Peace Researcher 38 – July 2009
A Film By
Government’s in place and it doesn’t look good. Soon after the election, Rodney
Hide, Act Leader, prevailed on National to set up a commission to investigate
climate change and Tim Groser, the Trade Minister, told an international
conference that NZ would have to renege on our
Key’s last known public statement about climate change had been that it existed, it was caused by human activity, and it was a bad thing. Previously he had sounded like Hide, a denier. Since Galileo’s time few civilised leaders have gone on record to affirm that the world was flat or that gravity was a greenie myth, so why now, several centuries since the Renaissance, do self-styled practical men like Hide and Key make out like Taliban clerics?
A common link is the needs of power. Religious dogmatists enforce obedience through their control of theology, and for National fundamentalists it’s as important to assert that the world is not getting hotter because of pollution as it was for medieval popes to assert that they presided over God’s static world. If it isn’t hotter, there’ll be no need to control carbon emissions or regulate industry. Hide and Key deny so that they can get rid of all those compliance costs that the nanny state imposes. They’re saying that NZ is open for business.
Keynote Ideology Is So Behind The Times
The usual catechism was to the
effect that what’s good for General Motors is good for
While it might be thought that 2008’s market mess ended an era, the new context could render the film yet more relevant. This is because there seem to be two main ways free traders seize control of a state. We’re familiar with the shock doctrine of crisis, a tactic analysed most thoroughly and recently by Naomi Klein*. The alternative, when opportunity isn’t knocking, is to settle in for the long haul, hoping that in time the electorate will be nudged your way. This would have been the advice offered Key by his hollow men. It’s why he spent the campaign grinning and shrugging. *See my review of “The Shock Doctrine” by Naomi Klein, in Foreign Control Watchdog 117, April 2008, online at http://www.converge.org.nz/watchdog/17/06.htm. Klein’s analysis of neo-liberalism is spot on.
Key had set the tone by announcing his intention to be a compassionate conservative. Eight years earlier George Bush used the same phrase at a similar stage of his political career. It doesn’t seem smart that Key would choose to parrot the slogan of the most reviled US President in living memory, a man whose record suggests anything but a compassionate nature. Why would Key opt for Dubya as a role model? If you see this movie, you’ll know why.
A week earlier Key had said that a National government would retain Labour’s Working for Families initiative. The PM-in-Waiting explained: “These are families with mums and dads who are working long hours, trying to get by on a modest wage in the absence of tax cuts under this Labour government. We don't want to make life more difficult for them” (28/7/08, www.tvnz.co.nz). Not long previously Key had been adamantly opposed to the programme, which he knew to be imposing “Communism by stealth”. Those reds were still under the bed, but you don’t expect a millionaire Prime Minister to succumb so meekly to creeping commies. Or was it Key’s try at defining “compassionate conservatism”?
Key Has A Problem With Universality
Key explained that he was opposed to Government programmes including the middle classes. He supposes that it’s wrong to treat people equally. Key has a problem with the principle of universality, the ethic that everyone deserves a healthy childhood and a secure old age, the ethic that built our roads and railways, our schools and hospitals. It used to be called the Kiwi way, which was neither creeping nor commie. So some time in July 08 it must have been explained to Key that the people who had been middle class welfare bums were more diplomatically - and compassionately - perceived as families with mums and dads who are working long hours. You’re more likely to get a vote from Kiwi battler mums and dads than from a commie.
Key knew that those Kiwi mums and dads swim in the mainstream, as defined by Don Brash, his ill starred predecessor as National’s Leader. The one law for all rhetoric is a code, not to be taken literally. Zealots like Brash and Key can never say what they really want to do, which is to shrink public government in the interests of corporate wealth, because, if they did, National would never make it into office. They believe in one law for all only when it can be defined so that it suits their partisan needs. By its own words, National is not concerned with the national interest.
Nicky Hager’s original book came out
in November 2006. It showed us how, in the 2005 election campaign and the build
up to it, the National Party was being guided by some dubious public relations
(PR) lads in
Three years on, it might be thought, we’ve read the book, do we need to see the film? It’s not like shooting a novel with its visual and interpretative aspects. In movie foyers people talk about whether they prefer the book or the film. How do you do that with a pile of e-mails? Hager and Barry solved any such questions superbly. We see details which weren’t in the book. Some scenes and conversations are necessarily dramatised, but there are shots here suggestive of moles beyond the mystery of the e-mails themselves. Rather than being redundant, the film is complementary, enriching.
Subtly - it never explicitly makes the case - the film reminds us that John Key in 2008 was in a position analogous to that of Brash in 2005 (and of Bush in 2000). And Hager found that National was still using the same spin doctors who prescribed to Brash. Despite the scandal and the publicity, nothing had changed. The present version in fact tells us that Key flew off to Oz to see Messrs Crosby and Textor in his first week as Leader, ensuring that the film is as relevant and as topical as the book. This time round, with an election to follow almost immediately after the film’s release, the electorate was forewarned. Sure enough, straight after the 2008 election, we heard that Crosby and Textor were still around.
