Plenty of commentators say John Key was the “best politician New Zealand ever had.” I’m not sure I accept that. Helen Clark was our best politician. But I don’t think this battle is worth fighting.
In his resignation speech, Mr Key specifically said he never considered himself a politician. He was brought on (or chose to enter) for the precise reason of steadying New Zealand’s economy to guide it through a tough time after the 2008 recession.
He didn’t expect the recession – no one did. But the skills needed to steady this country could only have come from outside politics, which is why appointing a successful financier and businessman made sense.
The true critique of Mr Key is that he was our best administrator. When thinking with the lens of modern statecraft, that’s exactly the kind of person you want in front of an advanced state.
I’ll give this one more turn of the wheel. History may just show Mr Key’s appointment representing the moment when it was clear we were in the beginning of world in which politics was considered bad, but government considered good.
This is a very different world to the one in which my parent’s lived. Already young people in my peer group complain about the left and right political spectrum, rolling their eyes whenever someone says they’re “conservative” or “liberal.” They get this idea not from deep personal thought, but from training at universities and school. And to a great extent from the media.
Their teachers tell them, for instance, that it doesn’t matter what a politician says about climate science, security or economics, if the scientists, generals or wonks are sure about those things, then that’s the way things are. My peers are implicitly and explicitly told to expect the creation of policies to reflect that reality.
Mr Key represented a bridge between that old world of politics and a new world of centrist government, in which the “science” of government is lauded higher than any opinion or even constituency.
Underneath this lies a sneaky trick: a shift irreparably away from democracy, while retaining the name. But if the leaders my fellow citizens elect cannot alter every policy in front of them with confidence, then what’s the point of voting?
And if votes we cast have no effect on long-term government, then why is the message of people-power as the ultimate of checks and balances in society still useful? Democracies don’t like those questions, so why am I allowed to ask them?
Consider that Mr Key’s stewardship of New Zealand is envied by Australians living in an outdated political system with no administrator role. Voters across the Tasman consistently say they’d love if Mr Key resided in Canberra. Why? Because he isn’t a politician, and he doesn’t try to be.
He’s like a CEO called in to put the country (company) back on track before choosing voluntarily to walk away once the job is done. He now chooses to leave power behind because he knows being a politician isn’t a powerful job in this emerging world – being a leader of industry is.
I’m not saying this evolution is at all a bad thing. I have no problem with letting government govern and ending this strange, unworkable and largely pretend theatre we call democracy. But this is precisely what’s happening.
Mr Key is best understood as a technocrat wearing the clothing of a politician. Clearly, that isn’t as terrible as most would have us believe because by almost every measure New Zealand is doing better as a result of his leadership.
I do however think it’s well past time to talk about 21st-century government by the language of its reality, not as it is presented to us. In a world of naked power-grabbing perfectly attuned to and facilitated by a corrupted political process, the kind of administrator he represented is a positive glimpse of the future of the emerging market state.
Developed countries will continue to evolve in the direction of becoming market states and companies will continue to collect economic power equivalent to nation states. So wild swings between political poles every few years will be as deadly to this stability as outright warfare.
In the Game of Nations, each player wants not so much to win as to avoid loss, all players have no objective expect to keep the Game going because the alternative to the Game of Nations is destruction. As the rules of the Game change, no one with actual power will want destruction, which is why Mr Keys model of government will be replicated.
It’ll take at least another generation for enough people to be taught to think about politics as bad but government as good, but it will happen. In the meantime, the message that people-power democracy still functions must be maintained.
Too many people are walking around with this assumption to simply flick a switch and start a new government structure tomorrow. Scared and confused people do not make good democrats, whether you capitalise that word or not.
But if we are entering a new governmental era, let it be with eyes wide open. Leaving the sham of operational democracy behind requires an adult discussion across society. If we can do that, then there’ll be no trouble.
Perhaps Mr Key’s real legacy is serving as a framework for how leaders of this new era might look.