It is often said that those who “Live by the sword, die by the sword“.
It might also be said that those politicians who, less excitingly, live by portraying themselves as ‘pragmatic’ and ‘non-ideological’ will, in the fullness of time, die by the same means.
So yes, he says, the day may eventually come when his proudly worn labels of pragmatist and non-ideological get reframed in the public eye as wishy-washy and doesn’t believe in anything.
“In the 24-7 blitzkrieg of the media, eventually they’ll tire of every politician, and I’m not unique in that regard. So the things they like about me, I think you have to accept, over time they won’t like so much about me.”
In what could turn out to be the truest words to escape John Key’s mouth, he may well have written his political epitaph – and it looks like “over time” is increasingly now.
Key’s exit, when it comes, will be just as he describes: His perceived strengths will become his perceived weaknesses.
That exit may be personally managed by him as he sees the omens gather; it may result from ‘stepping aside’ (or being ‘nudged’) when a leadership challenge emerges; it may result from electoral loss. Through whatever means, it will be because his ‘pragmatic’, ‘non-ideological’, ‘relaxed’, ‘joke-cracking’, ‘hokey-dokey’ persona will be reinterpreted negatively – “over time“.
Key’s decline, however, also acts as a morality tale about the changed New Zealand of the last 30 years. In the end, John Key is a product of his time. His flaws are flaws that are remarkably synchronous with those of New Zealand society. How could it be any other way?
Not only does Key’s strategy not ultimately work “over time“, but also the corresponding strategy at the national level does not work.
But, first, there’s the fascinating details of how Key’s recent troubles highlight these flaws at the personal level.
The current crop of seemingly endless incidents of forgetfulness and selective ignorance about his electoral business, voting record and portfolios (including the Prime Ministership) have accumulated so rapidly that they may well signal the coming of the end for Key.
It’s worth remembering, though, that political deaths can sometimes be as prolonged as those of opera heroines. There may yet be a period of increasingly embarrassing revitalisations of Key’s supposed fortunes before our collective patience wears to the point where almost all of us start tapping our fingers and begin glancing at our political wrist watches.
In fact, shirt cuffs are already being pulled elbow-wards and the glances at the watch are becoming less and less discreet:
Yet again, the Key-led Government finds itself in a rut. If it’s not one thing, it seems, it’s the other. The spying scandal; the Christchurch school closures; and a debate over water rights that has kicked the partial asset sales programme into next year.
A Roy Morgan poll out late this week was, according to National Party pollster David Farrar, “sober news” for the party.
Ditto, from Audrey Young:
Few people believe John Key is actually dishonest but more people now believe he is too casual, too trusting of departments, too sloppy in his oversight and too forgetful.
I’d challenge one part of that claim from Audrey Young – “Few people believe“??
There was that poll prior to the last election that found some 34.9% of New Zealanders believed that Key was “most likely to bend the truth” compared to Phil Goff (26%) and “[a] further 21.3 per cent said both would lie“.
So, according to the poll, over 56% of New Zealanders believed Key is potentially dishonest. Somehow, I don’t think those numbers have improved, for Key, this year.
And again, from Vernon Small:
John Key and his Government have endured a slew of such moments unscathed, but the latest alignment of the planets may be the worst so far, and the latest polls are already beginning to look soggy for National.
The killer mix for every government is a cocktail; unpopular decisions, an electorate tiring of the same old faces and a loss of perceived competence.
Even without the Dotcom cluster-bomb, there has been a catalogue of confidence-sapping events for National; among them the class sizes U-turn, the postponement of the asset sales programme and, most recently – and perhaps long-term the most damaging – the restructuring of schools in Christchurch.
And, yet again, from Patrick Smellie:
… as the endless, dreary scandal morphed into arguments over a top-secret, undistributable GCSB PowerPoint slide and a meeting which may or may not have been filmed, Key’s personal performance and preferred leadership ratings have just kept sinking.
