I remember Frankie Goes to Hollywood's classic eighties video for Two Tribes Go To War. I have been thinking back to that video during this week's ongoing stoush between David Shearer and John Key over the GCSB/Dotcom saga and other matters.
Frankie's video portrays the then respective ageing leaders of the Soviet Union and the United States - Konstantin Chernenko and Ronald Reagan - in a boxing ring before a baying crowd during a prize fight. The two actors portraying them go absolutely hard at it to convey the song's simple message that neither side could win a nuclear confrontation.
I think that is the scenario playing out between John Key and David Shearer. It's do or die for both leaders and their reputations.
David Shearer said that there was a tape of John Key at a GCSB meeting showing him joking about Kim Dotcom at a time before he said he knew about him. Key has countered by saying that while a digital recording device may have been present in the room, there is no known recording of the alleged comments he is said to have made to GCSB staffers.
In the meantime, bloggers, even the Labour-aligned Standard have come out swinging against Shearer media adviser, Fran Mold. It has been alleged that Mold's partner, a GCSB staffer, leaked knowledge of the alleged recording to Shearer who then alerted the media. As of the time of writing (Friday) no firm evidence has emerged from Labour to back up these claims. This doesn't mean to say that a GCSB recording of Key doesn't exist or, at least, that he did joke about Dotcom to them before he said he knew of his existence. However, it seems to me and other commentators that the greater probability is that the recording didn't happen.
As this appears to be the case, round one goes to Key. Evidently, Shearer would have been wounded by this at a time when his party needs him to show better leadership on issues.
However, John Key is not completely clean either. Obviously, his now recurrent brain fades are beginning to strip bare the image of a good, reliable, honest, and on top-of-it leader. Just yesterday, this brain fading extended to clarifying an earlier comment about his position on the recent drinking age vote. TV One last night also carried a report about Key not realising that Commerce Minister Craig Foss had given approval to the Retirement Commissioner to examine lifting the retirement age.
What can be deducted from all this is that Key is not (at least) in touch with the overall activity of his government and these communication problems indicate some level of growing dysfunctionality within it - and this is dangerous for any government. Key's relaxed style contrasts with his predecessor Helen Clark's omnipresent style of governance. Nothing that her ministers did seemed to escape her notice even if this (at times) came at the expense of not letting her ministers exercise their full decision making powers.
What do this week's events tell us about the respective futures of Shearer and Key?
For Shearer, it seems that more one mistake (like this week's) could witness a leadership coup. He has to sort his office out again and clear away the dead wood (as he did with John Pagani) but this time, do it completely. With better advisers, he might have a better chance of survival.
For Key, the past few weeks have been damaging. I wonder whether Key will bring forward his retirement plans by about a year? Could he retire in, say, late 2013, thereby giving his favoured successor Steven Joyce a better shot at the leadership? It would also give any new National leader at least twelve months to bed in before facing the electorate in 2014. Key will know from his experience as a currency trader that once you start losing on a trade, it's time to quit and go on to the next one. The PM thirsts to make money and I think that's what has been hampering his performance this year - his mind is increasingly beginning to turn to other things. I think it's evident to almost all those who observe politics that Key isn't enjoying the job anymore. Key will always have the psychology of the currency trader - one who enjoys making the big bucks but doesn't like losing them. As he's slowly beginning to slide in the preferred PM stakes, he maybe thinking it's time to exit before the electorate finally turns.
On the basis of what I've said, it's not inconceivable that Joyce and Cunliffe could be the ones facing off for the Beehive in 2014. If this turns out to be the case, then this week's Two Tribes-like confrontation between Shearer and Key could have brought that possibility closer.
To paraphrase Frankie (who sung about the famous nuclear war zero-sum theory) neither Key nor Shearer would have scored from this week.
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