Russel Norman

Muldoon and Key

by Russel Norman

In my speech to our party conference last week, I compared John Key to Robert Muldoon. This has provoked a furious response from the Right who accuse me of being a migrant who has no right to speak about Muldoon.

So lets have a look at it a bit more rationally.

Obviously Key isn’t exactly like Muldoon, but I think that the actions of this Government of late wouldn’t feel out of place in Muldoonism.

No serious student of New Zealand history would argue much against the proposition that Muldoonism can be characterised by three elements: Muldoon concentrated and abused power; he was rigid against all necessary or even desirable change; and that he was a divisive figure in New Zealand politics.

So setting personalities aside, let’s take a look at how Key’s government fares against these characteristics of Muldoonism.

Concentration and abuse of power

Key gave us a sign of what was to come in his first term, when his Government pushed through 17 laws under urgency with no opportunity for public submissions (including the bill to introduce National Standards in schools) and rushed 60 bills through with truncated select committee processes.

They also abolished Canterbury’s democracy, sacking regional councillors and replacing them with Government officials, and suspending elections. Cantabrians still have to pay rates and taxes to the regional council, but they have no say over how that money is spent.  In addition they introduced Henry the Eighth clauses that give the Minister for the Environment the power to vary the RMA by decree, ie the law written on the books can be changed by the Minister without going to parliament. John Key also removed the right to challenge these decisions in the Environment Court. Top New Zealand public law academic Philip Joseph said this contained elements of subterfuge and was constitutionally repugnant.

But it wasn’t until into the second term that Key and his government showed the true depth of their contempt for our constitutional principles.

Without BORA advice, opportunity for public submissions or select committee scrutiny his Government passed the Anadarko Amendment, which outlawed protest on the high seas. This legislation breaches the rights of freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and free association. Peter Williams QC said this is “fascist legislation, this is shocking legislation, this is draconian legislation, and the people of New Zealand have got to be aware of it.

Our judiciary is supposed to act as a check on the powers of governments. But in a single day, under urgency and with no submission process, this government took away the right of family carers of people with disabilities to test whether Government policies are lawful in court. Constitutional law expert Professor Andrew Geddis said this was “…trampling all over a basic foundational principle of our constitutional order.

When it was revealed that the GCSB may have broken the law by spying on New Zealanders, Key’s response wasn’t to ensure that the limits placed on the agency’s power are respected, nor to introduce proper parliamentary oversight of the agency. Instead, he introduced a bill that makes it legal for the GCSB to spy on New Zealanders and expands its power to do so.

Under a new housing law, the Housing Minister can set up special housing areas without going through the process to get basic building or resource consents, meaning National’s backers, property developers, can be waved through. The Law Society called this contrary to the rule of law and good legislation principles.

Ultimately, the best safeguard for democracy in our legal system is that we hold democratic elections every three years. But Key’s government is ignoring the improvements Kiwis want made to MMP, so they won’t be made in time for the next election. National are gerrymandering the system to suit their own interests.

If we move to the environmental arena we find repeated concentration of decision making. Aside from Canterbury regional council National introduced the EPA to rubber stamp central government projects like the RoNS. The amendments to the RMA are all aimed at removing community input into decision making and giving central government more powers.

Rigidity against change

The best example of Key’s rigidity against change is his refusal to budge on the failed asset sale programme, even in the face of the revelation that he will now have to sell off Meridian in chunks because it can’t be sold in one hit, after the cost of selling Mighty River alone exceeded $100 million, and with his rhetoric about mum and dad investors exposed as a sham.

This stubborn immovability in the face of overwhelming evidence can also be seen in this Government’s inability to accept that the world has moved on from its outdated understanding of  economic orthodoxy. It speaks volumes that when a ‘far-left think-tank’ like the OECD is speaking out in support of Green policies like a capital gains tax, John Key is willing to rule out implementing their findings without even reading the full report.

And when it comes to climate change, this government is absolutely rigid in its refusal to adapt. They carry on as if it will all just go away.


Remember when Key was elected? He worked with the Māori Party, he worked with the Greens. He got all sectors involved in a collaborative exercise at the job summit.  For a moment, we thought that perhaps he was different. Perhaps he could succeed in uniting people from across the political spectrum in that time of crisis?

What a long way we are from that now. Far from a message of unity, Key’s government takes the posture that if you’re not with them, you’re against them.

To be with Key and National is to get special favours. It is to have tender processes designed so that youll win. It is to get $2 billion in tax cuts. It is to get shoulder-tapped for a top job by one of your old schoolmates, it is to get a job you applied for a month after it closed, or to get a job for which you were underqualified  because of your profile as a sportsperson and a Key supporter.

To be against Key and National is to be silenced. It is to have Ministers breach privacy obligations by releasing your personal information to the media. It is to be the subject of personal attacks from right wing lobbyists if you dare to speak out to protect the environment. It is to have “threats and budget cuts… used to silence dissenting voices,” according to New Zealander of the Year Dame Anne Salmond.

Think Big

And don’t even get me started on the comparison between the Think Big projects and the Roads of National Significance. Some of the Think Big projects made a lot more sense than the RoNS.

So, was the comparison between Key and Muldoon unfair?

In the sense that he and his government are disregarding our democracy and our constitutional principles, concentrating and abusing power and rigidly refusing to change, I stand by my statement that Key is sure as hell acting like Muldoon.

And as for John Key and all the right wing commentators who give me grief and who say I should shut up because I am a migrant. Quite frankly that is a pathetic response, worthy of Muldoon, and offensive to all those migrants who choose to live in New Zealand and participate in our democracy.