That’s dramatically demonstrated in the TV3 poll this week which showed his performance rating, while still respectable at about 50 per cent, has slumped from above 70 per cent a year ago.
The direction of travel in other key [pun?] measures, including whether the prime minister is perceived as honest, are also heading south. It’s standard second-term stuff, but it also shows the impact of crises on reputations.
Put simply, the decline in Key’s personal ratings is a reflection of a dawning view that a politician who once seemed quite trustworthy to many may no longer be so.
Apart from one small correction – Key’s preferred Prime Minister rating is now at 40%, not the “still respectable at about 50 per cent” that Smellie incorrectly reports – the claim is the same – a political tipping point has been reached.
Let’s take a look at one of the recent kerfuffles, as a random example (we’re a bit spoilt for choice, really): Key’s knowledge of GCSB involvement in the ‘Dotcom case’.
According to John Key in his correction of an earlier answer to an oral question in Parliament (the video of the correction is available in this link):
“A subsequent [to Key’s original answers to oral questions] review of all the information held by the GCSB found that on February 29, I viewed a presentation that was not related to the Dotcom file, during a visit to the bureau,” he said.
“I am advised that the talking points to the presentation included a short reference to the Dotcom arrest as an example of co-operation between the bureau and the police.”
He [Key] said the cover slide used during the February 29 presentation was a montage of 11 still images, one of Dotcom.
“Neither the presentation nor the talking points were provided to me in hard copy.
“Neither the director of the GCSB or [sic] me recall the reference to the Dotcom matter during the visit, but I accept that well [sic] have been made.
“I wish to make it clear that I was not informed by the GCSB on its role in the Dotcom matter, nor any issues of potential illegality until Monday, 17th September,” he said.
Now, it’s hard from this brief statement to determine quite what the presentation was ‘on’ – although apparently it was not just on the Dotcom arrest. That arrest happened on January the 20th, 2012, as this very useful Listener timeline indicates.
But here’s a presentation about – possibly amongst other things – cooperation between the GCSB and the Police. A talking point and a cover image both concerned Dotcom.
Yet, despite the image and talking point, that presentation seems, for Key, not to have amounted to being informed about the GCSB’s “role in the Dotcom matter“. This despite the ‘Dotcom matter’ – according to a talking point – being used as “an example of cooperation between the bureau and the police“. So, logically, the ‘role’ of the GCSB in the arrest is mutually exclusive with the GCSB’s cooperation with the police over the arrest?
Again, the presentation – or at least a ‘talking point’ (what does that mean? Was it actually talked about or wasn’t it?) – that included the GCSB cooperating with the police in the Dotcom arrest is quite different from their ‘role’ in that arrest?
Let me throw John Key an argumentative lifeline: The ‘role’ of the GCSB actually means, in Key’s mind, the particular activities underpinning the ‘cooperation’ as opposed to the bare fact of cooperation.
While cooperation ‘may’, according to Key himself, have been briefly alluded to in the presentation, there was, let’s imagine, no mention of what that cooperation involved. And, at some abstract logical level, ‘cooperation’ does not amount to substantive discussion of a ‘role’.
There was also presumably no curiosity on the overseeing Minister’s part as to what that cooperation involved (which would then have led to discussion of its ‘role’). In fact, so little curiosity or attention that the mention of Dotcom slipped Key’s mind (along with that of the GCSB Director, apparently).
All of this despite the very recent (at that point in time) public – and political – salience of the Dotcom arrest.
One of the problems for politicians putting forward the ‘forgetfulness’ defence, however, is that memory depends, crucially, on paying attention:
Classic psychologists such as William James stated long ago that ‘we cannot deny that an object once attended to will remain in the memory, while one inattentively allowed to pass will leave no traces behind’ .
Key’s claim of forgetfulness rests on the supposition that he was either not paying sufficient attention to a security briefing or that the GCSB were extremely ‘thin’ in their coverage of their involvement of the Dotcom case: Basically, they simply told their Minister “We cooperated, nothing else to see here, move right along”.
