swept away entirely.

These legacies of a failed economic ideology – neo-liberalism – may rate a mention in the footnotes of future history books, but not much more. In fifty years time, no one will point to Key’s supposed “reforms” as people still do to Michael Savage’s achievements.

[…]

… and I leave this brief assessment for future historians;

John Key – Master at spin, photo-ops, and PR, but nothing else. When the teflon was stripped away, there was nothing underneath.

And that will be his legacy: nothing. We simply couldn’t think of a single damned one.

As I pointed out then – and which has subsequently been proven – National’s  “growth” was illusory, based mostly on high immigration and unsustainable ballooning house prices in Auckland.

Unfortunately, my dismissal of Key’s administration as historically inconsequential may have been a rush to judgement. I regret that I failed to pick up a vital policy change that has had a long term – albeit utterly unforeseen at the time – beneficial impact on  this country.

On 21 May 2009, John Key announced the appointment of Professor Peter Gluckman as the first  Chief Science Advisor to the Prime Minister. At the time,  Key stated;

“This appointment delivers on the Government’s goal of including science at the heart of our decision-making.

I campaigned on creating this role because I recognise that New Zealand’s prosperity rests on our ability to make full use of the expertise that our scientists can contribute.

Professor Gluckman will provide me with a direct line to advice when I need it. He will be an independent voice that will complement existing channels of advice such as government departments and the Royal Society.

This role is one of vital importance that demands not only a high level of science expertise, but also the utmost integrity to fairly represent the state of science knowledge.”

Fast forward to almost exactly nine years later;

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Sir Peter was unequivocal; there was no credible data to support the meth hysteria that had swept the country;

“There’s absolutely no evidence in the medical literature anywhere in the world, of anybody being harmed by passive exposure to methamphetamine at any level.

“We can’t find one case in the medical literature, we can’t find one case by talking to experts where there is evidence of harm … it makes no sense.”

It backed up a curious admission from National Party leader, Bill English, in August 2016, where he questioned the validity of p-contamination levels in state houses;

“Now, the test as I understand it, indicates the presence of any P at all which may be a very low health risk.

According to that guideline they should not be moving people into houses where there is P contamination.

They’re operating to a Ministry of Health guideline which I understand is internationally standard, but is regarded as not quite appropriate”

It would certainly help housing New Zealand if the scientists applied themselves to coming up with a new guideline.

We would hope that within a few months there will be a standard that all the scientists regard as more appropriate. In the meantime, Housing New Zealand are doing their best to ensure that they don’t inconvenience tenants any more than is necessary.”

Astonishingly, despite Bill English knowing two years ago that meth-testing levels were probably bogus, National’s current Housing spokesperson, Judith Collins, voiced ignorance to its validity;

“We didn’t know. I spoke to [then-Minister of Social Housing] Paula Bennett about it, and she’s absolutely adamant she didn’t know. She got advice from the Housing NZ and also the Ministry of Health, and apparently Standards NZ were involved. So it’s the first time that we knew.”

Ms Collins was happy to pass the buck;

“But Housing NZ needs to front up, because they have refused to front up to media, and their minister Phil Twyford, he’s not making them front up. Let’s just find out what they knew.”

In October 2016, the Ministry of Health repeated it’s assertions that P levels in houses were only dangerous if manufacturing – not smoking – had taken place;

Ministry of Health Director of protection, regulation and assurance, Stewart Jessamine, said;

“Underpinning those conversations has always been the Ministry’s view that the Ministry’s guidelines only cover clandestine laboratories and this has been routinely pointed out.”

Despite clear statements from the Ministry of Health and from then-Prime Minister Bill English, Housing NZ continued its policy to evict around 300 families from State houses; disrupting lives; and demanding compensation from some former tenants.

On 6 June this year, Housing NZ’s CEO,  Andrew McKenzie, denied point blank ever being advised by the Ministry of Health that they were mis-applying P-levels;

“We weren’t warned repeatedly.

No, we weren’t  [told].

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So, certainly, the organisation is very clear, we were not told. There’s no record of being told that we were mis-using the guidelines.”

Evidently, the Prime Minister of the day’s public comments on national radio, questioning meth-testing levels,  did not constitute “being told”.

