(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, June 22.)
I recently watched Sean Plunket interview prime minister John Key on TV3’s The Nation.
Plunket’s pre-interview spiel gave the impression we were finally going to learn what drives Key politically – a tantalising prospect, since this is a question that has lots of people scratching their heads.
In fact the interview succeeded only partially in telling us what the nation’s most powerful politician stands for.
That’s not to say Key wasn’t honest, or that the interview wasn’t revealing. But in some ways it only served to deepen the Key enigma, and to remind us how different he is from his predecessors.
We certainly learned a few things about who inspired Key, and what he cares about.
Clearly, the dominant influence in his life was his late mother. He learned from her that you get out of life what you put into it (my apologies if I make that sound like a line from Forrest Gump). Despite her straitened circumstances as a solo mother, bringing up her children in a state house after the death of her alcoholic husband, she took control of her life. She taught her son to look forward, not to look back, and not to feel sorry for himself.
She also encouraged him to be ambitious. She had “huge” expectations of him and firmly set him straight when, at 15, he wanted to leave school and train horses.
His mother also taught him to be frugal. He remembered her putting the tips she earned as a hotel night porter into a jar to pay for occasional treats. So when his high-flying colleagues in the foreign currency dealing rooms were blowing their money on champagne, long lunches and flash cars, Key and his wife Bronagh concentrated on paying off their mortgage.
He bluntly described his high-living former workmates as stupid for not realising their stratospheric incomes wouldn’t last forever.
How, then, did these early life experiences mould John Key the politician?
We learned that although his mother was a Labour supporter (in common with many of her era who were grateful for a state house), the young Key was an admirer of National prime minister Robert Muldoon. He thought Muldoon had a vision of what New Zealand needed to be.
I found this revealing because Muldoon, while leading a party that ostensibly championed private enterprise, didn’t hesitate to exert tight economic and social controls using the apparatus of the state. (Full marks to Key for his honesty, at least. The only other contemporary politician I can think of who might cite Muldoon as a role model is Winston Peters.)
Key also revealed himself as a fan of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, an authoritarian leader who used the power of the state to suppress dissent.
Plunket noted, as I did, that both the leaders cited approvingly by Key were political strong men with little patience for opposition, but we shouldn’t assume from this that Key has a hidden authoritarian streak. He has a boyish enthusiasm and comes across as open, affable and reasonable. I can’t think of any New Zealand prime minister in my lifetime who was harder to dislike.
He explained that he admired Lee Kuan Yew because his bold, aspirational policies had transformed what was once a poor, Third World country - although he acknowledged that the same approach, which placed economic progress ahead of human rights, wouldn’t necessarily work here.
Key’s respect for Muldoon and Lee Kuan Yew is significant because neither leader seemed to care about ideology. They were pragmatists who adopted whatever policies they thought would work, regardless of any philosophical inconsistency.
The same might be said of Key’s government, which in its first term has been virtually an ideology-free zone – much to the frustration of many people who voted for it, expecting a much stronger commitment to traditional centre-right values.
Key gave some clues to what he believes. He wants everyone to have equality of opportunity and he sees education as crucial; but he also thinks people are responsible for their own success or failure. “You can make a difference in your own life.”
He clearly has little time for trade unions but appears to care deeply about the number of people trapped on welfare. As he said, something has clearly gone wrong when 13 percent of the working-age population are on a benefit compared with two percent in the 1970s.
He believes in celebrating success, which is why his government reinstated the traditional honours list. A consistent theme in the interview was that people should be encouraged to aspire to greater things. “You make your own luck.”
What was lacking, however, was a clear picture of how these beliefs translate into policies. We learned quite a lot about John Key the man, but there remains a credibility gap between what he professes to be motivated by and what his government is actually doing. He says the right things but his party remains cautious to the point of timidity.
Plunket rightly questioned whether Key’s performance in government was consistent with his maiden speech in Parliament, in which he talked about the need for politicians to be bold and to ignore public opinion when necessary.
Perversely, one of the few times Key appeared to disregard public opinion was when his party supported left-wing MP Sue Bradford’s anti-smacking bill, much to the disgust of most National voters. He also antagonised his own party’s supporters by pushing through a senseless, quixotic emissions trading scheme and pandering to divisive Maori claims on the coastline.
There may of course be a master plan behind Key’s apparent reluctance to embrace radical change. Colin James, one of our most perceptive political commentators, says National’s strategy is to make changes each term which are not earth-shattering in themselves but which the electorate can broadly go along with.
“After two or three terms of this pragmatic incrementalism the piecemeal changes add to a significant total,” he wrote recently. We shall see.