Paul Holmes on New Zealand
Paul Holmes is an award-winning Herald columnist

Paul Holmes: A simple truth about politics


Politics is, in the end - and I hope you won't think me presumptuous - simple. It's about being liked enough to get the numbers. It's all about getting votes.

I have colleagues who make politics awfully complicated, and perhaps they're right and maybe I see things too simply.

But then so do the people. You either like a bloke or a woman or you don't. Under MMP, which has made politics very hard to work out and predict, the people continue to go ahead and make it simple for themselves. The vote comes down to who touches you or who bores you. Who makes you laugh and who doesn't. Who interests you and who doesn't. Who is a star and who is not.

I think this explains the apparently set in stone fortunes of Prime Minister John Key and Labour leader Phil Goff.

Mr Key can do no wrong and hasn't come close to doing so for nearly three years. His meetings in Washington DC last weekend were a triumph.

All the top doors opened for him. In the middle of the worst crisis of his presidency, Barack Obama gave a New Zealand Prime Minister 30 minutes, if not a little more. We are back. And John Key got the honour of being the one they said it to.

The Prime Minister hadn't had an easy week leading up to Washington. The New Zealand cluster pack travelling with him were all over the so-called Israeli spy drama in Christchurch and they pounced on the rather inept way he'd first handled questions about it. I suppose that what got them so excited was that Key seemed dodgy.

But prime ministers are always mysterious and dodgy round SIS and national security stuff. I just thought they'd caught him unready. The public, I think, didn't give a rats. In any case, the Israelis might well have been here because that is what they do, they steal identities, they're like that. We've caught them at it before. But If anything - and here's where I get simple and some of my colleagues get hysterical - New Zealanders are possibly quite proud that the Israelis like stealing our passports because it means we're good people.

I watched Key on Q+A with Guyon Espiner last weekend and marvelled at how easily these days he handles the difficult interview. He simply faces up. No, he didn't handle the first questions about the alleged spy cell well, he admitted, but he did better later and the file is closed and that's that.

And people admire the normality of that. Key is normal, people think, one of us. From state house to riches. He's one of us. He made millions, but he's one of us. And by normal, I mean that dogma neither interests him nor traps him. Whatever works, let's do it. The 2008 election was a resounding return to "normalcy" and people are still enjoying the bounce to the other side of the court.

That's why I knew the capital gains tax, a truly complicated red-haired bastard stepchild of a thing was no game changer at all. For a start it's faintly punitive, and carries the odour of Labour's dislike of people making money. And say what you like about people investing in property, property doesn't lose hundreds of millions and run off to Brisbane pleading poverty.

The capital gains tax was never the thing to bring the hearts of the people back to Labour.

Phil Goff is a good man, no doubt about it, a good, intelligent, hard-working servant of the people. So why do people continue to reject him? And these days, if we are rejecting a party, we're first rejecting the leader, make no mistake.

The trouble with Goff is that he has been round so long. He's had too many incarnations. Once he was a devoted flat taxer. Middle New Zealand knows this. You get to the point in politics and show business where you've simply been round too long. You cease to interest people. People appear still to find John Key fascinating. They see him still growing in the job and a man in love with his job. A fortnight doesn't go by without me running into someone who tells me with surprise - even pride in their voice - that they saw John Key and his family eating out somewhere and minding their own business and people were leaving them alone out of respect and it was really lovely to see.

But I fear that the truest thing said about Phil Goff was an observation made by Weekend Herald columnist John Armstrong last year. Goff's difficulty, wrote Armstrong, is that he cannot relate to ordinary New Zealanders. And I don't want to believe that but I fear it is true.

It is his fundamental weakness. You can have a decent chat to Phil. Put a camera on him or a microphone and you get the lecture from the old party machine man, or the university man. And people don't want to be lectured. They had a decade of it and they don't want it again.

The polls make it fairly clear that the country is quite happy with a bloke who is still inclined to call the place New Siland.

* Paul Holmes is on Newstalk ZB today from 9am until noon. John Roughan is on leave.

- NZ Herald

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