Will John Key make a difference?

John Key looks like a nice guy. He seems affable, friendly and thoughtful. He also has a reputation for listening which is a rare quality in our elected representatives. Unless of course it’s a focus group or a poll result.

His first few hours as the new National Party leader were full of positive affirmation for New Zealand and the bright future we can have under a Key/English led government.

He says he has a vision for New Zealand which is broad and inclusive and aims for the betterment of all of us. He believes in one standard of citizenship but that we must celebrate diversity and the place of Maori as tangata whenua which he sees as an important aspect in New Zealand’s unique identity.

It’s difficult to disagree with any of this and there will be many across the community impressed with the fresh face, the eagerness, the enthusiasm and the hope for a better future.

Because let’s face it, New Zealand today is a sad reflection of what once was termed God’s own country. It is clear from a whole range of social indicators in health and education, income and security, opportunity and fulfilment that we are in a parlous state.

There are plenty of jobs but they come with irregular hours, low-pay and are hopeless for anyone wanting to raise a family. The direct cost to families of schooling, university and polytech increases each year. Young New Zealanders are now saddled with $8.7 billion in student debt while billions more are going off shore each year to (mostly) Australian multi-nationals to whom we pay hugely for the privilege of having them own our largest and most lucrative businesses.

Economic growth was supposed to be the panacea for our ills but despite seven years of strong growth the only obvious improvements have been in pay for senior executives and politicians while the living standards of our poorest communities have fallen to shocking levels.

Key says he thinks it’s dreadful that New Zealand has allowed what he calls an underclass to develop. How right he is.

So having identified the problem what are Key’s solutions? It took less than 24 hours for the new leader of the National Party to switch from talk of a broad inclusive dream for the betterment of all New Zealanders to policies based on a hopelessly blinkered free-market vision which will worsen the very problems he claims to want to solve.

Key’s policy proposals include cutting wastage in health (yeah right!), contracting out public services to the private sector, reducing the role of government, less regulation to allow the “markets” to flourish, market solutions to climate change, more competition between schools etc. Where have we heard all this before?

Key likes to tell his rags to riches story where he was brought up in a state house by a solo mother and faced some relatively hard times.

The most important part of this story however is that Key grew up in a welfare state where his family’s house was built by the government which then set the rent at an affordable level. His schooling was high quality as was his university education and again both were fully paid by the government. Key’s story is really about the success of the welfare state.

Key’s family never faced such things as market rents for state houses, substantial school “donations” and poverty level welfare benefits.  

Would Key be where he is today if his mother had struggled under the 1991 benefit cuts imposed by his National Party? Would he have even been able to go to University with its huge fees and the increasing perception by young New Zealanders from low-income communities that tertiary education is a burden and a debt rather than a path forward for the family?

It was his National Party which continued and intensified Labour’s free-market blitzkrieg of the 1980s which devastated our economy, made a mockery of the welfare state and turned New Zealanders against the poorest and most vulnerable of our citizens. There are tens of thousands of young John Keys growing up in New Zealand today being looked after by solo parents doing their best in conditions comparatively worse than Key and his family ever experienced.

Key’s problem is not that he is rich and lives in an $8 million house but that he hasn’t learnt the lessons of his upbringing. He is now the doctor who dispenses the same useless medicine even as the patient gets sicker.

Personal wealth is never a substitute for clear thinking but in Key’s case it is a positive hindrance.