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John Key New Zealand’s only bulwark against ‘Trump effect’

Voters prefer the sincerity of Trump-like passion to the crafted emptiness of professional politicians. 

Geoffrey Miller and Mark Blackham
Fri, 18 Nov 2016

Our research in April this year into the working experiences of our Parliament revealed that the political class is increasingly estranged from ordinary voters.

We commented presciently at the time that the success of Donald Trump owed a lot to voter dissatisfaction with the staid politics of professional politics. We predicted that his brand of rabble-rousing and pomposity-pricking would find healthy support.

It looks to us that the New Zealand political environment holds the same conditions that had led to Trump’s success. The only difference is John Key.

Mr Key is the exception that proves the rule. New Zealand’s political environment is now largely a professionalised machine. A whole generation of MPs can no longer truly emphasise with many New Zealanders.

A third of New Zealand’s MPs have only ever worked inside the government system. Another third built no real career before they tried to get into Parliament.

For most current MPs, the secret to being elected is attending a well-regarded secondary school, going to university and joining a political party on campus and finding a job in the public sector or as a political party staffer. After making the necessary connections with the right people inside the parties, the final step simply requires a little behind the scenes manoeuvring to secure a place on a party list or safe seat and make it into Parliament.

By failing to forge careers unrelated to politics, the current crop of MPs largely lacks genuine insight into the lives of New Zealanders who live outside the Wellington political establishment.

The insight they do have is handicapped by political and media machines that smooth out language and ideas. Populists like Trump are extreme reactions to these very real inadequacies of the current political choices the machines generate.

Voters are disgruntled with ideology driven by politicians’ agenda rather than by the reality of ordinary lives. They prefer the sincerity of Trump-like passion to the crafted emptiness of professional politicians. 

PM’s departure will leave Parliament ‘exposed’

When Mr Key leaves, the inadequacies in Parliament will become clearer to voters. His common touch and relative frankness have been a buffer between Parliament and the public.

Mr Key is our own populist politician. Like Trump, he is wealthy and not a career politician.

Mr Key’s inherent anti-political nature frequently motivates him to behave in ways which we would not previously have expected from a prime minister. Examples of this include mincing down the catwalk in a Rugby World Cup uniform, dancing along to Gangnam Style and last year’s unsavoury ponytail incident.

In some cases, such as in the ponytail affair, MrKey has gone too far and ended up apologising for his actions. But generally, his non-conventional style and willingness to make fun of himself have helped him to stay astonishingly popular – despite being eight years into the top job.

Moreover, Mr Key appears to enjoy a particularly enduring appeal with New Zealand’s “Waitakere man” working-class voters. These voters feel Mr Key is one of them.

When Mr Key leaves, his populist touch will go with him, exposing the public to a parliament awash with careerist politicians who play it safe, deal in slogans and spin and have no way to forge a genuine bond with voters as Key has done.

The question for many of New Zealand’s MPs ahead of the 2017 election is whether they will heed the lessons of 2016’s Brexit and Trump political earthquakes.

If politicians dish up election campaigns that keep to the stale and uninspiring establishment recipe, they will guarantee and intensify voter backlash.

Geoffrey Miller is a New Zealand political analyst and researcher  lecturing at Germany's Johannes Gutenberg-Universitat Mainz. Mark Blackham is a public relations and political strategy expert with Wellington consultancy BlacklandPR.

Geoffrey Miller and Mark Blackham
Fri, 18 Nov 2016
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John Key New Zealand’s only bulwark against ‘Trump effect’