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Sep 22, 2014

How John Key could become New Zealand’s Richard Nixon

John Key's National Party has regained power in New Zealand, despite being plagued by accusations of misdeeds. But it might not be long before the scandals catch up with Key, writes NZ-based writer Giovanni Tiso.

John Key

The results of the New Zealand general election are in, and they are unprecedented: the National Party has won a first-past-the-post majority in a proportional system.

Its 48% share of the vote — double that of its closest rival, Labour — will translate into an absolute majority of seats thanks to the overhang created by small parties that neither reached the 5% threshold nor won any electorate seats. So National could govern alone, although Prime Minister John Key has signalled that he will bring in the allies from the party’s second term in office. And why not? He can afford to be magnanimous. His biggest problem over the next three years will likely be how to soften the public perception of the absolute power he wields, which New Zealand’s electoral system was expressly designed to prevent.

If we rewind a campaign dominated by major political scandals linked directly to his office — the resignation of his disgraced justice minister Judith Collins and last-minute allegations by a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist that Key lied to the country about the role and activities of the nation’s chief spying agency — this was never supposed to happen. But Key knew he had the election won. He spoke every night to a pollster (who just so happened to have been implicated in his covert smear machine). The pollster told him to sleep tight.

The obvious historical parallel is with United States president Richard Nixon’s landslide victory of 1972, with its defiantly brazen slogan: “Richard Nixon: Now more than ever.” In spite of the scandals. Because of the scandals. In New Zealand National’s strategists didn’t match that war cry word for word — if only because their campaign materials had already been designed and printed — but they made sure the focus of the campaign never wavered from the credibility and popularity of the party’s leader.

How did this happen? It’s too early to form an answer, and the scandals might catch up with Key yet as they did with Nixon. As in 1972, however, the failures of the Left are likely to be part of the explanation.

On this count, the leaders’ post-mortems have been in equal part entertaining and disheartening.

Labour’s David Cunliffe blamed Kim Dotcom, the millionaire immigrant who entered the fray with his Internet Party and got crushed in the poll. “For anybody to wade into New Zealand politics, spend over $4 million and end up wiping out his own supporters and damaging the Left I think is reprehensible,” he thundered.

Green co-leader Metiria Turei blamed Labour for not formalising a coalition ahead of the election, while her colleague Russel Norman complained that the book that uncovered the government’s smear machine, Nicky Hager’s Dirty Politics, tarred everyone by virtue of its title. “It should have been called Abuse of Power,” he helpfully opined.

As for poor Kim Dotcom, he was the only one who had the good grace of blaming his party’s failure on himself. “We lost because of me,” he said with moving candour. “The Dotcom brand was poison for what we were trying to achieve.” He bows out now, although many fingers will remain conveniently pointed at him for weeks to come.

Outside the world of fantasy and PR, left-wing parties will likely re-examine their organisational structures — if only because it’s what their managerialism most readily understands — and pay less attention to a strategic paradox: staffed and supported overwhelmingly with middle-class liberals, Labour and the Greens put growing social inequality at the centre of their campaigns. Yet those who suffer because of that inequality vote in low numbers, having long since tired of being employed as a rhetorical device. Their distrust runs deep.

Which leaves us with John Key, now more than ever, a man who only has to fear the work of investigative reporters and his own excess of power.

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6 thoughts on “How John Key could become New Zealand’s Richard Nixon

  1. CML

    They must be a pack of right-wing dills in NZ!
    You don’t give ANYONE that much power.
    There is one saving grace though – look what happened to Howard when he won complete power in the Australian parliament.
    Maybe there is hope for NZ yet!!

  2. j.oneill

    The comparison with Nixon is more than a little unfair. Nixon was a dishonest crook. Key keeps some bad company, but he is far from Nixonian in his approach. He also presides over a country with a healthy growth rate, a budget almost in balance, low unemployment, and the sense to keep out of other people’s wars. He also signed a free trade deal with China that Australia would love to do but which is frankly unlikely given Abbott et al’s hostility to Russia and China.

    The MMP system was not designed to prevent the exercise of power by one party, although that was a benefit. It was designed to have representation in parliament that reflects a party’s support in the electorate. The 5% minimum threshold keeps out the crazies, unlike the Australian Senate.

  3. David Hand

    I’ve been looking forward with great anticipation about how Crikey would cover the unprecedented smashing victory of John Key’s National government on Saturday and you’ve not let me down.

    Firstly, you’ve done better than the Sydney morning Herald, which now can’t cover within 48 hours, a major story in a country where it directly employs its own journalists. In the Fairfax world, the election news hasn’t come through yet.

    Over here in the Crikey bunker, it’s Nixon. Nixon!! Ha ha, that’s great!

    I’d just like to put forward one inconvenient fact. The Dotcom train wreck also severely damaged Snowdon and Assange, who were too busy appearing in the media to actually search their terabytes of data supposedly detailing how the evil western governments are spying on their citizens to find one – just one document to support their allegations.

    Snowdon handed more secrets to the Russians than they got themselves during the entire cold war but unfortunately, no evidence that will force John Key to do a Nixon.

    Ha ha! You guys are great!

  4. Jaybuoy

    the quintessence of Kiwihood…

  5. David Hand

    How did this happen? you say. All this article has is a bland “failures of the left” comment with such failures entirely tactical – Kim Dotcom, not forming a coalition early, focusing on inequality as a rhetorical device.

    This is why the left will continue to fail. There seems to be a complete inability to self examine its focus group driven platform of fairness. Ed Miliband has been completely stuffed by its failure in the UK, and so in NZ. Bill Shorten isn’t looking very steady with it either.

    Well, Kiwis voted for fairness on Saturday. Fairness for those people who put effort in, who go to work and who pay tax. They voted for a better future for their children. They voted for optimism and they voted to keep the economy growing. They rejected the myth of the 1% whose only representative that got sorted out was a German internet “entrepreneur”.

  6. AR

    So West NZ at Bondi & points south will become even more clogged.