Nothing so clearly demonstrates John Key’s contempt for the New Zealand voter as his confidence that we will believe whatever he tells us. He has had ample experience to back up that confidence.
The course taken by the dirty politics saga is perhaps the most obvious case in point. If the polls are to be believed, the electorate do not want to believe that we have allowed a Watergate – differing from its more notorious predecessor only in that it is just a little more hi-tech than the crude burglary of the Watergate building – to spread its tentacles throughout our public life. They are happy to accept assurances from John Key, accompanied by facial expressions of concern and sincerity appropriate to the moment, that there is nothing to worry about, rather than face the facts that are virtually incontrovertible.
By the time the various inquiries have reported and the truth is finally established, Mr Key knows that memories will have faded, interest in politics will have subsided, and most people will happily return to what they see as normality – a normality where it is then regarded as acceptable that our political leaders should lie and cheat, and abuse power in order to keep it. They have, after all, been assured that this is just the nature of modern politics and “everyone does it”. Better not to ask awkward questions.
The most recent instance of Mr Key’s confidence in his ability to manipulate opinion to his advantage is quite different. It is his indication, against the advice of his own Finance Minister, that a re-elected National government might cut taxes. This was surely the most cynical of all the election “promises” we have heard so far.
Mr Key, on this occasion, has shown himself to be an adept practitioner of what the Australians call “dog whistle” politics – the conveying of a message that is interpreted by the listener (or voter) as meaning more than what is actually said.
The calculation on this occasion is that the mere words “tax cuts” will convince the voter that a bonanza is in store and that the way to bring it about is to vote National. But this is not a case where the fine print fails to bear out the supposed meaning; there is no fine print.
All we have is a thought floated by the National leader. The most cursory examination of what that thought is based on shows how insubstantial it is.
We are invited to believe that the prospect of tax cuts is a consequence of the “return to surplus”. But that surplus has yet to materialise. It has – after a six-year delay – been celebrated in advance, by virtue of some very clever and somewhat misleading public sector accounting, but looks less and less likely with each passing day.
The brief consumer boom we have enjoyed off the back of record dairy prices is already dissipating; as that balloon deflates, so too do government tax revenues. The forecast surplus, tiny as it is forecast to be, may well not materialise at all in any immediately foreseeable future.
That has not dissuaded Mr Key from promising to spend it in advance. But it almost certainly explains why – as Bill English no doubt insisted – we will see nothing of any proposed tax cuts, if at all, until the 2017 budget. It might be thought that, if they do materialise at that point, that should be a matter for the 2017 election three years away rather than for one in 2014.
Nor can we have any assurance that any cuts would mean much. Raising the minimum wage by $1 an hour would provide four times as much help to a hard-pressed family as the vaguely indicated sum produced by the tax cut apparently contemplated three years hence.
Mr Key’s much-heralded announcement, in other words, has little substance and no detail – its flakiness compounded by the alacrity with which he upped its supposed value when the initial reaction was less than ecstatic. It is a classic example of smoke and mirrors, a piece of expert legerdemain, a construction deliberately built on shifting sands.
Can we blame John Key for so blatantly trying to mislead us? Yes, but only up to a point. The real culprits are us; we care so little about our democracy that we simply do not make an effort to sort out the wheat from the chaff. We quite literally do not want to be bothered; we would rather be invited to believe than to think.
Sadly, there is a price to be paid for our indifference – and we will all pay it. We will have acquiesced in a further and damaging debasement of standards in our public life. We will have exchanged at least the goal of decent government in the interests of the whole community for the standards of the snake-oil salesman.
9 September 2014