National party current-leader, Simon Bridges gave a belated qualified “apology” – of sorts;

“I’m sorry that the advice we got was wrong and has made this situation what it is.”

Bridges’ apology was for “advice we got was wrong” – not for wrongful eviction of tenants.

But not one single individual has taken responsibility for 300 families losing their homes and $100 million of tax-payer’s money flushed down the toilet on pointless testing.

Since Sir Peter’s meth-testing bomb-shell, Housing NZ has been forced to apologise to tenants who were caught up in the hysteria; cease demanding repayment for unnecessary clean-ups; and taken evicted tenants’ names of a Housing NZ black-list. There is also consideration of making compensation payments for Housing NZ tenants who lost their homes and possessions (though tenants in private “social housing” may miss out).

The policy of evicting tenants for flawed meth-levels, and where culpability for who (if any of the current tenants) smoked the drug, has been put to a stop.

For 300 people whose lives have been unnecessarily disrupted, it is too late. But at least no more vulnerable families will be put at risk of summary eviction and imposition of hefty punitive financial penalities.

In a curious way, this is due to Key’s decision to implement the role of a Science Advisor nine years ago. Sir Peter’s description of his new role in 2009 was remarkably prescient;

My primary task is to give the Prime Minister strategic and operational advice on science and science policy issues.

[…]

… I have a role of advising on specific matters related to science. In general this will be in the form of formally commissioned reports that will summarise the evidence base to suggest a specific mode of action or secondly where new scientific developments create either opportunity or risk. Again, I anticipate that my role will be limited to situations where my independence and hopefully high public respect can add value beyond what can come from departmental or sectoral advice.

[…]

… I will serve as a conduit of alerts that might arise where scientific progress shows either opportunity or threat for New Zealand. I will not be a lobby for individual science projects, but where scientists see something emerging that they think policy makers need to be aware of, I can assist with communication.

More recently, in an interview on TVNZ’s Q+A with Corin Dann, Sir Peter expanded on the role of Science Advisor for sound policy-making;

“So most of the things that governments really need help from the science community over are remarkably complex. The water system, the climate system, the agricultural system. That’s what we can try and do is explain both to the public and to the policy maker and to the politician. What are they options that then emerge? Complexity always means there are multiple options.

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…the whole question of, ‘How do we have complex conversations over difficult matters in a constructive, collegial manner. Because this is a matter where, clearly, people come to it with different personal perspectives. We have put the evidence on the table, and I would hope that over time – we said that when we released the report – it would hopefully promote a conversation where people would look at the evidence across all the political parties, and with the public, and perhaps reflect that perhaps we’ve gone too far into the retribution model of justice and not enough into the restorative, rehabilitative and particularly preventive form of justice which other countries, such as Finland, Germany, have done. And the evidence there is, in my view, that we could have a conversation…

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And what a science advisory system can do is provide the evidence on the basis that it will help, over time, governments and societies make better decisions.”

For far too long, New Zealand’s policy-making by our elected representatives has been predicated on knee-jerk reactions and populism. Whether it was Muldoon’s disastrous  decision to abandon compulsory superannuation payments which left New Zealand at the mercy of overseas financiers – or the current explosion in incarceration rates in our prisons based on “tough on crime” jingoism – political decisions have hardly been predicated on sound science.

As a nation we have paid heavily – in both social and financial measures – for flawed political decision-making.

Sir Peter’s revelations that meth testing was a sham was based on science. The data was hard (if impossible) to refute.

It is high time that Science Advisors should be mandatory and well-resourced for every single Ministry and department in this country. Their advice should be critical in all aspects of crucial policy-making.

Otherwise we lurch from one ineffectual populistic policy extreme to another. All to win votes in a vacuum of real information and hard data.

Make no mistake, we end up paying for policy extremes that are not founded in sound science. National’s populistic tough-on-crime mantra and harsher bail laws has resulted in a massive explosion in our prison population.  The number of prisoners (including non-sentenced people awaiting trial, whose guilt/innocence has not yet been decided) now exceeds 10,000 and approaching 11,000.

