John Hartevelt – “Key is massively over-exposed on any number of fronts, but nowhere more so than at Pike River.” Key routinely promises big: close the wage gap, roaring out of recession, national cycleway, no equity loss for redzoners, Pike River bodies out, no GST hike, whaling solved, brighter future. He NEVER delivers. How does he get away with it? Well, it helps if nobody’s holding you to account for starters.
Rarely does the mainstream media go back and check whether politicians have delivered on their promises. This isn’t just a phenomenon of the way they treat Key. But Key exploits it very well. Substance doesn’t matter to the media any more (cf. nearly everything John Armstrong writes). Spectacle is all that matters. And Key does spectacle very well. After the spectacle, it’s down the memory hole with the substance for the modern media.
Hartevelt’s piece, on Key’s failure to live up to the guarantees he gave the Pike River families is good for at least raising the distance between what Key promised and what he has delivered. But look at the framing: it’s not ‘Key has promised, people have depended on those promises, Key should suffer if he doesn’t deliver’. It’s ‘Key was trying to do the right thing and people expect too much of him, it was silly of him to promise what he couldn’t be sure to deliver’. Not exactly giving Key the slamming he deserves.
The Opposition hasn’t done a good job either. The narrative around Key has been shifting and often contradictory. It has defined his failings too often in personal terms that have asked the public to hate him for who he is. The narrative needs to be shifted to asking the public to reject Key for promising and not delivering.
But the real ‘genius’ of Key is his own ability to separate the past from the present. It’s very post-modern. Only the now matters. When Key promises people what they want, he gets support. Later, if anyone asks if he has delivered, he simply refuses to engage by either a) saying he never made the promise he did or making pedantic semantic excuses (No GST increase, Pike River promises, redzone promises) or b) creating confusion around the evidence (his shifting use of statistics on the wage gap, his infamous comments on Hardtalk about water quality science).
Labour ties itself in knots trying to reconcile its present and its past. Brand Key is ahistoric, apart from the pre-politics ‘poor boy made good’ creation myth. Key refuses to be drawn into a debate over whether his past promises have been met. Instead, he makes more promises. Those who are trying to hold him to account look like they’re stuck in the past while he is driving the narrative for the future. Brand Key and the real world of actions and outcomes never meet.
It makes for bad government. As can be demonstrably proven in so many ways. But, by the time you’ve proven that one promise was broken, Key has ‘moved on’, divorced himself from the issue, and made another exciting new promise. Bad government. But damn good politics for National, whose objective is power, not results.
The election is a chance to reassert reality over the narrative. The Left already has the policies and vision of its own to promote. To tackle Key, it doesn’t need to try to paint him as a monster or a lazy glamour hog or self-interested trickster. He may be all those things but attempting to portray him as such hasn’t worked. Instead, ask him to simply prove that he has kept the promises he has made, and ask Kiwis if they can afford three more years of over-promise and under-deliver.