Dipped in the deep end: Can English navigate the Key legacy and Trump effect?

by Bevan Rapson / 17 February, 2017

They could hardly be more different, but just like his US counterpart, our new premier is roasted for staying right in character.

As America reaps the Trump whirlwind, our own new leader’s first weeks in office couldn’t have been in starker contrast.

Bill English has at least one thing in common with the new president: go back 12 months and the prospect of either of them winning the top jobs in their respective countries in 2016 was barely thinkable. But that’s about it. In all other respects, the tweet-happy reality-TV star in the White House and the unexcitable career-politician Southlander on the ninth floor of the Beehive barely seem to be from the same planet.

For both men, those initial days in charge played out accordingly.

Trump enraged critics at home and abroad – and heartened his supporters – with a frenzy of executive orders and controversial appointments. English pressed the flesh in Europe but then mooched into election year at home, seemingly in no hurry to put his stamp on the government he inherited so unexpectedly from John Key, or to use the megaphone his elevated position provides. It wasn’t only in a laidback appearance at the Karaka yearling sales that he seemed determined not to frighten any horses.

Somehow, even his ineligibility to take up residence in Premier House seemed in keeping with a low-wattage assumption of leadership.

While Trump delivered shock and awe, English was more “aw, shucks”. Asked just after his new ministry was sworn in whether he would call himself a feminist, he claimed he didn’t quite know what that meant, prompting a publisher to offer him a book on the subject. To be fair, it’s understandable if English would rather not revisit the debates he witnessed first-hand in literary theory classes at Victoria University in the 80s. Like many who survived that era, he’d probably rather stick pins in his eyes.

Then, when Trump’s cynical, sinister “Muslim ban” was announced, the mildness of English’s response – merely disagreeing with it – ignited a blaze of indignation. That was predictable on the righteous left, where virtue-signalling sometimes seems to have taken the place of effective politics. How dare English not immediately take the moralistic high ground? But even mainstream media commentators decided his response was “flaccid” and that he had “floundered” under questioning. According to an editorial in Wellington’s Dominion Post, “… if [English] wants to avoid seeming trapped by indecision, or cowed by fear of a great patron, he should speak more forcefully when faced with a moral outrage”. 

But having made clear his disagreement with the ban, why would English go further and risk picking a fight with the combustible and wildly unpredictable Trump?

Just how tricky relations with the US will be under its new president was underlined when Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull reportedly received an enraged blast via telephone over a refugee deal between the two countries. If Trump will mete out that sort of treatment to one of America’s most fawning allies, might not English be wise to avoid antagonising him unnecessarily?

And having recently incurred the wrath of Israel and her supporters by sponsoring a UN resolution condemning continued settlements in the occupied territories, New Zealand weighing in too excitably on another international issue might start to look like attention-seeking by a mouse that fancies the sound of its own roar. 

Certainly, David Lange, say, would have provided a better sound bite of condemnation over Trump’s ban, but even our new Prime Minister’s most ardent supporters wouldn’t claim that Lange-style oratorical flourishes are his strong suit. His careful stance was entirely in character. Like Trump, he pretty much did what it said on the tin.

 

It’s worth remembering, too, that not all New Zealanders share the widespread urban-liberal horror of Trump and his determination to do at least some of what he said he would. English has no reason to alienate those voters who admire elements of the president’s conservative agenda.

Why, then, was English lambasted so roundly? The chorus of disapproval confirms that while John Key delivered the prime ministership to his chosen successor, he couldn’t bequeath his instinctive media skills or the gravity-defying personal popularity that provided a cloak of protection against criticism. Broadcasters, in particular, enjoyed tapping into Key’s popularity; for some, aggressively taking on a politician endorsed so heartily by the public was unlikely to have been career-enhancing. In the absence of similar opinion-poll backing, English was always going to make a more tempting target.

The new Prime Minister can’t be John Key, although it’s possible his overly casual start to the year was actually a misguided attempt to emulate the “relaxed” demeanour his predecessor was so proud of. English did once describe Key as “floating from cloud to cloud”, which seemed at the time a fairly unappreciative analysis of Key’s steel-trap calculations and unflinching modus operandi.

English’s years as Key’s deputy would have offered a master-class in pragmatic modern politics. For that reason, we should expect comprehensive polling to remain National’s compass, for English to keep getting the talking-point briefings that helped keep Key ahead of the game, and for the adoption of rivals’ policies as required. Nobody should have been too surprised that English’s first big speech of the year unveiled a major boost in police numbers – something Labour and New Zealand First have previously promised. Staying calm in the face of media excitement, as Key did during the Dirty Politics and Panama Papers rows, will also remain part of the package.

English can’t emulate Key’s persona. He won’t encourage hijinks from breakfast-radio hosts. His laboured attempt in February to ridicule Labour and the Greens for relying on “vibe” rather than policy didn’t come across as the kind of zinger his team presumably expected.

His rivals will be praying that the misfortune and mishits of his first spell as leader – up against the Clark juggernaut – might have followed him into this second stint. But it’s hard to see the wheels falling off the National machine just because English’s delivery system needs a little tweaking.

Which is not to say our new Prime Minister can plot a simple course to victory on September 23. As in the last election, a fistful of wildcards are in play.

The furore over his “Muslim ban” response emphasised how international uncertainty caused by Trump’s antics will loom large. Trump has already influenced the election agenda here by sweeping the TPPA off the table. Who can guess what international scares and full-blown crises English and his ministers might yet face over global economic or security issues? International threats could play to their advantage should voters crave stability, but missteps under pressure will quickly take a toll.

Where the last election threw up Kim Dotcom and the Internet Party, this year’s has another wealthy newbie in Gareth Morgan and his Opportunities Party. Morgan’s desire to “light a fuse” under the establishment and “Make New Zealand Fair Again” slogan invites Trump comparisons. Thankfully, the erudite Morgan is more likely to lift the level of debate than to rabble-rouse, but he won’t be the only New Zealand politician hopeful he can tap into a little of the anti-status quo sentiment that delivered Trump the presidency. New Zealand First will naturally hope Winston Peters’ long track-record of economic nationalism will find a particularly receptive audience this time around, though it is stretching things to see a parliamentarian of such long standing as an outsider.

Labour and the Greens have been buoyed by Key’s departure. Their chances of translating that improved “vibe” among their supporters to their advantage among the wider electorate is another unknown, as are the hotly contested Maori seats.

Coping with all these variables is exactly what English signed up for. To succeed, he won’t need to match the political pyrotechnics exploding in Washington – but he won’t want to waste too much time floating from cloud to cloud.

 

This is from the March 2017 issue of North & South, on sale now.
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