Both explanations look unflattering: The first solely for Key; the second for the GCSB (given their crucial involvement in Dotcom’s arrest) and for both Key and the GCSB, (given the spectacular currency of the case).
Okey-dokey – but, given that, I’m not sure my lifeline helps Key much.
Then there’s Dotcom’s image and the nagging questions that follow from what we’ve been told, and not told, about it:
- How big was the Dotcom image on the cover slide relative to the other 10? According to Key, “The cover slide was a montage of 11 small images, one of which was Dotcom” so, presumably, they were all equally vying for Key’s attention. Did he remember any of these ‘small images’ and, if so, which ones? And, what were the other 10, and should we know? (After all, they could be images of Dotcom’s mansion, or the giraffes loping around his property, etc. – not actually of Dotcom himself.)
- Did John Key not think to himself when he saw the cover slide – ‘What’s Dotcom doing in a GCSB presentation given I don’t recall ever having heard mention of him in my previous GCSB briefings, or, in fact, ever, by anyone up to a few weeks ago?‘ Surely the GCSB didn’t have anything to do with that arrest, did they? Is the GCSB just trying to be sexy and topical – just like me when I tell jokes??‘?
- Did John Key recognise Dotcom’s image? Presumably not or, at least, not enough to enter memory. It seems that Key mustn’t have been paying much attention to the news, either, at the time.
- How many people were hunched over the laptop, and who was pressing the arrow keys? Can they confirm how much time was spent on the cover slide and any other slides during which mention of Dotcom may have occurred? Was John Key provided with a clear view of the laptop? Could they stop him from cracking jokes long enough to let the briefing happen?
This is Key’s problem: Nothing he says about just about anything at the moment bears scrutiny. Each point Key makes sounds so unlikely or so self-damning. It descends into farce without external help from those predisposed to be critical of him.
And then there’s Key’s strangely revealing comment about his joke-cracking:
During a press conference at Auckland airport this afternoon, Mr Key said he made jokes about “everything from water to ACC” as well as Dotcom.
He said he would not cut back on the jokes he made.
“Give me a break. I go out there and speak and entertain thousands and thousands of people every week.
I can be straight-laced and completely boring if you want me to be but I don’t really see how that’s going to do much.”
Key jokes about “everything from water to AAC” (perhaps “AAC to water” would have been more alphabetically apt). He would “not cut back on the jokes he made“.
And why is he such a joke-cracker? Because, he goes “out there and speak[s] and entertain[s] thousands and thousands of people every week“.
Now, I agree that every successful politician is also an adept entertainer on occasion. The art of oratory is about captivating an ‘audience’ as much as anything.
But – and here’s something I haven’t heard from a Prime Minister before – successful politicians don’t usually characterise what they principally do when they’re giving speeches as ‘entertaining’ people.
That candid self-characterisation was followed by the even more revealing comment that while he could be “straight-laced and boring” in public he didn’t “really see how that’s going to do much“.
Does he mean this? A Prime Minister giving speeches without jokes isn’t “going to do much” (except sound “completely boring“)? What does he think his speeches are all about ‘doing’, then?
Almost without pause, Key’s oddly unfortunate memory continued to bedevil him with the comment about how he voted on the liquor purchase age.
Here is how MPs voted on the bill (there were two votes). John Key voted (1) for the split age (18 in on licences; 20 in off licences); and, (2) to keep the purchase age at 18 everywhere.
This is what Key said about how he voted:
After hearing on Wednesday that most voters in a new poll thought the age should have been raised to 20, Mr Key said he agreed with them.
“That’s one of the reasons I voted for it to go to 20 – in line with what the public thought,” he told media.