As Justice Minister Andrew Little pointed out;

“The Netherlands, where I was last week, a country of roughly 15½ million, has a prison population of 7000. We’re a country of 4.7 million and we’ve got a prison population of approaching 11,000. What is happening in New Zealand is abnormal, and we’ve got to get to the bottom of it.”

National would have wasted $1 billion of our taxes on a new mega-prison in Waikeria. They have lambasted Labour’s attempts to grapple with a burgeoning prison muster by parroting the “soft on crime” mantra. Simon Bridges and his National party MPs have capitalised over fear-mongering on this issue;

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Sir Peter Gluckman weighed in;

“Cabinet will be considering a range of questions and issues in the next two to three weeks, and a range of decisions will be taken about stuff to do in the short term and stuff we’ll be able to do in the longer term.

I was shocked by the rate of rise in the prison and justice system costs in the past 30 years, and in particular that this rise has continued and is actually enhanced at the very time that crime rates are actually declining.

We say, ‘Lock ’em up, lock ’em up, be tough on crime.’ But all that’s going to do is keep driving up costs.”

Of course, some offenders still needed prison time for retribution and to protect the public.

But if you look at what’s driving the costs – it’s that we’re making more severe sentences.

Now is that sensible when we know people who are in prison for longer often become professional criminals? It’s an inevitability of what the environment creates.

Evidence in the report suggests prisons are often training grounds for further offending. Prisoners can build their criminal careers by learning criminal skills in prison, which damages their employment, accommodation and family prospects, and compounds any existing mental health and substance use issues.

Associate professor, Ian Lambie, a Science Advisor to the justice sector and clinical psychologist, stated with crystal clarity;

“This Government has clearly indicated they want some work done and are interested in reform.

Where we are heading is not where we should be, and it does not create a safer society, a safer New Zealand.

What we have to do, rather than building more prisons, is focus the money on ways to create fewer prisoners, and we have to look at early intervention.

We have to remember that the majority of people [prisoners] get out. They have mental health needs, literacy needs, housing needs – and those life needs need to be addressed. We need to give the support and services if we’re really going to turn their lives around.”

So who do we listen to?

Politicians such as tough-on-crime National MPs with an eye on the next election in 2020?

Or Science Advisors who act on information and are impartial and dispassionate on issues?

It is time that New Zealand put more weight on evidentially-based policies. Relying on emotive, political, headline-grabbing sound-bites designed to scare people and elicit their votes is a poor way to formulate sound policy.

The meth-testing scam is a clear case of where emotion and politicisation leads us. It is a warning we should heed as a nation if we are to learn from our mistakes.

That’s not a bad legacy from a Prime Minister who otherwise wasted nine years.

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References

Fairfax media: John Key dismisses rumours surrounding resignation

Radio NZ: PM to resign – ‘It feels like the right time to go’

NZ Herald: NZ’s half-trillion-dollar debt bomb

Beehive: PM appoints Chief Science Advisor

Radio NZ: Meth house contamination debunked by PM’s science advisor

Radio NZ: English calls for more specific housing meth tests

Mediaworks/Newshub: National had no idea meth guidelines were wrong – Judith Collins

NZ Herald: Housing NZ on the defensive over meth testing as it says just five state house tenants have been evicted over P use

Radio NZ: Housing NZ boss apologises over faulty meth tests

Radio NZ: Housing NZ boss ‘regrets’ meth-testing approach (audio)

Fairfax media: Housing NZ report into meth test saga to cover ‘every aspect’ of ‘policy failure’

Fairfax media: Housing NZ backtracks after saying it has no plans to stop taking payments for meth clean-up costs

TVNZ News: Social housing tenants evicted over meth contamination may miss out on compensation

Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor: The Role of the Chief Scientific Advisor

Scoop media: TVNZ – Q+A – Sir Peter Gluckman interviewed by Corin Dann

Fairfax media: Compulsory super ‘would be worth $278 billion’

Interest.co.nz: English says NZ$1 bln capital cost and NZ$1.5 bln of operating costs for extra 1,800 prison beds reduces room for tax cuts

Fairfax media: Prisons under ‘immense pressure’ with only enough space for 300 more inmates

Fairfax media: Government aims to cut prison population and fix ‘abnormal’ system

