Is Rogering Rodney the Key to a long happy life?

Colin James’s speech to an Institute of Public Administration seminar, 9 December 2009

Rodney Hide campaigned on “three strikes and you’re in” — prison, that is. The campaign worked, though his maths weren’t strictly accurate. After four strikeouts and 12 years on the Opposition benches, Rodney is at last in the government. But is it the government he wants to be in? And does the government really want him in?

Rodney campaigned vigorously and shrewdly to get Epsom in 2005. National loyalists in the mansions, villas and townhouses did the sums and voted him in to add two MPs to their side whose votes otherwise would have been trashed. Rodney has campaigned furiously ever since — on the dance floor, at the dieticians, in policy school. Since Richard Prebble gifted him a party more dead than alive, he has slimmed, starred and reinvented himself like any standard-issue vacuous Auckland celebrity — minus the manicures, manners or Mercedes. He has remodelled his belief system, tried not to chase taxis and postmen for micro-scandals and re-presented ACT as the political wing of the Business Roundtable and the Sensible Sentencing Trust.

Rodney has also tried to be nice to John Key, who he once said is to the left of Helen Clark and of whom he said: “Kevin Rudd said ‘me too’ to policies that made Australia richer. John Key’s saying ‘me too’ to policies that are making New Zealand poorer.” During the campaign, after promising that your third parking ticket will send you to an eight-to-a-cell jail for life, he came up with a catchy slogan: don’t vote for a change of government; vote for a government of change. He, you understand, was to be — is to be — the injector of change in Key’s shiny new centrist, steady-as-she-goes, don’t-frighten-the-horses/tuis/Powelliphanta snails/poodles/butterflies/chickens government.

Rodney’s masterstroke of magic was to exhume Sir Roger Douglas. That re-energised the party and won media attention that had been elusive when ACT was 1% in the polls. John Key did his bit to help Rodney: for most of 2008 he was the bland leading the bland. For those who wanted more than a change of clothes-horse from blue-stocking Helen to cleancut state house Armani boy John or who weren’t just happy to have anyone leading National who looked like a winner — for those who wanted action, the undead Sir Roger darkly stalking the castle brought to life Rodney’s horse-frightening policy brand — at least for anyone over 40.

And it worked. Late in the campaign ACT zoomed up to 3.6%. Roger’s back. John Boscowen, the Electoral Finance Act campaigner, the three-strikes David Garrett are there, too. If ACT had been just Rodney and the eminently sensible and decent Heather Roy, National could have held its nose and patted them on the head. Five MPs made Key a majority he couldn’t refuse.

In the flush of that success (if 3.6% can be called success) Rodney’s new MPs are talking of 7% in 2011.

That is the first point I want to explore this evening. Will Rodney get his tally of MPs up to nine or slide back to two?

First, some numbers.

In 1996 New Zealand First went into coalition with National, split in 1998 and dropped from 13% to 4% in 1999, saved only by a skin-of-the-teeth win in Tauranga; in 2005 Winston Peters bagged big baubles of office from Helen Clark and his party’s vote dropped from 5% to 4% — and an exit from Parliament.

In 1999 the Alliance coalesced with Labour, split in 2002 and dropped from 8% to a total vote for its two parts of 3% in 2002. Jim Anderton’s Progressives stayed on in coalition and dropped from 1.7% in 2002 to 1.2% in 2005 and 0.9% in 2008. The Alliance got just 1909 votes last month.

In 2002 United Future did a support deal with Labour and dropped from 7% to 3% in 2005. That year Peter Dunne became one of Helen Clark’s ministers and in 2008 the party vote dropped to 0.9% and Dunne only just kept his seat. His prognosis for 2011 isn’t good unless he changes his political clothes.

That record is not a great recommendation for small tails trying to wag big dogs. But not consorting when you get the invite is to negate the whole point for a small party, which is to change the world in ways the citizenry would thoroughly approve if only it could be shown the way, the light and the truth.

The only exception since 1996 to this dismal record for support parties is the Greens, who have sort-of supported Labour since 1999 and in 2005 took on two government “spokespersonships” — a truly marvellous constitutional innovation. The Greens’ market share climbed 1 1/2% from 2005.

So what are ACT’s chances of 7% in 2011? Not good on the face of it, especially since it has two ministers actually in the National government, since Rodney has written himself into the cabinet expenditure control process and therefore has made himself complicit in any failure to cut back spending to ACT’s austere levels and since he has written himself into a consultation process which enmeshes him in nearly everything John Key gets right and wrong.

To get to 7% or even just hold steady at 3.6%, Rodney must deliver enough to convince supporters and voters that he and ACT make a real difference and/or will make a real difference in a second National term.

This is not impossible. But it will also not be easy. That is because John Key has sworn he will not do market-liberal things (like spending cuts and asset selldowns and real deregulation) that he has not said in advance he will do. That, of course, is a rubbery promise and rubber is very bendable. But it does set limits to how much of ACT’s radical economic programme Rodney can convert into government policy and action. And Rodney’s programme is radical: it is the undead Sir Roger’s unfinished business, with a updating twist or two. It is a programme that would certainly confine John Key to one term if he implemented it.

