John Key and Things That Come Out Wrong

By Gordon Campbell

The “ we’re a country which came peacefully together” account of New Zealand’s march to nationhood that John Key delivered yesterday on Newztalk ZB was the latest example of what’s becoming a pattern. First we have the gaffe, then everyone else’s startled/shocked response, then the Key double-take, followed by the “ I was misquoted/taken out of context’ strategy. It is a quite surprising trait in someone with his background. Lord help the financial markets if his communications to staff at Merrill Lynch were as prone to WTF moments as the glitches in his political utterances.

Interesting trait, though. We know so little about Key that these slip-ups are fascinating, since they offer us glimpses into the brain behind the smiley face. In most of his gaffes, the central point he is trying to make is not the problem. Its usually pretty obvious what he’s trying to say, and whether one disagrees or not, the point is usually a coherent one. The problem lies in what happens next. It is as if his brain is an FM radio that goes off station.

The other puzzling thing is that Key seems to have no awareness that things are going somewhat awry He doesn’t seem to have a ‘ now, that didn’t quite come out right’ internal monitor. It is only after a few hours and once things have hit the fan, that the clarification engine clanks into gear. It must make for an interesting life for Key’s media term – they must never be quite sure just when the boss is going to pull the pin, and bite down on the grenade.

Lets count up some of the examples.

1. In October 2007, Key announced the war in Iraq is over :

“Frankly the war in Iraq is over, “ Key told RNZ. “The war was over in a very short period of time and you’ve now got a situation where the main coalition forces are looking to withdraw their efforts out of Iraq.”

Now, whatever he was trying to say I don’t think Key meant that the fighting had stopped in Iraq and everyone was going home because peace had broken out. His first point – let’s call it the Start Button – was that questions about whether he would or wouldn’t have lent NZ troops to the March 2003 invasion were now passé, because the invasion-related fighting was over pretty quickly, and long ago at that.

Then to re-inforce that line, he leaps to an almost unrelated bit of bogus re-inforcement – namely, that many countries that did send troops are now bringing the troops home. So…in his mind, that makes the question doubly irrelevant. It was long ago, the initial fighting bit decision thing is sort of over, coalition troops are coming home, for God’s sake let’s change the subject.

Result : a disastrous scramble of arguments and timeframes. He is also of course, quite wrong in implying there’s no issue here. There’s still a question to be answered – coherently we hope next time. Does John Key think New Zealand should have been part of the coalition of the willing in 2003 ? And the reason why that is not a hypothetical question is that there is evidence that Israel and the US have spent the last fortnight practicing for a strike on Iran.

Does our possible next Prime Minister think a military strike against Iran’s nuclear capacity would be a wise and justified action – and would he commit New Zealand troops to an attack on Iran or to its aftermath?


2. The “love to see wages drop” comment to the Bay Report last December .

Again the same sequence : John Key made comments, a furore ensued, he tried to revise/clarify, the National Party contacted the newspaper and – despite some dissension among staff – the Bay Report did its own double take and issued this retraction :

“An article published on December 20 may have left readers with the impression that National Party leader John Key wanted a drop in New Zealand wages. …From an examination of a transcript of the interview and the context of the comments by Mr Key in relation to the loss of skilled workers from New Zealand to Australia, the Bay Report now accepts that was not intended and that impression would be incorrect.” APN’s chief executive, Martin Simons, confirmed the National Party had approached the Bay Report’s editor and company management asking for the context of the quote to be clarified.

“The approach was not in the form of a demand and no other requests were made,” he said. Mr Key has said he could not remember exactly what he said…. but it was not a reference to wages in New Zealand dropping because National’s consistent policy was that wages and standards of living should be increased. [Except of course, when the Employment Contracts Act was serving as a mechanism for cutting labour costs, and deliberately eroding union ability to deliver wage hikes.]