Fairfax media: $1 billion prison expansion entering final stages of approval

TVNZ: Waikeria Prison expansion is ‘unfortunately’ needed and Government is ignoring the reality of high inmate numbers – Simon Bridges

Additional

Radio NZ: Sir Peter Gluckman: Meth fiasco shows science advisors crucial

Other Blogposts

Liberation:  Cartoons about John Key’s resignation

No Right Turn:  A tiny start

No Right Turn:  Priorities

No Right Turn:  Calling bullshit on “P-contamination”

Public Address:  “Meth contamination”: the making of a moral panic

Public Address:  We are, at last, navigating out of the “meth contamination” debacle

Pundit: Meth house clean-up only just begun

The Daily Blog:  Well, well, well – so the meth contamination hysteria was bullshit? When will the Mainstream Media & Paula Bennett apologise to NZ?

The Daily Blog: New meth hysteria allegations – Auckland Health Board narked on tenants using their addiction services to HNZ

The Daily Blog:  Shocking new details – HNZ kicked 300 onto street AFTER they were told meth hysteria was wrong

The Daily Blog:  Drug driving hysteria will become our new Meth housing hysteria

The Daily Blog:  Radio NZ continue to promote the lie that National didn’t know about meth testing scam

The Daily Blog:  Soper demanding answers over Metiria when HNZ blew $100m for meth testing hysteria – the double standards are unbelievable

The Standard: Gluckman – Methamphetamine policy was a crock

The Standard: Dud advice

The Standard: National’s strategy on the Housing Corp P fiasco

Previous related blogposts

The Dismantling of a Prime Minister – Completed

The Legacy of a Dismantled Prime Minister

Letter to the editor – John Key’s legacy?

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This blogpost was first published on The Daily Blog on 2 July 2018.

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The Legacy of a Dismantled Prime Minister

9 January 2017 5 comments

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Prime Minister elect John Key with Picton the kitten on arrival at parliament, Wellington, New Zealand, Monday, November 10, 2008. Credit:NZPA / Ross Setford.

Prime Minister elect John Key with Picton the kitten on arrival at parliament, Wellington, New Zealand, Monday, November 10, 2008. Credit:NZPA / Ross Setford.

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Following his unexpected announcement to resign as New Zealand’s Prime Minister on 5 December last year, much  has been said of Key’s “legacy”. Pundits have been scratching their heads, trying to figure out what  “legacy” can be attributed to eight years of a Key-led administration.

Despite screeds being devoted on the subject, it appears that little can actually be attributed to any form of Key “legacy”.

On 29 December, Radio NZ’sDirector of News Gathering“, Brent Edwards, wrote;

“At the time of his departure, his own personal rating remained high…”

Whilst Key’s Preferred Prime Ministership rating remained higher than his rivals, Key’s public support had plummeted since 2009. In October 2009, Key rated a phenomenal  55.8% in a TV3/Reid Research poll.

By May last year, TV3/Reid Research reported Key’s support to have fallen by 19.1 percentage points  to 36.7%. The same poll reported;

National though is steady on 47 percent on the poll — a rise of 0.3 percent — and similar to the Election night result.

So something was clearly happening with the public’s perception of Key. Whilst National’s overall support remained unchanged from election night on 2014, Key’s favourability was in slow-mo free-fall.

Edwards’ analysis of Key’s “legacy” appeared mostly to consist of this observation;

Within the political commentariat Mr Key has been highly regarded, mainly on the basis of his political style.

He added,

He was quick to dump any political unpopular policies before they did terminal damage to his government and he had an uncanny knack of skating through the most embarrassing political gaffes with little damage, if any, to his political reputation

What other Prime Minister, for example, would have escaped with their political credibility intact after revelations they had repeatedly pulled the ponytail of a waitress at their local cafe?

In effect, Key’s ‘qualities’ appeared to consist of constant damage-control and “an uncanny knack” to avoid being charged with assault.

Edwards contrasted Key’s administration with that of Jim Bolger and pointed out the latter’s legacies, which have had a lasting impact of New Zealand’s social and political landscape. The first was the advent of MMP which forever changed politics as it is done in this country. The second was Bolger’s courage to stand up to his party’s redneck conservatism and engage with Maori to address Treaty of Waitangi grievances.

