Harriet Maltby is a Government and Economics Researcher at the Legatum Institute and former Senior Parliamentary Assistant.
John Key did it. This New Zealand Prime Minister is a history maker.
I wrote here last month about the prospects for John Key going into this election seeking a third term for his National-led government. They were positive, the Nats were polling at 50 per cent and on course to secure an overall majority, a feat unachieved since New Zealand adopted MMP twenty years ago.
Shortly after, the polls began to narrow as a series of grenades were thrown onto the electoral landscape. Their design was to take out Key. Emails were hacked, accusations made of lies and spies, ministerial heads rolled, and the Assange-Snowden duo even took shots via video link. It was an extraordinary attempt not just to change the government, but a personal attempt to take down a Prime Minister who was in danger of becoming one of the greatest in New Zealand’s history. That he is still standing – and standing taller – is nothing short of miraculous.
The first grenade was lobbed by investigative journalist Nicky Hager who published a book – Dirty Politics – which alleged that the Prime Minister’s Office used right wing blogs to leak information and attack opponents. The evidence was emails hacked from one such blogger, Whale Oil (New Zealand’s Guido Fawkes). Key’s saintly reputation was under threat. Perhaps most seriously, Hager claimed that the PM’s office had tipped off Whale Oil to request certain Secret Intelligence Service papers embarrassing for Labour.
Key denied the allegations and NZSIS backed the PM’s version of events, but it didn’t seem to halt the media’s rabid desire to prolong the story. The original emails were drip fed to the press via Twitter, Justice Minister Judith Collins was forced to resign, and Labour’s convenient campaign slogan ‘Vote Positive’ suddenly looked like a winner. Key slid through interview after interview denying the charges and trying to talk about the issues, but after one particularly painful radio interview with Guyon Espiner, the media sensed they had Key on the ropes. In a campaign that grew increasingly personal, the press smelled blood.
It was particularly personal for one man: Kim Dotcom, the genius behind file-sharing site Megaupload. In 2012, indictments were filed against him in the US and he was arrested in Auckland. It transpired that the NZ Government Communications Security Bureau had illegally spied on Dotcom prior to his arrest. He maintains that John Key conspired with the US to allow him into New Zealand so he could be extradited. The saga was compared to Watergate, with one journalist declaring that it may eventually bring down Key.
At times, it seemed like it might. To this day, Whale Oil maintains that Dotcom was behind the email theft that sparked the Dirty Politics row. Dotcom sunk over NZD $4 million into his own ‘Internet Party’, merging with existing political party MANA, with the sole intention of political regicide. With less than a week to go, he hosted a town hall meeting with Assange, Greenwald, and Snowden, claiming that Key was covering up the mass surveillance of New Zealanders. Dotcom was to produce proof that Key knew of the plan to extradite him. It was the climax of this extraordinary election that had become the well-resourced personal vendetta of one man against a Prime Minister.
It failed. Spectacularly. The evidence never materialised. Internet-MANA lost their seats and this Prime Minister is still standing with 48 per cent of the vote, his third election where he has again increased his vote share. Neither of Britain’s recent three term Prime Ministers – heavyweights Thatcher and Blair – achieved this. Their vote fell at each election. Mr Key has done something that the proportional electoral system is meant to render impossible: win a one-party majority. His success is truly remarkable.
I discussed the reasons behind the National Party’s domination in my last article. Their ability to close down the political space of their opponents was reinforced by the Dirty Politics scandal that starved the Opposition of the oxygen to put across their ideas. Key’s strong values messaging came to be a significant asset. When he refuted head on the endless accusations that he’d lied, people trusted him. Whilst the press ignored the big issues, the large National Party machine was there to take them to the doorstep.
Whilst Cameron can’t match Key’s approval ratings, this election shows us that there is hope for the Tories. For the past six years, John Key and Finance Minister Bill English have guided New Zealand through a tough economic climate. Kiwis voted them back in because they felt that overall, the country was moving in the right direction and were not willing to gamble it all on a Labour-led Government. Polling shows that Cameron and Osborne have a significant lead over Labour when it comes to economic management, our challenge is to use it to dominate the political space as Key and English have done.
In his victory speech, Key declared that it was for those who kept the faith. We Tories must also keep the faith in our record. In the meantime, here’s to John Key and the National Party’s three more years.