Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Political roundup: Increasing hatred for John Key?

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There appears to be a growing hatred of John Key, especially from the political left. Some label this phenomenon “Key Derangement Syndrome”. But is this anger toward the prime minister simply an understandable by-product of personality-driven politics and a polarised society?
There appears to be a growing hatred of John Key, especially from the political left, writes Bryce Edwards. Photo / Doug Sherring
There appears to be a growing hatred of John Key, especially from the political left, writes Bryce Edwards. Photo / Doug Sherring

Matthew Hooton has a theory that the New Zealand political left suffers from "Key Derangement Syndrome" (KDS). By this he means that political activists - especially those aligned with Labour and the Greens - tend to have an irrational hatred of John Key that is out of line with reality and with the wider public. According to Hooton, sufferers of KDS are hamstrung by their hatred of Key as their lack of perspective undermines their effectiveness as an opposition.

Or course, being a right-wing political commentator, Hooton would say that wouldn't he? Interestingly, though, Hooton admitted last week that he is "a previous sufferer of Clark Derangement Syndrome" - an extreme dislike of prime minister Helen Clark that was unrealistic and exaggerated. He blames such syndromes on the fact that "political rhetoric can get out of hand in groupthink situations (like blogs, twitter etc)."

Is anger towards Key on the rise?

Last week Patrick Gower argued "There is no doubt the Prime Minister is experiencing a more visceral hatred than ever before this year" - see: Danger signs but never underestimate John Key. Gower points out that what Key has been through already this year - booed at the Auckland nines and the Big Gay Out and "targeted by a dangerous internal leak" - was "previously unthinkable". He argues it's a sign of a "new found disrespect" as Key's detractors have been emboldened by vibrant opposition to the TPP.

Gower believes that, like Helen Clark before him, Key has become a more polarising figure over time. But he warns that calls of "it's over for Key" are premature. For as long as Key is still capable of pulling off deals such as the citizenship concession from Australia and ruthless populist moves such as his non-attendance at Waitangi, Gower says hate won't stop him: "The Prime Minister may have to adjust to the hate, taking it as part of the job, but as long as he keeps making gains and keeps just enough likers liking him, well - it ain't over."

In Business as usual Danyl Mclauchlan makes a similar point: "Opposition MPs talking about values and visionary aspirations and compromised sovereignty and the future of work and what a jerk they all think John Key is all very well, but if Key's government is seen to be doing a good job in delivering the core government services that voters value, they're not going to change their votes. And they shouldn't!"

Audrey Young describes Key's tenure as "one of the longest honeymoons in political history" and has an interesting comparison of Key's popularity with Helen Clark's: "In the December Herald-DigiPoll survey, Mr Key was preferred Prime Minister by 65.2 per cent of voters after seven years in office. Helen Clark had been similarly popular, too, after six years as Prime Minister, rating nearly 60 per cent, but had slid to 41.6 per cent by the time she lost office in 2008" - see: TPP protests put damper on long Key honeymoon.

Like Gower, Young notes that the TPP protests mark a shift in the political landscape and Key is "preparing to be hissed and booed at every public outing by anti-TPP protesters."

Increased polarisation

The "increasingly desperate" anger on the far left is largely a manifestation of the failure of left parliamentary parties to offer a credible opposition, argues Geoffrey Miller in New Zealand's increasingly dangerous level of political vitriol. Miller says the TPP certainly generated a lot of anger on the left, but "another, more deep-seated reason for anger is John Key's continuing popularity. Anyone who has dipped into the comments section on The Standard, or who follows left-wing activists on Twitter, or reads comments on the various activist Facebook pages knows how central John Key to the discontent." And that anger can have "a nasty underbelly."

For an alleged recent example of this, Cameron Slater purports to have found hundreds of toxic comments about John Key on a RNZ Checkpoint Facebook page - see his post: Why are Radio NZ and John Campbell allowing death threats against the Prime Minister?. David Farrar was quick to condemn RNZ for allowing the comments to remain online - see: Hate speech on the Radio NZ Checkpoint Facebook page and Further on Radio NZ Facebook page.

Danyl Mclauchlan was understandably sceptical, wondering if the comments might have been manufactured. He later concluded they were probably genuine and simply a result of a story going viral and RNZ being unaccustomed to having to moderate comments, rather than being indicative of the state of the left - see: The mysterious case of the hate speech comments on the RNZ Facebook page.