Key’s “legacies”, according to Edwards, was a failed flag referendum costing the taxpayer $29 million and this;

He did help manage the country through the Global Financial Crisis and the Christchurch earthquake. But National was left a legacy by the previous Labour Government – a healthy set of government books – which gave it the financial buffer it needed to deal with both crises.

Irony of ironies – Key’s one claim to a “legacy” was the product of a prudent Labour finance minister whose own legacy was a cash-gift to Key. Yet, even that cash-gift to Key could have been squandered had then-Finance Minister, Michael Cullen listened to Key’s wheedling demands for tax-cuts;

“Mr Key can’t have it both ways. One moment he says there is a recession looming then he thinks there are still surpluses to spend on tax cuts.”

… he is almost the kinder, gentler Kiwi Donald Trump. He is a populist who has been able to read and respond to a national mood in ways that few other politicians have, although that has more to do with a reliance on opinion polling than some kind of semi-supernatural intuition. 

Matthews’ reference to Key’s ability “to read and respond to a national mood in ways that few other politicians have, although that has more to do with a reliance on opinion polling” was pointed out by Radio NZ’s John Campbell, in his own assessment of the former Prime Minister’s tenure;

Key entered Parliament in 2002. His maiden speech was a pre-Textor, pre-dorky, pre-casual, pre-everyman piece of rhetoric, ripe to the point of jam with admonishments and exhortation.

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And the key passage, in this respect, was: “We mustn’t be scared to do things because they might offend small groups, or seem unconventional. Good government is more than doing what’s popular. Good government is more than blindly following the latest opinion poll.”

On election night 12 years later, having just been made prime minister for a third term, Key triumphantly thanked his pollster, David Farrar, by name: the country’s “best”, he declared, admitting, as the New Zealand Herald reported, that he had rung Farrar “night after night, even though he wasn’t supposed to”.

The man who’d entered Parliament declaring a belief in something better than poll-driven politics had subverted himself. Gamekeeper turned pollster.

Matthews summed up with this conclusion;

He was somehow politically untouchable, even when New Zealand was laughing at or with him, or just cringing. Future historians will provide a clearer picture of his failures: A flag change that was supposed to be a personal legacy became an expensive embarrassment; the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal is dead in the water; he could have used his political capital to do something meaningful about inequality and poverty.

[…]

But over on the West Coast, the government’s failures to satisfy the grieving Pike River families remain entirely embodied in Key.  

Again, Key’s abilities appear to lie with being “politically untouchable”. His “legacies” amounted to a list of dismal failures.

The unknown author of an editorial for the Otago Daily Times was kinder, as if it had been written by one of National’s small army of taxpayer-funded Beehive spin-doctors;

The legacy Mr Key will leave is one of financial stability, a unified government, a record of strong economic management and a commitment to lift as many New Zealanders out of poverty as possible. A shortage of suitable housing has been laid at the door of Mr Key but his efforts in trying to sort out that particularly difficult area have been assiduous.

One of the issues he received the most criticism for is failing to bring home the bodies of the Pike River miners who died in the explosion. While Mr Key would have meant what he said at the time, the pragmatism which ruled his career meant he made a tough call to allow the mine to be sealed. Then there was the failed flag referendum.

But, his leadership during the Christchurch, and latterly Kaikoura, earthquakes was seen as outstanding by most New Zealanders. New Zealand secured a seat on the United Nations Security Council in no small part due to the work carried out by Mr Key.

Curiously, the un-named author glosses over the “commitment to lift as many New Zealanders out of poverty as possible”, “a shortage of suitable housing … laid at the door of Mr Key”, “criticism for … failing to bring home the bodies of the Pike River miners who died in the explosion”, and “the failed flag referendum”. Because at least –  the author crows – we “secured a seat on the United Nations Security Council”.

The ODT’s mystery cheerleader for our former Dear Leader may be one of the few attempts to put a positive ‘spin’ to Key’s administration. It was, however, glaringly light on specifics.