“[I]n line with what the public thought” (past tense)? What did the public think prior to the purchase age vote? Well, there was this Herald Digipoll at the end of June, if that’s any indication:
When asked by the pollsters to choose between three options for the minimum age to buy alcohol, 58.6 per cent preferred 20, which was the age before a law change in 1999. Only 14.5 per cent wanted the status quo of 18, while 25.7 per cent wanted a split age.
“[I]n line with what the public thought“?
They ‘thought’ – overwhelmingly – that it should go to 20. Only 25.7% supported Key’s original position in favour of the split age option. A mere 14.5% supported the option he finally voted for (18, the status quo). Yet, John Key claims he voted “in line with what the public thought“?
And this is what Key said – at the time – in explanation for why he supported leaving the age at 18, once the split age option had been defeated:
“I felt that moving it to 20 across the board didn’t make sense,” he said.
“I think we’re seeing a lot of pre-loading, youngsters getting cheap alcohol and drinking a lot before they go to a licensed environment… I wasn’t convinced the real harm was happening in that licensed environment.
Key thought that “moving it to 20 across the board didn’t make sense“, yet he agreed with a new poll that showed most New Zealanders thought that Parliament got it wrong by leaving the age at 18.
The poll wasn’t about the split age option: it simply asked those polled whether or not MPs had got the vote right. Interestingly, 57% of those polled thought Parliament had got it wrong – pretty similar to the 58.6% in the Digipoll.
Some 40% said they got it right – which is about the same as those who preferred 18 and those who wanted a split age in the Digipoll. Key’s voting is obviously “in line with” the 40%.
Yet, not according to him.
What’s going on?
Key apologised for possibly misleading people by not inserting ” ‘at an off licence'” after his comment that “That’s one of the reasons I voted for it to go to 20 [at an off licence]- in line with what the public thought – but Parliament didn’t vote that way“.
Notice also that he dug himself his own hole here. He was not asked how he voted. He was told about the poll. Almost reflexively he seems to have wanted to show that he sided with the popular view during the vote.
So, even if he ‘mis-spoke’, what he did ‘spoke’ was still harmful to perceptions of his character – he wanted to associate himself with the ‘cool gang’ and appeared, on the hoof, to reinvent his voting behaviour as an ‘alignment’ with public sentiment, despite his clear view that it “didn’t make sense” for the age to be 20 “across the board“.
So here’s another example where what John Key says, at best, reflects a complete lack of care over what he’s saying. At worst, of course, it could be called lying. But notice that the accusation doesn’t have to be that contestable or controversial to damage Key’s public persona. The ‘relaxed’ Prime Minister can, “over time“, very soon come to be seen as the ‘lax’ Prime Minister. Here’s how that happens.
As both of these examples (the GCSB issue and the alcohol purchase age vote) show, John Key has the obvious habit of being logically unconstrained by what he has previously said or done. He is, to put it simply, habitually logically inconsistent in his utterances. His statements dart about like little fish flitting away from a predator or, simply, the light.
And it doesn’t matter whether that inconsistency is part of some cunningly devised deceitful strategy or just part of who John Key is (in fact, the latter may be worse). What it demonstrates, quite literally, is a lack of integrity. They reveal an impulse to the most convenient positioning in the current moment, despite any supposed general social obligation to consistency.
The word ‘integrity‘ comes from ‘integer’. It refers to someone who is, in practice, consistent – integrated, whole – across time and situation both in the way they act and in what they say. Such people operate according to principles or values that allow them to act ‘with integrity’, irrespective of the context:
The word “integrity” stems from the Latin adjective integer (whole, complete). In this context, integrity is the inner sense of “wholeness” deriving from qualities such as honesty and consistency of character. As such, one may judge that others “have integrity” to the extent that they act according to the values, beliefs and principles they claim to hold.
I pointed out some time ago that, in the modern world, we often take someone’s presented personality as a rough-and-ready immediate ‘stand-in’ for their character – and that means we often misjudge character. I also pointed out that John Key’s character would only become clear – to the majority – “over time“.
