Toby Manhire

Toby Manhire on New Zealand

Toby Manhire: Perma-relaxed PM starting to come unstuck

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Prime Minister John Key.
Prime Minister John Key.

Liar, liar, pants on fire. That's the sound of the Labour Party - or several of its MPs at least - taking on John Key and co over the latest eruption of scandal from the giant Kim Dotcom pinata.

The Prime Minister's claim not to have heard of Dotcom until the day before the testosterone-splattered Coatesville raid in January may look puzzling. His claim to have learned only the other day of GCSB surveillance activity is eyebrow-raising, too.

But does that make him a liar? I don't see that it does. If you have evidence for mendacity, let's see it, and - bingo - Key will be gravely politically wounded, perhaps mortally. Otherwise, shut up with the liar wolf cries. It just leaves you looking like a bunch of schoolyard mud-slingers.

"The problem is that they can't join the dots enough," said Key in the House this week. He was swatting away questions on the John Banks donations controversy (another gift from the Dotcom pinata), but he might easily have been analysing his opponents' strategic shortcomings.

Because the dots are pretty joinable, if you think about it. A large part of the appeal of National and its jocular leader, Barbecue John, has been the contrast with what came before. A Government perceived to be micro-managed by an overbearing Prime Minister had been neatly lampooned as "Helengrad".

There was something refreshing, sunnier, about the arrival of John Key, the perma-relaxed PM. He wasn't one for detail, for small print. He boasted, indeed, that only the important stuff would reach his desk.

But that's starting to come unstuck. In just the past couple of weeks, the incompetent handling of the Christchurch school overhaul has reinforced the sense of a Government detached from the reality in the city. The John Banks episode, and particularly the Prime Minister's contortions in refusing to read the police report into mayoral donations (which itself concerns a document that one of Key's ministers failed to read) reinforces the impression of a Government indifferent to specifics.

Stir in the latest revelations about a Prime Minister whose relaxed attitude is unencumbered by knowledge of the extraordinary, illegal even, actions of the spy agencies for which he is responsible, whose rictus idyll is uninterrupted by his own department, even by his deputy, and you have a much more potent message than the hollow screech of liar.

The argument goes like this: here is a don't-know-can't-recall Government, headed by a light-touch Prime Minister. And the head-in-sand, shoulder-shrug approach has left a trail of neglect: child poverty, Tasman exodus, asset sales, sham hui, and on it goes.

To be fair to Labour, deputy leader Grant Robertson started to prod this nerve in general debate on Wednesday, when he upbraided "a Prime Minister whose once casual, relaxed attitude is now seeing him missing in action on critical issues for this country". That was a much better attempt than an insouciant blog post by finance spokesman David Parker yesterday, which railed against the Government on the basis of - his words - "rumour" and "gossip from the Beehive". Bizarre.

The most effective Opposition tactic in recent weeks turned back on National one of its own rhetorical weapons. I confess I winced when I heard the PM questioned about "Planet Key". Senior ministers have sneered "Planet Labour" at the Opposition benches with a Beavis and Butthead enthusiasm more than 20 times since the Budget, in an attempt to lampoon Labour's economic policy. Enough already, I thought.

But in fact "Planet Key" (like "Helengrad", more a slogan than a narrative, but not unrelated) struck a chord - helped in large part by Key's clumsy effort to ad-lib it away with his jocular imaginings of such a planet as "a lovely place to live", where "golf courses would be plentiful".

It struck a chord because it speaks to a nagging sense that Key, his team and his modus operandi are on, well, another planet. It encapsulates something about his hands-off, relaxed-about-everything, anti-forensic style, the fruits of which are playing out today in the headlines. And it speaks to the existing reservations about Key - super-rich, out-of-touch, and so on.

While Labour is pecking away in a number of policy areas, they lack much in the way of a coherent argument to explain what is wrong with the incumbents and right about them. If you landed in New Zealand from, say, another planet, my guess is you'd think, for now at least, that the main Opposition party is Green.

- NZ Herald

Toby Manhire is also a columnist for APN's Listener magazine.

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