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Paul Thomas is a Weekend Herald columnist

Paul Thomas: Teflon bound to wear off Key eventually

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Aaron Gilmore's true crime: Reminding people what politicians can really be like

Prime Minister John Key's admission that the Government doesn't know how to revive Wellington was concerning, to say the least. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Prime Minister John Key's admission that the Government doesn't know how to revive Wellington was concerning, to say the least. Photo / Mark Mitchell

There are the big, hard questions such as "Is there a God?", "What is the meaning of life?" and "What are Richard Kahui's shoulders actually made of?"

Then there are the not so big, not so hard questions. Off the top of my head I can't think of a better example than "Do you know who I am?" when the person asking is a list MP.

The answer, obviously, is "no." Hence I was blissfully unaware of Aaron Gilmore's existence until he outed himself as a "dickhead" this week.

I know confession is supposed to be good for the soul, but I'm not sure that Gilmore actually needed to spell it out. At the risk of judging a book by its cover, he looks like someone who's been itching to ask a service industry worker - or "minion" as he might put it - "Do you know who I am?"

I wouldn't go so far as to suggest that he went into politics so he could go around asking people "Do you know who I am?" but in hindsight it was only a matter of time before he popped the question.

The irony here is that while Gilmore jumped the gun by 10 or 15 years, the aftermath has actually made the question relevant. Whether he'll want to go on asking now that he's given us the answer is another matter.

Given the opportunity many people would have answered Gilmore's question with a resounding affirmative: "Of course I know who you are. You're a typical bloody politician."

While the opposition parties will be revelling in the Government's embarrassment, they must be privately seething that one of their own has gone to such lengths to validate the public's low opinion of politicians. Part of John Key's success is that he has largely avoided being tarred with that brush.

There are a number of ways of looking at Key's style. You could say he has cultivated a good Kiwi bloke persona or that he's pulled off the rather nifty trick of taking politics out of politics. Or you might suggest that he's positioned himself as a celebrity first and prime minister second.

During the flap over him calling David Beckham "thick as batshit", Key asserted that the media were "out of synch" with the public who saw him as "a normal guy who speaks colloquially and kids around".

However you describe it, it's undeniably effective. The commentariat keeps talking about Key's bubble bursting and his credibility being in tatters, but he just goes on his merry way, grin firmly in place, secure in the knowledge that the next batch of polls will show that nothing much has changed.

Thus far Key's feel for the public mood has generally served him well. Nevertheless, all public figures run the risk of over-exposure and all marketing strategies eventually fall foul of the law of diminishing returns. It will be interesting therefore to see if Key suffers any damage as a result of his claim that "Wellington is dying."

First, there's the disturbing bleakness of the view that the nation's capital, home to around a tenth of the population, is on its last legs. Realising that he'd used pretty jolting language, Key quickly revised his prognosis from "dying" to "under sustained pressure". We should be thankful that he chose to pursue careers in high finance and politics rather than medicine.

Secondly, while the public may welcome or at least tolerate a certain amount of folksiness, even vulgarity, from the Prime Minister, I suspect that's based on the assumption that behind the breezy persona is a competent, serious-minded problem solver. Who cares that he has the occasional fantasy about Liz Hurley if he's right on top of the important issues facing us and our children?

It might be over-stating things to say a small shiver ran down the national spine when Key admitted that "we don't know how to turn [Wellington's terminal decline] around," but surely many pairs of eyebrows headed for the hairline.

This is a big issue with massive implications, so it's sobering to say the least that the Government hasn't got a clue how to tackle it.

It's also confusing. Key stated that Wellington only has three things going for it - government, Victoria University and Weta - which raises the question: why is National taking an axe to one of the three with its ongoing purge of the civil service? Given his background, Key must be well aware of the ripple effect of significant lay-offs on the local economy.

They say a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Perhaps National could start the rescue operation by giving major public sector jobs to suitable Wellingtonians rather than unqualified Aucklanders or expat boyhood chums.

- NZ Herald

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