Here’s how I explained it then:
Here’s a straightforward account of the difference from Alex Lickerman.
Notice that, while [Stephen] Franks argues that humans have a great ability to judge character, it would be truer to say that we have a great ability to judge personality. As Lickerman points out,
Personality is easy to read, and we’re all experts at it. We judge people funny, extroverted, energetic, optimistic, confident—as well as overly serious, lazy, negative, and shy—if not upon first meeting them, then shortly thereafter. And though we may need more than one interaction to confirm the presence of these sorts of traits, by the time we decide they are, in fact, present we’ve usually amassed enough data to justify our conclusions.
Character, however, is quite different:
Character, on the other hand, takes far longer to puzzle out. It includes traits that reveal themselves only in specific—and often uncommon—circumstances, traits like honesty, virtue, and kindliness. Ironically, research has shown that personality traits are determined largely by heredity and are mostly immutable. The arguably more important traits of character, on the other hand, are more malleable—though, we should note, not without great effort. Character traits, as opposed to personality traits, are based on beliefs (e.g., that honesty and treating others well is important—or not), and though beliefs can be changed, it’s far harder than most realize.
That’s the personal level.
But, while it is important to come to some sense of John Key’s character, given his status as Prime Minister, there’s a broader and more interesting issue at stake.
It is an old saw that we get the government we deserve … and the politicians. To some extent, our politicians manifest our society and its associated values and attitudes. Since John Key entered the adult workforce – almost in lock step with the start of Roger Douglas’ economic and social reforms – there has been massive social and cultural change in New Zealand. Key has ridden, with some success, that wave of change.
The neo-liberal reforms that began in the mid-1980s not only involved the deliberate engineering of major economic and social structural changes but also the legitimisation of sets of attitudes that would probably have seemed both daft and entirely unacceptable to earlier generations of ‘ordinary Kiwis’.
That had consequences.
One telling statistic – as summarised by Robert Gregory (beyond the paywall) – is that:
The rate for fraud increased from just over 20 recorded offences per 10,000 population in 1962 to just under 100 per 10,000 in 1995. The Ministry of Justice has predicted that “the number of recorded offences will continue increasing for most offence types…[and that]…Fraud in particular could undergo considerable growth, especially given technological advances and increasing awareness of the extent of offending”.
Largely in response to white-collar crime excesses of the pre-stock market crash of 1987, the government in 1990 established the Serious Fraud Office (SFO). This is a government department charged with investigating serious or complex fraud in both the public and private sectors.
The gnawing question – at least for some – has been whether or not the neoliberal reforms that began in New Zealand in 1984 have changed the way New Zealanders think about the world, their obligations to each other and their character in general.
Similar questions have been raised about the impact of the Thatcher years in the United Kingdom. Andy Beckett in The Guardian begins his opinion piece with this observation:
In 2006, the year before the financial crisis started, BBC2 broadcast a luxurious adaptation of The Line of Beauty, Alan Hollinghurst’s heady novel about rich Britain in the mid-80s. In the Observer, Tim Adams, who had been a young adult in the heyday of Thatcherism, wrote a perceptive essay about the feelings the programme and book provoked. For some of the people who had read the novel on his recommendation, “certainly those a few years younger than me,” he wrote, the “moral shifts Hollinghurst was concerned with no longer had the power to shock. They had grown up with nothing else but 80s values.” Adams concluded: “The point about the 80s is that they have never finished.”
Here’s more from Adams’ “perceptive essay“:
Lots of things changed in the 1980s, the decade which decisively formed the Britain in which we now live, but the most striking of them was the way in which market forces inveigled their way into everything.
After about 1983, it seemed, you no longer found a decent place to live, you invested in property. Ideas often seemed worthwhile only if they could be exploited commercially: politics became an extension of marketing, books became important if they were in the bestseller lists, and there was a general feeling that if someone had made a lot of money, he or she had to be taken seriously (cue Richard Branson, Madonna). The option, a refusal to go along with some or all of this, was increasingly a kind of redundancy, not quite an opting out, but a sense, somewhere along the line, that you were a sucker.
