Welcome to John Key’s Age of Beige
Tracey Barnett ©November 2009
The scariest moment for any opinion columnist is when she discovers she doesn’t have an opinion—and I just got there.
One year on from John Key taking office and it feels as if New Zealand has entered the Age of Beige– and I can’t think of anything more terrifying.
Our new Prime Minister is friendly. He genially pays for his wife’s overseas airfares, his shirts are tidy, his comments evenly modulated.
When my American family asks if I like him, I reply, “He’s fine,” like someone’s inquiring about how your school uniform fits. After that, I lose the plot. I can’t tell you what he stands for or against. The depth of my analysis is that to his everlasting credit, he looks nothing like his dog toy incarnation.
Admit it, John Key’s most memorable moment in one year of office was seeing him on the stage of The David Letterman Show, smiling like somebody’s brother-in-law you’d forgotten you went to school with.
When my colleague’s column waxed rapturously of Key’s first year like our Olympian had just gotten a perfect 10 from the Russian judge, I was honestly befuddled. Have I been in the same country? Maybe I missed the memo. I must not have tuned into a crucial news conference, or was washing my hair during a heart-stopping speech that defined the man and his mission, that warranted the slightly embarrassing Obama allusions. But it never seems to come. There’s always that even-toothed businessman’s smile, telling me to rest easy, because he is.
I only know that my malaise is uncomfortable because it, too, is beige. Once in a while, my dander kicks in for his minister’s misguided priorities that seem to quietly make stealth cuts to those least able to defend themselves; At-risk youth, the adult illiterate, disabled children, sexual abuse survivors. In my newbie Kiwi way, this appeals most to my sense of fairness. But I’m waiting, waiting for this Prime Minister to fill in his paint by number canvas so I can see some kind of bigger picture.
John Key’s greatest asset, and deficit, is that he’s managed not to show us much of his hand—and hence, where he’s going.
It’s as if we ordered a competent business manager for our Prime Minister and forgot to ask for a leader, and no one seems to have minded much.
When John Key made Afghanistan his war—and it is indeed his war now—he quietly decided to re-deploy 71 SAS troops like it was a business deal. I looked around for a reaction and found—nothing.
He’s wagering his payoff will be some political capital with the new, sexier American president, maybe joint military exercises or a softer approach to free trade.
As journalist Jon Stephenson put it so well, John Key is still a trader at heart. But my fear is that he is gambling with Kiwi lives. It seems we are content not to notice– until someone’s son comes home in a box.
Face it, Afghanistan hasn’t exactly been raging conversation at Quiz night. There’s a war on, and we’re in it.
The perception, I suspect, for most people is that this is America’s war, not ours. We’ve been graciously reassured by our new Prime Minister that our soldiers won’t be put in dangerous positions, as if he can stage manage road side bombs.
I’ve written a few columns about it. But it is the silence that scares the hell out of me. It is as if I am back in America in 2003 when war was still far away from anyone’s daily experience and we were, to eerily quote Wayne Mapp upon his recent return from Afghanistan, “getting on with the job, so to speak”–in the same breath when much of Europe and yes, finally the American public, are questioning where this tragic fog of war is taking us. John Key’s stale, indefinable reassurance that Kiwis are “fighting terror” sounds like a punch line without the joke, eight years on.
The cost of war can’t be measured by accruing political capital like it can be banked for a bigger prize. What we all seem to forget with each successive generation is that war is a moral choice with a huge price tag– a life exploded, a future dissolved.
Turn around, John Key, and show your colours. Define your administration as being an international leader, not a follower of American-pulled strings.
I don’t know if I can stomach watching the mistakes of my former home be duplicated in my new one. If there is anything I feel I’ve earned the right to say, after watching two American wars unfold and thousands of my countrymen die, it is to warn us all that there is nothing about the colour of Kiwi blood that is beige.
Lead us out of Afghanistan.