In direct  stark contrast to the ODT’s lame attempt to canonise Key, Audrey Young was more caustic in her piece, Key – No vision, no legacy, no problem. Her conclusions were;

… two other areas I consider to be legacies for the Key Government although he has not claimed them as such: the Ross Sea sanctuary and the modernization of New Zealand’s spy agencies.

Unfortunately for Young, the original proposals for a MPA (Marine Protected Area) for the Ross Sea began as far back as 2005, and was first mooted by the US delegation to the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Living Marine Resources (CCAMLR).

If Key’s sole legacy was to increase the spying powers of the SIS, GCSB, and uncle Tom Cobbly – that may not be something his descendants bring up at polite dinner parties;

“Yeah, it was grand-dad Key who helped turn New Zealand in the virtual police state we have now. Sure we have spy cameras in every home, workplace, and cafe, but crime is almost non-existent!”

– is not something Max or Steph’s own kids will be heard crowing about.

Young suggested that Key’s “legacy” was more akin to a ‘state of mind’;

When I’ve asked people this week what they thought Key’s legacy was, many have said he gave New Zealanders a greater sense of confidence, especially about New Zealand’s place in the world.

That is true but it is a state of mind. It could just as easily disappear through circumstances well beyond our control.

Giving “New Zealanders a greater sense of confidence, especially about New Zealand’s place in the world” were the legacies of former Labour Prime Ministers – notably Norman Kirk and David Lange. Their leadership against the war in Vietnam; atomic bomb testing in the South Pacific; opposing apartheid in South Africa; advancing gay rights,  and turning the entire country into a nuclear-free zone are legacies that are with us today.

Going back even further, and the legacies of Labour’s Michael Savage are still discussed today.

Cringing whilst Key recited his “Top Ten Reasons for Visiting New Zealand” on the David Letterman Show would hardly have given Kiwis “a greater sense of confidence, especially about New Zealand’s place in the world“;

[Warning: Cringe Level: Extreme]

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Most who saw that episode would have  hidden their heads beneath a pillow or blanket. Hardly the stuff of legacies, except of the Silvio Berlusconi variety.

She then concluded;

The fact that Key doesn’t really have a legacy is of no matter.

Well, that’s alright then. According to Young, Key’s “legacy” would be in the same vein as the manner in which he handled his own and ministers’ scandals and stuff-ups; nothing to see here, folks, no legacy, move along please.

Comedian, Jeremy Elwood, offered;

We may never have another Prime Minister who provides as much fodder for as many late night comedy shows around the world, as well as right here, again, but that’s all been part of his “popular appeal”.

Another ‘comedian’ – albeit unintentional – was Roger Partridge, writing on behalf of the so-called NZ Initiative (formerly the now largely discredited Business Roundtable). Partridge offered a lengthy list of neo-liberal “reforms” from Key’s tenure as PM;

Key’s was also a reforming government. After the Fourth Labour government, it was perhaps New Zealand’s most radical in the post-war era. The GST for income tax swap, welfare reforms (the likes of which might have brought down another government), the investment approach to social services; labour market reform, partial-privatisation, reforms in education, including national standards and charter schools: these may have occurred incrementally, but together they comprise a prodigious package of reform.

None of Partridge’s listed “reforms” will stand. In an era marking the rise of nationalistic political movements (Brexit, Trump, et al),  Key’s “package of reforms” will be rolled back and many, like Charter Schools, swept away entirely.

These legacies of a failed economic ideology – neo-liberalism – may rate a mention in the footnotes of future history books, but not much more. In fifty years time, no one will point to Key’s supposed “reforms”  as people still do to Michael Savage’s achievements.

The Herald’s “business editor at large”, Liam Dann pointed to;

…ongoing GDP growth at about 3 per cent, unemployment at around 5 per cent and the crown accounts are solid with the Government booking surpluses that are forecast to top $8 billion within five years.

– but had to concede that much of this “growth” was illusory, based mostly on high immigration and unsustainable ballooning house prices in Auckland;

The housing boom has been a global phenomenon driven by the unusually low interest rate environment in the wake of the GFC. Investors have been looking for somewhere to put their money outside of the bank and assets prices have soared – both sharemarkets and property.

