Bill English casts himself as hard-nosed and efficient while Jacinda Ardern has positioned herself on the side of the angels.
Their partnership was highly successful because while English was doing the wonkish, engine-room stuff, Key was out and about presenting the face that launched a thousand selfies. A social liberal, he was the friendly and acceptable front-man for a government that often seemed to have a cruel streak.
Key humanised — at least superficially — what has been a government often indifferent, if not actively hostile to the interests of the dispossessed, which now includes vast swathes of young people locked out of the Auckland housing market, the working poor and their families sleeping in cars, an underfunded mental health system, and long waiting lists for hospital treatment.
The success of Key and English’s good-cop/bad-cop routine was typified by the question of legalising assisted dying for the terminally ill. Key said last year that while he was personally in favour, religious opposition in his caucus meant a government bill could never be presented. Everyone knew he was referring primarily to Bill English, the devout Catholic who is opposed to abortion, voted against same-sex marriage and prostitution law reform, and told Parliament when it was discussing assisted dying in 2003: “Pain is part of life, and watching it is part of our humanity. Many of us have become more human for watching it, whether or not we liked doing that.”
Since Key’s departure, the mask has been ripped away. In his place is a numbers man who interprets nearly everything in terms of a profit-and-loss column, right down to his much-touted “social investment” approach, which is seen by many as a thinly disguised method of further dismantling the welfare system. Success for Bill English mostly means wrangling a surplus, no matter how many New Zealanders are struggling to pay their rent and food bills each week, not to mention those battling mental illness or going blind or deaf on hospital waiting lists.
English also appears to oppose much more than he supports, especially on social issues. In fact, it’s a wonder no one has labelled him “Dr No”.
English won’t legalise abortion, or even accept the advisory committee’s call for an update of the language of the 40-year-old legislation. In April, he said he had no intention of changing the law on medicinal marijuana, despite public opinion being heavily supportive. He is firmly opposed to relaxing the law on recreational marijuana.
English won’t hold an inquiry into historical child abuse despite being asked to by Judge Carolyn Henwood, who chaired the Confidential Listening and Assistance Service (CLAS) panel that heard from more than 1100 people mistreated in state care. It’s highly doubtful that the plea to the UN by Race Relations Commissioner Susan Devoy to pressure the government to hold an inquiry will move him.
What English has said an enthusiastic “yes” to is continuing National’s programme of mass immigration — not least because he claims young New Zealanders are too lazy or drug-addled to work, which is about as negative an attitude towards youth as you could imagine. In fact, drug-testing beneficiaries has shown that the number who fail is tiny but, strangely for a numbers man, that doesn’t move the Prime Minister either.
English also chooses to ignore the fact that the bootcamps he recently proposed for wayward youth are pointless — and even his own chief science adviser, Sir Peter Gluckman, has said they don’t work. However, it seems more important to English to appear tough than to be constructive.
It would help if his deputy could soften his image, but Paula Bennett is widely regarded outside devoted National circles as a turncoat, a former beneficiary who has spent much of her political career making life harder for the beneficiaries who have followed her.
In opposition to the government’s leadership team — seen by many as the king and queen of mean — stand Jacinda Ardern and Kelvin Davis. Ardern, with her megawatt smile and determination to be relentlessly positive, is the polar opposite of English — and of Bennett too.
In July, Ardern said if Labour was in a position to become the government and entered coalition talks, she would be happy to relinquish being deputy leader if she could be the Minister for Children. It was viewed as a sign that she was a lightweight who was severely lacking in ambition but now that she has shown determination and steel as the new leader it is suddenly viewed less as a weakness than as just another admirable quality.
In line with her concern for the young, one of Ardern’s early policy announcements was a toolkit for school leavers, including free driving lessons. She has also pledged to place a mental health nurse in every public secondary school.
She has promised to change the Public Finance Act so that at each Budget, “You don’t just hear about surpluses and deficits, you will hear about how many kids we have lifted out of poverty.”
That promise may well become a millstone if Labour ends up governing during a recession, given it would plunge more children into poverty at a time the government had less money to spend, but her sentiments will be widely appreciated as evidence of a kindly soul.
Her deputy, Kelvin Davis, has a reputation for aggressive politics but he turned around a struggling Northland school as its principal, and was instrumental in exposing prisoner mistreatment at the privately run Mt Eden Prison.
Of course, it’s been easy for Ardern and Davis so far. Talk is cheap. They have never been in government and never had to make tough decisions about who — from a host of deserving applicants — gets what and how much from a limited budget. If they win power in September, there will be a welter of demands to be met and inevitable disappointment will follow.
That likelihood has been increased by the opening of the government books in the pre-election update. It showed that, while the quality of mercy may not be strained by financial restraints, the quantity will be, as this year’s bumper surplus is tipped to dwindle.
But for now, many New Zealanders, embarrassed by what their country has become over the past nine years while they weren’t paying attention, are looking for a more humane, compassionate government.
Despite Gareth Morgan’s frustration at an obsession with personality politics — and by that he means the widespread enthusiasm shown for Ardern — voters are indeed concerned about policy, including housing, immigration and waterways. But after three terms under Key and English, kindness as a motivation for formulating policy may be the most appealing and engaging of all. And Labour is winning that contest hands down.
In the extended version of her party’s new campaign ad, Ardern makes that stance explicit: “They’ll say that kindness will stand in the way of progress… but we can do better…”
The election will in large part be fought between those who accept we have to spend extra to make New Zealand a more humane society and those who prefer cutting taxes so that they and everyone else in work will be slightly better off, even as the devil takes the hindmost.