New Zealand's dim new world

Herald on SundayAs America looks forward to a bright future with its first black president Barack Obama at the helm, its tiny, South Pacific anti-nuclear challenger, New Zealand, reversed out of Obama's hope for a better life for all over the weekend and elected a centre-right government led by a political newcomer.

After just six years in parliament, John Key is New Zealand's new prime minister following the nine-year reign of Helen Clark, the country's first elected woman PM and her Labour-led coalition government (the first woman PM, Jenny Shipley, won the role in a leadership coup backlash against Jim Bolger's leadership of the National party in 1997).

The 47-year-old former merchant banker, John Key, made his millions trading in foreign currency.

Key campaigned on his ability to manage the economy, trading on his international experience on the money market.

But, in a bid to appeal to a wider voting pool, Key liked to talk about his beginnings in a government-owned state house where his widowed mother raised her three children in the '60s and '70s.

Key's other campaign plank has been tax cuts which translate into more money for the rich. On Saturday night he reaffirmed that legislation to enact these would be in place by Christmas along with a raft of reforms including a review of public service spending and resource management, a policy likely to buy a fight with the Greens who see it as allowing a charter for development without enough protection for the environment.

A strong law and order focus will see parole and bail laws toughened, a clamp down on gangs and DNA testing for everyone arrested for an imprisonable offence.

Meanwhile, outgoing prime minister, Helen Clark, has accepted responsibility for her party's election defeat and she and Labour's deputy leader, Michael Cullen, have stepped down.

Over three terms in office, Helen Clark has made her mark as a steady manager rather than a charismatic leader.

Economist Brian Easton says the Clark government saw as its job to reverse the extremism of Rogernomics instituted by the Labour finance minister in 1984. Roger Douglas's policies included cutting agricultural subsidies and trade barriers, privatising public assets and the control of inflation through measures rooted in monetarism.

Rogernomics was seen by some Labourites as a betrayal of traditional Labour ideals.

'In a sense having done that, it was unable to offer anything other than a sense of competence,' said Easton.

'The public wanted a little bit more than steady-as-she-goes but it didn't know what. On the night, John Key gave it what it wanted.'

Easton had no sense that the public wanted a policy change.

'It's almost that the public decided that if we're going to have a conservative government it should be of the centre right rather than centre left.'

Whereas Obama's message that he stood for change on all fronts was crystal clear and American voters were left in no doubt what this meant, Key's proclamations of 'time for a change' led to no such clarity.

Commentators on televised leaders' debates over the past fortnight said they could find little difference between the policies of Clark and Key.

As polling in the runup to the weekend election showed National would claim up to half the electorate, an increasingly desperate Labour party adopted several campaign slogans – 'keep it Kiwi', and 'trust us' but with no attempt to show just how Key was untrustworthy.

Key walks a tightrope depending as he does on the right-leaning Act party for governing clout while holding to his promise of not working with Roger Douglas, the architect of Rogernomics and founder of Act. This is the strength of the mixed member proportional voting system which, in the end, can give the smaller parties some bargaining power.

Unlike the vast majority of their American cousins who are full of hope, New Zealanders may look back on the Clark administration with nostalgia when they realise that the new government is interested in pleasing only those blue-chip investors who voted for it. In no more than 100 days, many Kiwis with little bargaining power but their labour, may find themselves out of pocket and out in the cold.

Cecily McNeillCecily McNeill is a former Radio New Zealand broadcaster who is currently editor of the Wellington Catholic newspaper Wel-com.



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Existing comments

Oh how the Catholic ire is raised when any but the militant Labor is given a voice. Perhaps Cecily McNeill ought look to the state of Labor in NSW before slamming other parties. As to claiming 'poor roots', here in ozland need we look any further than the Labor leader Rudd !!! Wake up, Cecily and take a peek at the land across the water to your west and then if you are brave enough look at the wider world. There are good people outside Labor.

Anne. | 10 November 2008  

Time will tell. It seems that we in education will have a few changes ourselves if the pre election policies are implemented. It will be interesting to see what form the testing takes as to how much of a hinderance it is.

Tom | 10 November 2008  

Thanks to Cecily McNeill for explaining in one short phrase why the New Zealanders voted in a new government. I didn't realise before now that all NZ voters like all Aust voters rely on the success of blue-chip investments for their future.
Bill Barry

Bill Barry | 10 November 2008  

Well done Cecily!
A very fair summary.

June | 10 November 2008  

Cecily applauds a very new Obama without question about his ability to correct financial problems in USA. Which have their roots in the poor policies of his Democrat predecessor --Clinton. A point is made that Key has only been in Parliament for 6 years--isn't it about the same time as Obama! There is an unhealthy bias in this commentary.

brian martin | 11 November 2008  

According to Cecily McNeill, the majority of New Zealanders are stupid for electing a non-left wing political party to govern New Zealand.

Ron Cini | 12 November 2008  

I have a vague awareness of the harshness that rogernomics inflicted on many Kiwis. I hope the new Prime Minister doesn't revert back to rogernomics but given his background I expect to see another wave of Kiwi migration soon.

billie | 13 November 2008  

Didn't the NZ Catholic Church hierarchy advise us to consider respect for life as the first priority in deciding how to vote? On that basis wouldn't National be the party of choice?

Damien Mosquera | 15 November 2008  

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