So a good deal of government management will be devoted to managing Rodney. John Key must somehow avoid rogering Rodney, thereby breaking up the coffee club, while making sure Rodney doesn’t roger him. Watch the special select committee on climate change for an early clue. National and ACT are not in the same library, let alone on the same page. National will have to prevail there.

Now, Rodney, meet Tariana Turia and Pita Sharples. The really big game in town for John Key is re-election, which requires him, so his strategists have determined, to hug the centre from not too far to the right of centre. Only if the centre can be moved rightwards — as John Howard did in Australia in the late 1990s and as, in reverse, Helen Clark moved the centre leftwards here in the early 2000s — can he move significantly to the right. [I use left and right as terms of political geography, not in terms of ancient ideologies and positioning in the frayed social cleavage. It is a whole different speech to inquire into the role of ideology against socioeconomic interests, against “identity” and “values” and “managerial politics”.]

If Key wants to hug the centre, getting rogered by Rodney on economics would leave him wide of the mark. And he has plenty of scope, short of rogering Rodney, for saying no to him: Rodney’s voters are not likely to end up with the Greens or Labour, whether they voted on market-liberal economics grounds or lock-em-up grounds; they are, most of them — perhaps nearly all of them, on National’s side of the divide.

I say nearly all because Rodney is not just radical economics. He also pushes social/moral conservatism, against the ban on whacking and civil unions and attempts to make the electoral finance laws fair and for a bigger defence force. So Rodney’s most promising ploy is to push the three-strikes line. The space for a radical libertarian economics party in our system is very small. But there is a space in the spectrum in our very liberal society for a social/moral conservative party. Part of the successful Republican formula for the late 1990s and most of the 2000s in the United States has been an improbable marriage of libertarian economics and social/moral conservatism (at least in rhetoric). George Bush has crashed and burned that peculiar flight machine, with some late help from Sarah Palin. But, suitably adjusted for local conditions, it might be ready for a lap or two here.

Tari and Pita are a very different proposition for John Key. They light stars in his and National’s eyes. Not since Sir Apirana Ngata was shoved aside by the Ratana movement in 1943 has the conservative side of politics been much more than a bystander at Maori parliamentary politics.

The rangatira have long — perhaps always — been National. They disapproved of the upstart, non-tribal Ratana movement and in any case, as conservatives and people of rank in their own society, gravitated to conservatives and people of rank in the dominant society. Some stood as National candidates. Many Maori who aspired to success in the white world voted National: Winston Peters was one. Around one-third of those entitled to go on the Maori roll choose not to. It is a fair bet a good many of them vote National. National MPs in certain seats count them as important ingredients in their majorities.

As the Maori middle class grows, the National component of Maori voting should also grow. But meantime there is a better game: lock in the Maori party and you purloin some Labour votes — that is, votes of people who vote Maori party with their electorate vote and Labour with their party vote. That makes up, in a way, for not having many active Maori in the party ranks. Go to a National party conference and of 500 or so you might see 20 brown faces — 30 maximum — and half of those are Indian. Shacking up with the Maori party is a vicarious way of acquiring Maori.

There is some basis for thinking it could work. National can offer the Maori party no contest in the electorates. In fact, National doesn’t stand candidates in those electorates. Labour can’t offer that.

Or can’t it? Going easy on the Maori party in the electorates in 2011 in return for a deal was discussed in high places in the Labour party pre-election. The alternative for Labour, if the Maori party looks set to stay with National post-2011, is to go all out for top candidates to win some the Maori party’s five seats back.

You can see the conundrum for John Key and Pita Sharples (Tariana Turia is not contesting the next election). National has to deliver quite a lot to the Maori party so that the Maori party can say handing its supporters’ party votes for Labour over to National is serving Maori. That is not out of the question: there is such a hunger in National for power and, if necessary, a brown component to ensure power, that it might be prepared to concede quite a lot.

But there are limits. Ultimately, the socioeconomic interests of most Maori are aligned closer to Labour than National. Even if National can hold the Maori party through the 2011 election, it is difficult to imagine it can hold it through a third election. At some point socioeconomic imperatives are likely to prevail.

And at some point the National party backwoods and liberal constitutionalists are likely to insist the Maori electorates are abolished. Expedience works for now but not forever. And bear in mind that if MMP is converted into supplementary member (SM) [we can discuss the technicalities in question time], the Maori party is the only small party to do better because under MMP it gets no list MPs and under SM it would get at least one. Even under first-past-the-post holding five electorate seats would make the Maori party at some point the kingmaker. If the Maori party goes with Labour the next National government will be burning with indignation and newfound belief in representational inequality. That poses an awful dilemma for the Maori party: if it doesn’t go with Labour at some point, there is a real prospect that it loses seats to Labour.

Whatever National’s success with Maori, the diversification of our society offers real potential. New Zealand is Asianising: 3% in the 1991 census were ethnic Asian, 9% in the 2006 census were and the current number is around 11%. Many of those are students but the trajectory is up and dominated by east Asians, Chinese and Indians who have conservative moral/social values and like running small businesses and working hard. That is National territory, not Labour’s as used to be fondly thought. That may turn out to be one of the most profound shifts of the 2000s in our politics.

