John Key’s legacy will not be defined by great policy achievements; it’s his success as the model of a neoliberal leader, a poster boy for trickle-down economics, that he will be remembered for.
Key presided over increasing and gross social inequality.
Like another poster boy for trickle-down economics, Tony Blair, the New Zealand prime minister had the Teflon gene. Even while presiding over record levels of child poverty, his popularity remained high.
Despite ignoring public preferences not to privatise state-owned enterprises, increasing the GST, and more-or-less ignoring New Zealand’s chronic child poverty, because he blamed the victims, none of it stuck.
Only because the average greedy Kiwi is not only politically naive but also has succumb to Neoliberal doctrine and decided ‘To hell with everybody else, I’m getting as much as I can for Me Me Me.’
Key was like a Tony Blair of the South Seas: a certain level of personal charisma and a socially inclusive façade allowed both Key and Blair to sell the nasty side of neoliberalism.
Never mind the hundreds of thousands of children living under the poverty line in New Zealand, a country of only four million, and him brushing off the recommendations of the government panel charged with improving their lot; Key was seen as a good guy and a safe pair of hands.
Key was a person who fitted the narrative of Neoliberalism perfectly, he was a man of his time. He came of age at a time when a Neoliberal coup turned the more-or-less socialist mixed economy of New Zealand on its head.
As financial markets were deregulated and the Keynesian social consensus dismantled, Key began his ascendency to banking-money heaven.
The heart of the Key narrative, like the Trump narrative, is money.
They both have a personal story about business acumen and the notion that making money is the high art of society and the hallmark of good character.
It’s no coincidence that this “good with money” story has found such great traction and continues to propel wealthy business people into political power. In New Zealand, and many other countries, including Australia, the UK and the US, there’s a powerful narrative that says that running a government is very much like running a company; you must balance the books first of all.
Equating the values of entrepreneurship and fiscal discipline with the judgment required to legislate in the public interest is crude nonsense.
But this money story not only has currency, it is the currency of the reigning monetarist fiscal discourse.
Many of the opponents of neoliberalism, including those who tried to unseat Key, still haven’t figured out how to counter the “money story”.
Labour parties around the world have long been experiencing an identity crisis: they are divided between their complicity in creating a neoliberal society, their adoption of Keynesian responses to the global financial crisis and the ideological opposition to neoliberalism among their ranks, in the form of, for example, Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders.
Until you pull that money story apart, and New Zealand Labour still need to do this, people do buy into it, and they kept voting Key in because they believed in the equation that “good with money” equals “morally upstanding”.
People don’t want this bubble popped.