(First published in The Dominion Post, January 23.)
I HAVE never met John Key, but like anyone who follows politics I’ve been able to observe him via the media. And after studying him carefully, I think I now realise the explanation for much of his behaviour. He’s on drugs.Not the illegal kind, I should stress, but the mood-calming type that doctors prescribe.
This may sound flippant, but consider the following.In the 2014 election campaign, Key was subjected to possibly the most sustained media offensive faced by any prime minister in New Zealand history.
Day after day he was tackled by an aggressive media pack trying to trap him on dirty politics, illicit surveillance and other touchy issues.His answers were often unsatisfactory, which served only to ramp up the media frenzy. But through it all Key appeared supernaturally imperturbable.
He patiently batted away reporters’ questions and accusations with his familiar bland inscrutability. There were no meltdowns, no hissy-fits, no petulant walkouts.This was downright unnatural. No politician should be that unflappable. He can have achieved it only by the ingestion of large amounts – indeed, industrial quantities – of tranquillisers.
This may be one of the secrets of Key’s extraordinary success. After three terms he’s had only one falling-out with the media, over the so-called teapot tapes, and remains both accessible and affable. He resists all attempts to provoke him.New Zealanders seem to like that, but I find it slightly creepy. Politicians are supposed to be peevish with journalists.
Helen Clark’s withering death stare could turn reporters’ bowels to water. She could be personable, even charming and witty – a side of her that the public rarely saw. But she didn’t take kindly to being subjected to the journalistic blowtorch, as John Campbell discovered when he ambushed her over genetically modified crops.Robert Muldoon’s intolerance of all but the most obsequious journalists was legendary. He banned reporters he didn’t like, such as Tom Scott, and on one occasion issued a fatwa against an entire newspaper – the precursor of the one you’re reading – because it had published politically embarrassing stories.
David Lange’s relationship with the press gallery started out promisingly enough. Reporters were charmed by his wit, especially after nine sour years of Muldoon. But even Lange turned prickly once the media honeymoon was over and the press started focusing on rancour within the divided Labour Party. In the end he became uncharacteristically bitter and grumpy.Such behaviour is entirely human, which makes it all the more puzzling that Key manages to remain pleasant and co-operative even when the media is clearly out to skewer him.
Okay, my drugs theory is flippant. But to turn serious for a moment, I can’t help wondering whether Key’s irrepressible niceness reveals something significant about his character.He is now in his third term as prime minister, but we still have little idea of what drives him, other than the attainment of power. We don’t really know what his core values are and what, if anything, he’s deeply committed to. He’s never really told us.
It’s accepted that National is, above all, a party of pragmatists, supposedly committed in a vague way to free-market capitalism and individual freedom, but not too hung up on ideological purity and willing to bend whichever way is necessary to hold the political centre ground.But even by National Party standards, Key comes across as Mr Neutral, with no rock-solid, non-negotiable convictions. If he has an over-arching vision, it's not visible. His approach is to do what works politically, which isn’t necessarily what’s right.
This may explain why he manages to remain so unruffled. Perhaps there’s no real passion there. Perhaps he enjoys power for its own sake more than for the ability to achieve things, which is what attracts most people to politics.This is not so say Key isn’t highly intelligent or capable. Clearly he is. It’s also possible that he’s a naturally nice person, or alternatively so controlled and disciplined that he has trained himself not to bite back.
He may also be well-intentioned, in a very general way. It’s stretching credulity to suggest, as some people do (and not just on the Left), that his smiley exterior is a mask, and that he’s really ruthless and malevolent.But we occasionally hear about his post-Beehive ambitions, and there remains the disconcerting possibility that the reason he never gets rattled is that politics is just another step on his glittering career path – a game, almost – and that when he tires of it he’ll find something else.