For Scott Yorke's take on it all see his amusing and pointed People have been awful on the internet again.

As Miller pointed out, the blogosphere can be a source of extreme opinions. In his end-of-year round up, Martyn Bradbury described John Key's behaviour as "that of a petulant spoilt bully arsehole" and the PM as "a repugnant human being" with a "callous nature", "dreadful and deformed". In a final flourish he concluded: "He's Donald Trump without the wig" - see: TDB top 5 best and worst politicians of 2015. Even allowing for Bradbury's customary bombast and colourful turn of phrase, it's highly emotive language and no doubt Matthew Hooton would diagnose this as a case of full-blown KDS.

Hooton does lay the blame for some of the left's "extreme" and "unreasonable" anger at Key at the feet of Andrew Little, for his part in a "campaign of deliberate lies over the TPP" - see Hooton's comments on Mclauchlan's The mysterious case of the hate speech comments on the RNZ Facebook page. See also Hooton's TPP derangement.

Hooton also raises the frustration the left feel over Key's continued success in the polls. Perhaps that frustration played a part in a recent speech by Green MP Gareth Hughes in which he calls the Prime Minister little more than a "derping, planking, rape-joking expert at getting us on late night American comedy shows" - you can watch the five-minute speech here.

The strongly-worded speech - which one news report called "one of the most scathing critiques of John Key's leadership ever heard in Parliament" - has now been viewed over 36,000 times on YouTube, suggesting the criticisms resonated with a wide audience. Hughes later explained Why I said what I did about John Key.

Problems with Key's flag referendum

It's not only the TPP that threatens Key's aura of invincibility - the looming flag referendum looks set to present a major defeat for the PM. According to Auckland University's Jennifer Lees Marshment this poses a problem for Key because he has made the flag referendum all about his leadership and legacy - see her six-minute interview with Paul Henry: Key losing his charm - politics professor.

Lees Marshment says that if Key's bid to change the flag fails, "it's the first major sign that the public aren't in line with his leadership." She doesn't think it's a crisis but more of "a chink in his armour - a sign his brand may be starting to decline, along with a few other things that happened over the last year... it's a sign of the relationship between the prime minister and the public deteriorating".

Key's personal stake in the flag referendum is also why Heather du Plessis-Allan declares I blame John Key for this... She says: "One of the main reasons this flag is being voted down is because it's his flag... Perhaps, we might have felt like we got what we wanted in a flag, if it felt less like the Prime Minister got exactly what he wanted in a flag."

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And it's surely Richie McCaw's perceived closeness to Key that got him more than he bargained for when he said on his Facebook page that he supported a change of flag - see: Claire Trevett's Richie McCaw should expect criticism over flag opinion - Andrew Little.

For more on how the referendum has become a way to express dissatisfaction with John Key, see Chris Trotter's Flagging Our Opposition.

Personality politics

It could be that John Key is simply becoming less likeable. Certainly there's an increasing awareness of Key's tendency to participate in put downs and personal digs at opponents. Earlier in the month the NBR's Rob Hosking gave Key advice in his paywalled column, What Key must do now, which amounted to: "the prime minister would be advised to keep the trolling to a minimum". He explained that "Key is inclined to use Parliament primarily as a forum for partisan sledging", but with increasingly polarised politics he needed to play a role in creating harmony rather than division, in which case Key "would be more prudent to emphasise gravitas".

NBR subscribers seem to agree with Hosking. A poll showed "more than two-thirds - 69% - of respondents said they would like more substance and less snark from the prime minister while 31% don't believe he needs to change anything about his approach" - see Nick Grant's NBR subscribers to PM: Pull your head in (paywalled).

It is precisely the kind of personality-driven politics John Key indulges in and excels at that is the problem, argues James Robins - see: The Problem with Projectile Politics. Robins writes "Most of the Left's attacks on the government are pernicious diatribes aimed at the PM. 'Once a banker, always a banker' is the catchphrase, its rhyming innuendo never far from mind."

But, Robins asks, is it any wonder attacks on politicians are so personal when personality politics are the name of the game in New Zealand: "Politics has always been a battle of personalities, but in recent years morality and ideology have been jettisoned completely." Robins believes personal attacks are simply following the "pattern set by our leaders" who are happy to use personality politics to get elected and stay in power.

Finally, Andrew Gunn reflects on how the Prime Minister reaps what he sows in his parody Keeping it classy with John Key.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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