And far from National’s books being in surplus, Key has  managed to rack up a debt of  $95 billion according to a recent Treasury document.  Dann must have missed that salient bit in his rush-to-gush. He did, however, acknowledge the nature of the “ongoing GDP growth” further into his piece;

Overall population growth and record net migration is widely cited as a factor taking the gloss off New Zealand’s strong growth story.

Per capita GDP isn’t nearly so strong and the extra population is adding to the housing bubble and highlighting some deficiencies in infrastructure spending.

Almost reluctantly, Dann concludes;

He has not been a reformer but he has created a stable platform, in unstable times, for growth.

He exuded confidence and it rubbed off on the economy. Whether he has done enough to set the nation up for long-term prosperity, as outlined in those rosy Treasury forecasts, remains to be seen.

He also repeats Brent Edwards’ observation;

…Key made the most of the market conditions he had to work with.  He has benefited from some ground work done by the previous Labour Government, particularly in booking the gains from the China free trade agreement.

Writing for Radio NZ, John Campbell asks;

So, in the end, how will history judge John Key?

In his earnest, boy-scout, way, Campbell is charitable about one possible legacy left by Key;

In the age of Trump and Brexit and Manus Island, and having succeeded Don Brash and his divisive Orewa rhetoric, part of what may endure is a sense that, under him, New Zealand did not embrace xenophobia and paranoia and the vilification of Māori, Muslims, Mexicans, blue-collar immigrants and almost anyone who wasn’t Tribe White.

To this point, writer and trade unionist, Morgan Godfery, not a natural ally of Key, tweeted on the day the prime minister announced his resignation: “I’ll go into bat for Key on this: he rejected the politics of Orewa, avoiding what might have been an ugly decade of tension and conflict.”

Which might be true… except that Key and his Ministers were not above vilifying those who dared criticise National, or when it suited party-politics;

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See also: National Minister refers to PM as “Wild Eyed” Right-Winger!

In his usual manner of gentle admonishment, John Campbell chides Key and his Administration for their failing in housing;

“When I was six”, [Key] said in his maiden speech, “my father died; leaving my mother penniless with three children to raise. From a humble start in a state house, she worked as a cleaner and night porter until she earned the deposit for a modest home. She was living testimony that you get out of life what you put into it. There is no substitute for hard work and determination. These are the attitudes she instilled in me.”

Campbell responded;

Key was six in 1967. Among the many things that have changed since then is housing affordability. The IMF’s latest Global Housing Watch lists New Zealand’s housing market, in relation to household income, as the most expensive in the OECD. Could a penniless solo mother, working as a “cleaner and night porter”, paying market rents, now earn the deposit for a modest home?

Then Campbell issued what may well be Key’s one and only true legacy – if one could call a broken promise to the grieving families and friends of 29 men entombed deep within a mine on the West Coast, a “legacy”;

This is what John Key said, behind closed doors, when he met with Pike families on September 22, 2011.

“The first thing is I’m here to give you an absolute reassurance we’re committed to get the boys out.”

An absolute reassurance. The boys out. When the families heard that, there was spontaneous applause. The human details. The empathy, sincerity and trust. When the clapping stopped, the prime minister continued:

“When people try and tell you we’re not, they’re playing, I hate to say it, but they’re playing with your emotions.”

And then John Key made it personal:

“So, you are the number one group that want to get those men out. And, quite frankly, I’m number two. Because I want to get them out.”

Five years on, the men are still in. It may be that the risk of getting them out is too great. But, when he was alone with them, Key didn’t say that, or qualify his words with that possibility. His was an “absolute reassurance”, and the families believed him and have clung to that belief in the years since.

Of all the many broken promises from Key, that will be the one most remembered. Because as Campbell so astutely pointed out, “John Key made it personal”.

‘Mickey Savage’ writing for The Standard was more brutal and unforgiving in his/her appraisal of Key’s administration;

Key has perfected the aw shucks blokey persona that some clearly like.  Although this was only skin deep.  His management of dirty politics and the Cameron Slater Jason Ede axis of evil won him the last election but at the cost of his soul.

As to the substance he did not really achieve or create anything.  He saw off the Global Financial Crisis and the Christchurch Earthquake rebuilds basically by borrowing money which New Zealand could because Michael Cullen had so assiduously paid off debt.