At the start of the film we’re reminded of the original context of the book. After the 2002 election, when they suffered a big loss, the National Party was ready to cast off its moderate fancy dress. If the good cop routine didn’t work, the bad cop might as well drop pretence and go for it. Enter Don Brash, stage Right. Brash, known to the electorate as the head of the Reserve Bank, was the real deal, a neo-liberal fundamentalist. Richard Prebble, a Lange-Douglas Minister, Hide’s predecessor in Acting up, was exultant. The Nats, he enthused, were now “enormously” more likely to win favour.
Prebble always gave the impression
of believing his propaganda, of assuming that he enjoyed public support. More
understandably, so did the ivory bank tower Brash. We see him, on his first day
as Party Leader, announcing that he was itching to finish the unfinished
Spin Doctors Advised Brash Not To Tell the Truth
At this stage, the hollow men were wheeled on. It was explained to a reluctant and initially uncomprehending Brash that he’d never get elected if he told the truth. The advertisers had to design the “product” and “package” it. The “perceptions” of consumers (those persons formerly known as voters) had to be manipulated by “images” until they were induced to have an “emotive gut reaction” to the message. According to Hager and Barry, on the eve of the caucus poll incumbent Leader Bill English enjoyed a one vote advantage. The next day Brash won by one vote. One MP had switched, the State house boy from Bryndwr, the Merrill Lynch whiz kid himself. John Key had been offered the position he wanted in a Brash Cabinet.
Brash was a neo-liberal rather than a neo-conservative. Neo-libs believe the State should set up rules so that big corporations effectively make policy. Then the now unnecessary Government need not interfere much at all with individuals’ lives. Neo-cons, by contrast, are socially conservative. We see a man from the neo-con Maxim Institute complaining that the Civil Union Bill was going to remove any distinction in the law between various couples living together. To a liberal like Brash his private take would have been that’s the way it should be. As his careful words in Parliament suggest (captured in the film) he came to inoculate himself against the outrage of the religious Right only reluctantly. Like the neo-liberal Young Nationals we also see, Brash took his opposition to the “nanny State” seriously.
Hager and Barry tell the story of National’s notoriously clever 2005 election ads. In his earnest, boring way, Brash lit up at the Iwi-Kiwi billboard. In his eyes those seven letters conveyed more than neo-con racist resentment. Brash saw Government intervention, any Government intervention with the potential to affect pure contractual relationships, as just wrong. He would have been frustrated that his opposition is still seen in cultural terms. To neo-liberals what’s wrong with the Treaty of Waitangi is that there should be only World Trade Organisation and General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade-type treaties. The National campaign brilliantly, because effortlessly, united what could have been disparate elements within its natural supporters.
There’s a great vignette of a particularly fierce Kim Hill asking Brash about his first speech at Orewa (Orewa 1). Doubtless mindful of Margaret Thatcher’s assertions that there is “no such thing as society” (or perhaps National’s idea that there’s no such thing as a nation) there being only individuals and families, the formidable interviewer suggested that treating people as discrete individuals might destroy a culture. Knowing he had to stay on message, aware that the ground where he was being invited to tread was as slippery as a gangplank, and certain that the lefty Hill hadn’t a clue about the market economy, Don looked bewildered. Two incompatible moralities looked at each other. For a moment, before the TV silence demanded to be filled, there was nothing more to say.
It seems that one of National’s main spinning tacticians is Matthew Hooton. He told Brash that to go up in polls he needed to make big bold moves. That would enable future initiatives. A gradual or incremental style, Hooton advised, would make the leader a “prisoner of caucus”. This is in the shock doctrine style of Roger Douglas, and the new Leader’s apparent naivete on his first day would have been an attempt to seize a revolutionary moment.
The Orewa Speeches
Hence Orewa 1, the stated concerns of which had little to do with the real agenda of either spinner or spinnee. But Brash was soon floundering, unable to give specifics of Maori privilege. “We need”, said Richard Long, another spinning Nationalist, “to come up with a credible holding answer”. And what about superannuation? Should they take the Communism-by-stealth or the Kiwi-mums-and-dads line? National should “appear to support a tangible fund out there which seems to give people more comfort”. Always the tone swings between condescension and contempt.
The film looks again at Dick Allen,
a Reagan insider now seasonally resident in
The film never argues its case, allowing the witnesses to incriminate themselves. National had swallowed the dead rats of retaining some public assets and some progressive taxes. It had stopped opposing superannuation, four weeks annual holidays, the Civil Union Bill and Kiwibank. Hager and Barry could have added yet more examples of the party acceding to Labour policies that they had vowed to oppose. Interest free student loans, KiwiRail and subsidised early childhood care come to mind.