Running through all this is another profound shift, a transit of political generations. The new intakes of MPs for both National and Labour are loaded with bright people in the 28-45 age bracket. These people’s frame of reference against which they firmed their political approaches was very different from the baby-boomers’ frame of reference. The baby-boomers’ frame was the Vietnam war, the rise of environmentalism and feminism, anti-nuclearism, indigenous rights and apartheid and Springbok tours. The 28-45s’ frame has been ubiquitous computers, the rise of the internet, globalisation, mass migration, economic deregulation, a multicultural society. The frame of reference does not determine political positions but it does frame the approach to issues and to some extent the issues themselves. So a Labour 38-year-old will have a different take on an issue and the potential solution from a Labour 58-year-old and likewise for National 38-year-olds and 58-year-olds.

The last generational transit gave us our independence revolution and in the 1984 election brought to power a bunch bent on policy revolution. The average age of the 1984 cabinet was 42.

This generational transit does not presage revolution. It presages slightly different ways of doing things: more flexibility, less ideology, an instinct to “customise” government services and mechanisms. At 47, John Key and Bill English are close enough to this next generation to reflect that in their policy line. Certainly, Key and English are a world away from baby-boomers Helen Clark and Michael Cullen. Exactly how that will play out in policy over time will be one of the fascinations of the next decade or so of our politics.

And don’t think the baby-boomers are a spent force. They may be eclipsed in our major parties (though Phil Goff and Annette King are baby-boomers, the future lies with the under-45s) but as they take over Greypower they will exhibit their usual noisy selfishness. They are the gimme generation, the over-indulged Spock babies. They are not a pretty sight and as they spill over into SuperGoldCard-land they are going to hang on as hard as they can to the spoils of the binge economy they ran.

The hangover from the binge economy is the most immediate of the Key government’s preoccupations. Households have to climb back down the debt ladder from their second place to Iceland. The country has to climb down its international debt ladder and learn to live within its means at a time when those means will be meaner. Dolloping out tax cuts and government spending won’t help unless people get back into saving. Given the wild printing of money in the United States and other “rich” countries, we are probably in for a period of inflation which will transfer resources from savers to borrowers. As an extremely exposed economy, we are caught in the wash. This will not be pretty.

There are some other big challenges. Here is the list I outlined in my December Management Magazine column: securing bilateral and plurilateral trade deals, with very limited leverage and a deliberately under-resourced Foreign Ministry, not to mention an international relations tyro as Prime Minister; getting a liveable deal for New Zealand in climate change negotiations (after being rogered in the Kyoto round) and staving off the attacks that will come from competitors, consumers, retailers and governments; underpinning innovation instead of starving researchers or resources, as governments have done for two decades; build a modern infrastructure, particularly in human capital, which requires, among other things, intensive and expensive intrusion to rescue children from so-called “dysfunctional” families; and devising better means of addressing major issues than damaging, divisive, dispiriting adversarial politics of the “we won, you lost, eat that” variety which was a factor in Labour’s big fall this election.

These are long-term challenges. But there is a bright side and I reckon it is very bright. A truly bright and imaginative government would start to pump it.

This country has water in a water-constrained world. It grows and harvests abundant food (including vast fish resources) in a food-constrained world. It has abundant energy in an energy-constrained world. It comes relatively well out of climate change compared with almost every other country. It has distance from terror and mayhem. And it has a brand — clean-green — which most countries would die for but which we don’t seem to care much for.

Long-term challenges require long-term governments. In one sense we have that: a public service which sees past ephemeral politicians. But it helps to have stability in the Beehive as well. Can the Key-English National party provide that?

I say Key-English National party because that combination epitomises the National party at its strongest: that is when the liberal and conservative strands are dominant over the populist and radical strands and are in constructive tension. I think that after a 35-year gap National has that back, reflected at the top in Key who is more liberal than conservative and English who is more conservative than liberal.

That suggests National has a fair chance of riding through the rough stuff that is coming and securing a second and third term. That is by no means assured because Labour has been regenerating at all levels and is in good shape to bid again for the centre (though Labour, typecast right now as liberal, urban elitist, has some difficult reconnecting to do with its core vote). There is plenty that can go wrong for National, not least, as I suggested at the beginning, in its relations with its support parties. But there is also plenty that can go right, as I suggested might come from the Asianisation of our society. Moreover, the long-run track record over the past century favours the moderate right over the moderate left. In the twentieth century the moderate right beat the moderate left 62-38 and the second half score was 38-12.

Sure, the radical undead are stalking the ramparts. But that is at the margin and National is going to fix that with a referendum to modify MMP to the advantage of the two big old parties (and within that to National’s advantage over Labour). Within the party the ghosts of Ruth Richardson and Don Brash have been exorcised and the ghost of Sir Robert Muldoon likewise. National is sensible again and the country is probably going to like that.

Of course, all bets are off if Rodney rogers John. But all good metaphors must come to an end.