And some more:
I had started to see friends of mine, people who had not been out of jeans and T-shirts for three years, wearing shiny suits and ties. In the bar, with their hair combed, they would be clutching folders of promotional literature and talking excitedly about the promises of various investment banks. I had no real idea of what an investment bank was, beyond a vestigial sense that it was almost certainly the enemy of the people.
I thought a particular mate of mine was joking at first when he told me one night he was planning to be a chartered accountant [A decision, as it happens, made by John Key almost at the same time on the other side of the planet.]. Course you are, I suggested, with your double first in English literature and your devotion to the Ramones. And then he started talking about the importance of professional qualifications and how the real money these days was in futures and this was a stepping stone and you had to think of the housing market and it was all a laugh really and he would have retired by the time he was 40 to write his novel. Forty, I’d thought, crikey.
Those of us old enough to be adults then can probably cite similar surreal moments of dawning awareness about what was going on. I was on my OE when the 1984 election happened. On my return late that year I found university friends who had, until then, shown no interest in money beyond how much cash-in-pocket they had for Friday night, start telling me about how much they’d made off their shares (??) in the ‘last quarter’ (quarter of what??).
I also remember a friend who, with a ‘lesser’ qualification than mine, left university and, in her first year as a financial trader in Wellington, gained a bonus almost as large as my annual starting salary (with a ‘higher’ qualification) in a professional job. It was an odd time for a New Zealand that had never seen anything like it.
Which leads us back to the fundamental question: How much have we – as a society and as people – changed?
Are we now more likely than we were three or four decades ago to go for our own self-interest even if it means walking over others? Have we become less likely to worry about acting with integrity or is falling for the allure of the immediate advantage now just assumed?
Unfortunately, there’s no research directly on these kinds of questions. There is some, however, on what people say they believe in and what they claim to believe is ‘good’ behaviour.
In one study, those attitudes have been tracked from around about 1990. The study concluded that, “This review has found no paradigmatic shift in thinking about social citizenship rights in New Zealand since the implementation of neo-liberal reforms from 1984, although some significant changes are evident.”
Those “significant changes” are worth looking at. Here’s some of the tables from the linked article (I’ve selected some of the bigger changes):
Unfortunately, the study did not (or could not?) go back to the 1960s and 1970s (or even the early 1980s) so it represents changes within the neoliberal reform period rather than providing a ‘before and after’ snapshot.
Nevertheless, the changes concerning the power of big business, a role for government in wage-setting, increasing support for tax cuts, less support for redistribution and an increase in the belief that people are poor because they are lazy reveal a pattern consistent with a change toward neoliberal values in, at least, the economic realm. Support for public health and education provision remained fairly steady.
[There are other studies by Louise Humpage linked to this research which provide more comprehensive and qualitative findings – links are on her university homepage.]
The question of whether or not New Zealanders have become more individualistic, self-interested and, therefore, tolerant of those qualities in politicians I’ll leave for you to decide.
Personally, I tend to the ‘Jesuit’ view.
Just as, apparently, Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit educational system, said “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man”, I’d guess the same applies to radical reform of the economy.
Change it radically and rapidly and then sit back and watch the population’s attitudes gradually fall into line. Ensure there’s no ‘back-sliding’ for at least 15-20 years and you’ve got the next generation thinking your new regime is simply normality.
I suspect that what the 1980s did was to encourage the attitude that you’d be a sucker not to focus your efforts on opportunities for yourself, with their promise of immediate, short-term gains. At the individual level that encourages people to adopt a self-interested pragmatism.