Learn From Bush
Hooton recommended the locals learn from Karl Rove, George Bush’s main strategist, whose advice had been to target an opponent’s perceived strengths. So it was that we heard doubts about Helen Clark’s integrity and complaints about her “arrogance”. In the US, too, as the Republican candidate, John McCain, flailed in the search for a credible gambit during the 2008 Presidential campaign, someone told him to attack Barack Obama for being ... “arrogant”. It lasted about one day.
Rove was bad enough a teacher. But worse even than Rove was David Horowitz. Hooton told National to ape Horowitz’s idea that an effective election campaign was one that stirs up “anger, fear and resentment” in those mums and dads. Horowitz is a lone ranger nutter, his strings pulled by very rich - and very Rightwing - foundations. The puppeteers like him because they can present him as a former deluded radical youth who has seen the light. Horowitz, an attention-seeker, relishes extravagant gesture. In his revolutionary days, for instance, white, Jewish David became a Black Panther. He likes bold grassy knoll conspiracies.
Because they more readily evoke panic in an audience ready to be manipulated, Horowitz favours issues to do with personal and sexual morality. It’s some relief that this part of the agenda is dated. The Christian fundamentalist strain in American politics has never travelled well and the demise of Bush and Rove means that we’re likely to be spared the sort of rabblerousing manipulations that they cherish. Neo-con moral indignation served Reagan and Bush as a tactic to mobilise support for the strategic aim of transforming the economy. Post-market meltdown, we can expect a more gradualist, less hysterical style.
Poor Brash. Ultimately he’s a comic
figure. He had a safe multicultural line to use: “My wife’s from
Key and his hollow men have publicly
made much of their desire for NZ wages to match
Brash Wanted To Stay An Honest Man, But He Was A Weak One
His political failure was brought about because he never found it easy to play the facile games that come so easily to successful politicians. He never seemed to enjoy dissembling, yet his final election pitch emphasised how “trustworthy” he was. It was the Exclusive Brethren who had urged a demagogic Trust/Distrust motif on National. Beyond Brash’s self-aggrandising smugness lay a more serious moral failure. His last words as a contender to be Prime Minister were put in his mouth by a cult so far from his cherished mainstream that they regard social contact with the rest of society is sinful. That’s exclusive all right.
Slyly, throughout the film, we see Rodney Hide. He was there apparently at all National events, looking on, confident that his mates would enact the full neo-liberal agenda for which his party exists as a revolutionary vanguard. The film has an unobtrusive feel for the machinations at play, the fruit of long observation. Brash’s early advice had been to leave talk of the important item, tax cuts, to Hide. Out of options, Key wanted to talk of nothing else.
Hide’s Act and the Maori Party have
each secured two ministries. Post-election, the media has made much of how
Key’s four headed monster (Mr Sensible Dunne is there too) indicates that the
Government will be centrist. It doesn’t. It indicates that Key and his advisers
have made a tactical move that will allow them a majority in Parliament. The
hollow men think that the patient needs to be anaesthetised before the next
shock therapy is carried out. They’ll offer placebos to the Maori Party and
Dunne. Three years on, they’ll be hoping, the nine year remission allowed by
Full Speed Ahead To the 1980s!
Having been handed two keystone portfolios, Local Government and what’s been described as Regulatory Reform, Hide - and Act’s most senior MP who’s not a minister, a certain Roger Douglas - are hoping that they can soon perform major surgery. Though Key will, in the short term, disappoint them, mates are on hand. Newly prominent National ministers include Groser, a former “free trade” bureaucrat, and Steven Joyce, who was actually one of the hollow men. The strategic jobs are in the hands of neo-liberal purists. Of course the finance market debacles which coincided with the election will delay the hollow politicians. Who knows for how long? Permanently? It could be that world opinion will shift far enough that democratic countries will no longer stand for shock therapy.
As the Government settled in,
But why has there been such quiet
over the Key-Hide proposal for appointed councillors? In a democracy the
people’s representatives get elected and councillors should no more be
appointed than should parliamentarians. The
What this landmark film suggests us is that, in intent, Key will turn out to be as pure a neo-lib as Don Brash and Roger Douglas. The transparent Brash complained that there was no point in getting into power if you really had to abandon everything you wanted to do. We can be sure that, off camera, Key is just as upfront. The big difference now is that the version of shock therapy we’re living through, our collapsing economies, was unintended. It’s a Dr Frankenstein moment. The biggest shock of them all has been global, and it’s been inflicted on the clients of the spin doctors - by themselves. Now that there seems to be a consensus that extremist neo-liberal ideology has been the disease all along, and not the cure, minds and policies are changing. Has any major Western leader looked as yesterday as soon as Bush has? So Key can’t do Orewa-type stuff and he might not get the chance to operate as he’d like. But an old mate in Gibbston, Otago, thinks the rotten system’s got life yet. Dick Allen is worried that the reform of world capitalism that he - now - says is desperately needed won’t come about “anytime soon, because to accomplish fundamental change the foxes must be chased out of the chicken coop. Lamentably, it’s the foxes who write the rules” (Mountain Scene, 3/10/08).
To buy a DVD copy, write to
Community Media Trust,