An interesting footnote to the media accounts of the Bay Report retraction was that Key’s media team seemingly took a while to get their story straight : “ Mr Key’s reported comment was never satisfactorily explained by National Party spokesmen. It was suggested he had been referring to wages in Australia, or that it was a flippant remark.”

3. Hat-tip to The Standard blog for recalling a few other examples. My long time favourite : Key claiming not to remember what side of the Springbok tour protests he was on. The clips can be heard here

Since Key says he would have gone to the games if he could have afforded it, we can probably hazard a pretty good guess as where John Key, age 20, stood on this issue during his first year at varsity. Why he doesn’t say so ? How many votes, 27 years later, still ride on this one? The other thing about the exchanges is that the original questioner asked this question “ Were you for or against the Springbok tour ? “

Later though, when John Campbell follows up on the topic, Key changes the script and tries to give himself a Jesuitical bit of wiggle room : “ The question they asked was whether I supported them coming. See ? You’ve got to get the question right.” Indeed you do. This kind of evasiveness almost makes one nostalgic for the Winston Peters head-on school of historical revisionism.

For a recent case of the Key ‘look at the question ‘ approach, here’s an example I gave in another context on Scoop yesterday. It is so similar in methodology – claim the question back then was different, and hope no one has the tape – to the Springbok tour example, it bears repeating :

‘ Key in mid – 2005, when speaking in the House about the Climate Change Response Amendment Bill. said : “The impact of the Kyoto Protocol, even if one believes in global warming—and I am somewhat suspicious of it—is that we will see billions and billions of dollars poured into fixing something that we are not even sure is a problem. Even if it is a problem, it will be delayed for about 6 years. Then it will hit the world in 2096 instead of 2102, or something like that. It will not work,” explained Key.

Fast forward though to the Agenda interview of April 12 this year and you find Key trying to square the circle, in this hilarious exchange with Guyon Espiner :

GUYON: But isn’t it true that National has basically changed its tune on just about every major public policy platform, you look at climate change, you look at….


GUYON: It absolutely has changed its opinion on climate change, you were calling it a hoax just a couple of days ago. A couple of senior members of your party don’t even believe it’s true, even your potential transport spokesman.

JOHN: No, Guyon, you need to go and read the transcripts.

GUYON: I have.

JOHN: I have not said climate change is a hoax, I’ve said Kyoto is a hoax.”

As Hillary Clinton found about landing under fire in Bosnia though, someone will always have the tapes.


3. Now that we’ve got the hang of la methode, yesterday’s comments are a breeze to run through the Clarification Filter. Look closely at the quote that caused the problem : “We’re not a country that’s come about as a result of civil war or where there’s been a lot of fighting internally, we’re, we’re a country which peacefully came together”.

The initial point is fine. Yes, we’re not a country that came about through civil war. Stop right there. Then come the embellishments : “Or where there’s been a lot of fighting internally.” Probably, his brain was still hearing ‘civil war’ and extrapolating on that sort of ‘fighting internally’ but his internal gyro should have been telling him that he’s going off course, in a Maori land confiscations, Parihaka etc sort of way. Instead. Key flies straight into the cliff with the next, flailing embellishment : “We’re, we’re a country which peacefully came together.” The media training point from this could be : say things once, not three times. Stop at the Start Button. Cut back on the self paraphrasing, because it keeps on coming out weird. And hey, blame yourself when it does, and not everyone else.

I have some sympathy for Key about this gaffe thing, having been guilty of it myself this week. David Farrar on Kiwiblog makes the totally valid criticism that I should regret the ‘beyond tacky’ comment I made about Dachau concentration camp in a recent piece about National’s health policy. I do regret it, and apologise.

And what’s my ‘clarification’ of it? Everyone always has an excuse, and here’s mine. While typing away about how Tony Ryall had been suggesting money and salaries weren’t so much the issue in the health system – productive work was – I had a ‘what does this remind me of’ moment. Oh yeah, the ‘work will make you free’ concept at Dachau and typed that in. Bad, and a tasteless analogy. So I can see how it happens with Key. When you screw up, you have to fess up.