His economic development policies were crap.  Expanding dairying only polluted our rivers and increased our output of greenhouse gasses. The growth of tertiary education for foreign students only caused the mushrooming of marginal providers.

The primary economic growth policy now appears to be ballooning immigration.  Auckland’s population grew almost 3% last year.  The symptoms are clear, rampant house price increases, homeless caused by ordinary people no longer being able to afford inflated rental amounts and a whole generation shut out of the property market.  And services are stretched as budgets are held but demand increases.

And child poverty has ballooned.  Key was great with the visuals and the talk of an under class and the trip to Waitangi with Aroha Ireland before he became Prime Minister was a major PR event for him to show that at least superficially he cared about the underclass.  But the reality?  Over a quarter of a million of children now live in poverty and kids are living in cars even though their parents have jobs.  There is something deeply wrong in New Zealand.

S/he concluded;

Overall Key was great at the spin and the PR but appallingly bad at dealing with the reality.  Despite his hopes the country is now in a far worse situation under his stewardship than it was when he took over.

‘Mickey Savage’ has summed up Key’s legacy perfectly and I leave this brief assessment for future historians;

John Key – Master at spin, photo-ops, and PR, but nothing else.  When the teflon was stripped away, there was nothing underneath.

And that will be his legacy: nothing. We simply couldn’t think of a single damned one.

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References

Radio NZ: PM to resign – ‘It feels like the right time to go’

Radio NZ: How does John Key’s legacy compare to the Bolger years?

Scoop media: 3 News Poll – 2-10 October 2012

TV3 News: Newshub poll – Key’s popularity plummets to lowest level

Beehive: Cullen on Key’s tired old tax cut mantra

Fairfax media: The boy from Bryndwr – John Key’s Christchurch legacy

Radio NZ: Brand John – The Key to National’s success

ODT: The John Key legacy

NZ Herald: Key – No vision, no legacy, no problem

US State Department: A proposal for the establishment of the Ross Sea Region Marine Protected Area

Youtube: John Key’s Top 10 Reasons to visit New Zealand

The Telegraph: Best of Bunga Bunga: 7 most outrageous lines from Silvio Berlusconi’s new biography

Fairfax media: John Key’s most enduring legacy is make the right like Madonna

Interest.co.nz: Roger Partridge assesses the legacy of John Key as Prime Minister and finds an impressive record given the constraints of MMP

NZ Herald: Liam Dann – John Key’s economic hits and misses

NZ Herald: NZ’s half-trillion-dollar debt bomb

Treasury NZ: Financial Statements of the Government of New Zealand for the Year Ended 30 June 2016

Additional

NZ Herald: Bennett gets tough with outspoken solo mums

Scoop media: Justice Minister Judith Collins resigns from Cabinet – PM’s announcement

Dominion Post: Forced sterilisation ‘a step too far’

Newstalk ZB: Key – Nicky Hager a conspiracy theorist ‘because I think he is’

NZ Herald: PM attacks journalist over SAS torture claims

NBR: Collins on her last chance, PM says

NZ Herald: He’s Dotcom’s little henchman – PM attacks journalist’s spy claims

NZ Herald: Eleanor Catton has ‘no particular great insights into politics’, says John Key

Other Bloggers

Against the current: John Key’s Dismal Record on Climate Change

Bowalley Road: What A Way To Go! Some Initial Thoughts On John Key’s Resignation

Local Bodies: John Key’s Real Legacy

Sciblogs: Key’s legacy – an economist’s view

The Daily Blog: The true legacy of John Key

The Standard:  John Key’s legacy

Your NZ: Key’s legacy

Previous related blogposts

National Minister refers to PM as “Wild Eyed” Right-Winger!

Lies, Damned lies and Statistical Lies – ** UPDATE **

The Mendacities of Mr Key # 18: “No question – NZ is better off!”

National and the Reserve Bank – at War!

National exploits fudged Statistics NZ unemployment figures

The Dismantling of a Prime Minister – Completed

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audrey young political column cartoon john key's legacy

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This blogpost was first published on The Daily Blog on 4 January 2017.

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