Is Key descending the same staircase as Muldoon?

05:56, Mar 21 2012

Stop me if you've heard this before. There's this prime minister, see, and he's sorta losing his touch. Like, he used to be really good, and people expected a lot from him, but now he's kinda letting them down.

And the country's not doing so good, either, and more and more things are in need of urgent government attention, but this prime minister's not doing them. In fact, he makes jokes about how he knows there's stuff that he should be doing, but he doesn't do it because he wants to get re-elected - ho, ho, ho.

Except nobody's laughing.

So the country turns to the Opposition, but their leader is hopeless. I mean he's a nice guy an' all, just not an election-winner. So the Opposition changes its leader.

They pick this new guy with a wonderful backstory of caring for others. And he comes across as really sincere - not like a politician at all really. And some people are thinking: "Great! This is the guy we need to get the country moving." But others aren't so sure. Picking apart his speeches they're getting this overwhelming sense of deja vu and they're saying: "Stop me if you've heard this before."

"His-tor-y never repeats", sang Split Enz. But what if it does? What if David Shearer is just a pale imitation of David Lange? What if John Key is descending the same rickety staircase as Rob Muldoon?


What if New Zealand, after a pause of 20 years, is about to undergo another round of what Colin James calls "Big Change"? Are we ready for that? Do we really want to go through another "Quiet Revolution"? And if we don't, is there anything we can do to stop it?

That's a tough question. Sometimes the global forces driving change are just too powerful for a small nation to resist. The best that can be hoped for in such cases is that the change will be managed in a way that allows the people to preserve their values, and that the inescapable burdens of change are fairly shared. By and large, that is what New Zealand succeeded in doing throughout World War II. Unquestionably, that's what we failed to do during the free-market revolution of the 1980s and 1990s.

If we want to pass through the next round of big change with our values intact, and its burdens equitably distributed, then we're going to have to learn from past mistakes. In the language of the free market, we're going to have to undertake an exercise in "due diligence".

Scoop journalist Gordon Campbell is showing us the way. Writing on his blog, Campbell has presented us with an extraordinary passage from an article about Roger Douglas's economic "reforms" published in The Listener of February 23, 1985:

Have the policies being tried here ever been tried elsewhere and shown to work? "I can give you the case of Finland," Douglas replies, "which actually has done better over recent years than New Zealand." Finland "bit the bullet" and "made the adjustment". There was a small drop in living standards in 1979, he says, "but Finland has had increases in wages, real wages, ever since."

Finland? Why does that country's name ring a bell? Could it be because Finland and its former prime minister, Esko Aho, featured in Shearer's "visionary" speech of last Thursday?

Aho, largely untested, came into office in 1991. He was almost immediately faced with a banking crisis. Jobs were disappearing. Its stock market was tanking. Its future was hugely doubtful.

Aho's message to the Finnish people was blunt: They had big problems. No- one else was going to fix them. And most importantly: only their brains and talent were going to take them forward. Collectively, the people of Finland took that message on board. They moved forward. They transformed their economy through innovation and talent.

Yes, David, they did, but no thanks to Esko Aho. Yes, Nokia was astonishing the world with its cutting-edge mobile-phone technology. But that innovation was under way well before Aho took office. And, yes, Finland led the OECD in educational attainment. But, again, that wasn't the work of Aho's agrarian-based Centre Party, but of Finland's social democrats.

What Aho did do was slash social spending and increase unemployment. The year he was elected, 1991, Finland's GDP per capita was US$19,981. When he left, in 1995, it had fallen to US$18,856.

Still, Shearer insists: "Aho made bold decisions. He was, I need to say, voted out at the next election. He thought it was more important to make a difference than to get re- elected. Though our prescription might differ, we could all take a lesson from that."

Indeed we could.