At the political level it may also encourage people to support policies that coincide with that view and are thought to enable it and to demand it from others (e.g., lower taxes so you can do what you will with more take home pay; harsher benefit conditions both to reduce the need for taxation and to discipline others to respond more to ‘market signals’; reduction in the rights of unions so that individuals have to go it alone – just like you’ve supposedly done – etc..).
Even ‘good’ people who would never publicly subscribe to self-interest as a primary motivation will find themselves rethinking their preferred values in order to survive materially, keep their job or whatever. At that point, cognitive dissonance would kick in to push people’s thoughts towards justifying their own necessarily self-interested actions.
As I put it in a previous post, we will come to believe what we need to believe.
If there is such a mythical beast as ‘Waitakere Man‘ (complete with a penchant for choral singing), then, attitudinally, he’s the residuum of the effects of the 1980s reforms on working class people: The lucky survivors who – to combat the dissonance – had to explain why they were ok while so many others suffered.
The answer was given to them by the right – it’s because you worked hard (not being lazy on the dole/benefit), deserve what you earn (aka ‘tax cuts’) and have been practical and pragmatic in your choices (no degree in gazing at your own navel or community education courses in macrame for you). You’ve got down to business, taken responsibility for yourself and ‘got stuck in‘.
[Interestingly, Chris Trotter’s account of ‘Waitakere Man’ is remarkably consistent with the findings on attitude change reported above – right down to still supporting health and education.]
Whether or not my speculations are correct they bring us full circle.
The so-called pragmatic, non-ideological positioning (and re-positioning) of John Key is not only fully consistent with the spectacularly self-interested individualism enabled by the neoliberal reforms of the 1980s and 1990s (expressed most obviously in the financial sectors), it may well also be reflective of a broader shift – of necessity if not, perhaps, completely in expressed attitudes and values – towards self-interested pragmatism as the as the way to get by in today’s New Zealand.
Pragmatism has its resonance for many New Zealanders – and probably always has. But it also has its dark side.
At its rawest, it is simply a concern for what works and, more specifically, what works right now. It is often narrow in vision and is driven by the desired ‘end’ and immediate circumstance. It can result in behaviours (and beliefs) that change like a chameleon’s colour from setting to setting.
It’s principally about survival. But there’s a funny thing with the ‘value’ of survival.
Aristotle pointed out that happiness is something best not pursued directly – it’s a by-product of doing other things.
Well, survival is the same. If it happens, it happens through commitment to something other than survival.
The reason for that is simple: The future is uncertain; and the road to the future is complex and not under anyone’s control.
That means that there is no such thing as a ‘survival instinct’ (at the personal level). All there are are instincts for other things (e.g., to avoid snakes).
Paradoxically, while ultimately there is no guaranteed formula for survival, a sure and certain way not to survive is to live your life moment-by-moment with the aim of preserving your ‘self’ – which is to say, to be self-interested, to put your personal goals and ‘aspirations’ above all things.
The only chance any of us have to ‘survive’ in our social world is to hold to some values, some principles that will constrain our moment-by-moment options. Being honest, for example, is a constraint – but it’s also recognised as being ‘the best policy’ and the wisest long-term strategy.
The same applies for New Zealand as a whole. There’s no such thing as a strategy of brute survival in the modern, global world. We have to hitch our wagon to some clear values that, in some circumstances, will constrain us (we might, for example, miss out on that film production because we value the rights of workers, on that trade treaty because we value human rights or the environment).
John Key’s political and verbal strategy, by contrast, is constantly to edit and re-edit his accounts of his own behaviour and beliefs in an attempt to secure short-term advantage (and acceptance). As I’ve argued, such a ‘pragmatic’ approach lacks – almost by definition – integrity (and I mean this in a technical as much as a moral sense).
Key’s approach has also been called ‘non-ideological’ and ‘pragmatic’ but it simply amounts to self-interest with its ultimate valuing of self-preservation.
That approach won’t work “over time“.
It won’t work for John Key.
It won’t work for the mythical ‘Waitakere Man’.
And it won’t work for New Zealand.