Why 'Tea Cup Gate' is not trivial
As Edwards must be all too aware, the Northern Hemisphere is currently the scene of extraordinary political turmoil and ideological debate, as an economic crisis shakes Europe and America and pro-democracy protests surge through the Arab world. Instead of getting to apply himself to these sorts of profound events, Edwards is forced to write, day after day, about the cup of tea which John Key took with John Banks in an Epsom cafe, and the suppressed recording of the conversation which the two men shared. It's no wonder that Edwards is complaining, in an opinion piece published in today's New Zealand Herald, that our election has become a 'circus', where personalities are more important than policy, and trivial disputes obscure the very serious economic situation New Zealand faces.
The Leader of the Opposition seems to share Edwards' impatience with the controversy now being dubbed 'Tea Cup Gate'. Phil Goff has ridiculed John Key's complaint to the police over the recording of his talk with Banks, and has called for Key to allow the release of the recording. But Goff seems to want to shift debate away from the infamous conversation, and back towards issues like National's plans to sell off shares in state-owned companies.
Edwards and Goff might be a little too quick, though, to dismiss the significance of the controversy over the chat Key and Banks had last week. Even before Key met with Banks, there had been widespread criticism of National's attempts to keep its ailing Act Party ally in parliament by getting an Act MP reelected in Epsom. National voters chafed at instructions to vote for Banks, and supporters of other parties complained about an abuse of the MMP system.
It is hardly unusual, in the era of MMP, for major parties to instruct their supporters to vote tactically, so as to ensure that a favourable minor party gets returned to parliament. What has upset many Kiwis is not National's advocacy of tactical voting, but its attempts to preserve the Act Party, and the suggestion that its support for Act is linked to a secret policy agenda.
For many New Zealanders, the Act Party symbolises the radically right-wing policies which were introduced to New Zealand by the Lange-Douglas Labour government in 1984 and continued by the Bolger-Richardson government which took power in 1990. During the late '80s and early '90s unemployment in New Zealand quadrupled, as scores of state assets were sold at bargain-basement prices, financial markets were deregulated and the dollar was floated, banks and post offices were shut down around the country, and new laws made unions into an endangered species.
The arrival of neo-liberalism in New Zealand came as a near-complete surprise. Labour had fought its 1984 election campaign on a traditional social democratic platform, promising to tackle problems like unemployment and to strengthen unions.
In 1990 New Zealanders elected the National Party, which had cynically promised to reverse some of the worst policies of the Lange-Douglas period. When National actually deepened and elaborated Labour's policies, voters turned to a post-Douglas Labour Party, and to the new Alliance Party.
In the 1993 election Labour and the Alliance won far more votes than National, but the First Past the Post system kept them out of power. In 1996 voters turned to Winston Peters' New Zealand First Party, which had campaigned against right-wing policies like the sale of state assets, only to be disappointed when Peters decided to throw his weight behind National and keep the party in power.
National was finally removed from office in 1999, when Labour won a solid victory by emphasising that it would not return to the policies of the late '80s and early '90s.
National soon discovered that it could not defeat Labour by advocating a return to radical right-wing policies. The Act Party had been formed by men and women nostalgaic for the Lange-Douglas era, but it attracted very little support from voters, and had to rely on populist non-economic causes like crime and Maori-bashing to keep a handful of seats in parliament. In the 2002 election National was routed after advocating a return to the '90s, and it only managed to rebuild support in 2005 by focusing on the seabed and foreshore issue and on Pakeha fears about the supposed 'privileges' Maori were enjoying under Labour.
The global financial crisis of 2008 and the subsequent recession have reinforced the long-standing opposition to neo-liberalism amongst New Zealanders. A generation too young to remember the dole queues and rusting factories of the '80s and '90s has seen the world economy brought to its knees by financial markets 'freed' from government regulation.
National only returned to power in 2008 because John Key made a conscious and concerted effort to rebrand the party as a force for moderate rather than radical change. Realising that there was a consensus amongst voters against a return to the policies of the '90s, Key took over the centre ground which Helen Clark had earlier made her own. The fact that Key's caucus was full of retreads from the bad old days of Bolger and Richardson seemed to elude voters.
During National's first term in government Key has projected an affable and moderate image. He has described himself as a political centrist, told low-income voters that he understands their problems, and kept a studied distance from the Act Party. By doing these things, Key has reassured New Zealanders who have traumatic memories of the way the governments elected in 1984 and 1990 betrayed their supporters and took an extremist course.
Now, though, Key has damaged his standing with the moderate majority of New Zealand voters by associating himself with Act, the political symbol of the bad old days, and by appearing to behave in the same duplicitous ways as the governments of the late '80s and early '90s.
By working to get Act back into parliament, when more than 99% of voters appear to reject the party, Key has suggested that a radical right-wing ideology lurks beneath his moderate image. And by trying to suppress the details of the conversation he had with John Banks in that Epsom cafe, Key has given the impression that, like Roger Douglas in 1984 and Jim Bolger in 1990, he has a secret agenda, an agenda which contrasts markedly with the policies he is selling to voters on the hustings.
Despite appearances, then, 'Tea Cup Gate' is much more than a dispute between the media and a politician about privacy and etiquette. If many voters are preoccupied with Key's mysterious conversation with his Act ally it is not because they are diverted from the issues by personalities or media hype, but because Key has reminded them of a disturbed and disturbing period in their country's history. Tea Cup Gate may not compare with the political controversies which are destabilising the Northern Hemisphere, but for many Kiwis it is not a trivial affair.
[Posted by Maps/Scott]