Friday, December 16, 2016

John Key: the whatever man

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, December 14.)

I’m forced to admit that I don’t understand my fellow New Zealanders.

John Key was possibly our most popular prime minister in living memory, but even after his eight years in office I struggle to understand his appeal.

People call him charismatic. I must grudgingly accept that he is, although to me he's more enigmatic.

I used to think that a charismatic person was someone whose personality created a force field around them. David Lange in his glory days had that sort of charisma. So did Norman Kirk. Robert Muldoon, too, though in his case the force field was often malevolent.

Key’s appeal, on the other hand, seems to derive from his sheer ordinariness.  He comes across as bland, unexciting, even gauche.

He mangles the English language and has no oratorical skills. But if you accept that charisma means the ability to inspire followers with devotion and enthusiasm, which is the Oxford Dictionary’s definition, then Key certainly has it.

So what, if anything, can we conclude from this apparently unremarkable man’s remarkable popularity?

Perhaps we just have to accept that we’re rather dull people. We don’t like our politicians too mercurial. We prefer them to be one of us.

Perhaps, too, we like a politician who’s happy to make a fool of himself. Key’s participation in juvenile publicity stunts made me cringe, but many New Zealanders seemed to find it endearing. 

Maybe we like him for the same reason we like grey cars. New Zealand is the only country I know where grey is the most popular car colour. Even New Zealanders who buy fabulously expensive cars – Bentleys, Porsches and the like – opt for grey. We’re a grey country.

But of course Key’s façade of ordinariness is misleading, because it’s only what you see that’s ordinary. He rose to the global pinnacle of currency trading, a notoriously unforgiving business where only the sharpest and coolest operators survive, and when his interest shifted to politics he appear to conquer that effortlessly too.

The scholarly Don Brash, whom he deposed as National leader, never stood a chance. Think of the grinning gunfighter (played by Jack Palance) against the hapless sodbuster in the classic Western Shane.

In one sense, Key is similar to Richie McCaw. Like Key, McCaw doesn’t seem over-endowed with personal magnetism. He seemed awkward, unpolished and inarticulate in the public eye, but he was a national hero nonetheless.

We judged McCaw by his results. And to be fair, Key’s performance too, judged on its economic results, was pretty good, even if Bill English was the man doing the hard graft behind the scenes while Key did the smiling and waving.

Not only did New Zealand come through the Global Financial Crisis relatively painlessly, but we performed exceptionally well in world tables measuring prosperity, human rights, health, education and social wellbeing – even the environment. Under Key, New Zealanders felt good about themselves.

Yet you can see why Brash gives him only five out of 10 for his performance. Key balked at the type of radical economic change that Brash thinks we need.  

In that respect too Key was in tune with the national psyche. One of the most perceptive of the post-mortems on his premiership came from the Right-leaning Manawatu Standard columnist Liam Hehir, who wrote that in a doggedly centrist country like ours, Key was about as good a prime minister as any conservative could reasonably hope for.

He may have disappointed conservative ideologues, but as Hehir wrote: “It’s not for politicians to try to sell policies for which there is no demand.” Our political history is strewn with the corpses of radical parties whose policies were rejected as too extreme.

Readers may deduce from the tone of this column that I was not an admirer of John Key as prime minister. I like politicians who stand for something, even if I don’t agree with them, and I never got the sense that Key stood for anything in particular.

At the end of his eight years in office I still couldn’t tell what his innermost values or ideals were, or even whether he had any. The most you could say was that he wanted New Zealand to succeed economically and to be respected – or at least noticed – on the world stage.

I got the sense that he would do whatever was expedient to achieve this. In fact I came to think of him as the “whatever” man, in the sense that he would generally do whatever was politically convenient. Often this meant taking the path of least resistance.

In this regard he was the consummate National Party politician. It has always been a party of pragmatists rather than one driven by ideology.

Now he’s handed the baton to another pragmatist, albeit one who gives the impression of having core conservative values. We don’t know what sort of prime minister English will be, but at least we can expect him to display a bit more gravitas than his predecessor. For that reason alone, I admit I’m relieved that Key is gone. 


Karl du Fresne said...

I'm posting the following comment by proxy. It comes from Tony Simpson, who was thwarted in his attempt to post it himself. (He's not the first, I should add.)

Ever since I was a teenager I have been fascinated by politics and the performers who prance on its many stages. John Key was an unfathomable mystery to me for many years. I rarely agreed with him politically but that's not the point. In my experience people are born with their politics ready made, reflecting their social background and how they were brought up, so there's nothing to be gained by railing at them for that reason. What I couldn't fathom was Key's continuing appeal. But eventually I concluded that the appeal was based on there being nothing there except a set of technical skills. He was really just a political mirror - if you looked at him you saw yourself. What drove him is also interesting. As it happens I grew up in working class Christchurch about a decade before Key and not far from where he lived as a child, so I know suburban north Christchurch very well. Key went to a not-quite-top-drawer secondary school (a matter of supreme importance in Christchurch). I'm sure he got out as soon as he could and went to London where his skills would have been appreciated and rewarded. Even more so in the City. But his social background was I'm sure a monkey on his back which drove him to look for a certain type of 'success'. I feel sorry for him in a way.

Brendan McNeill said...

Hi Karl,

I also prefer conviction politicians even if I don't agree with them. John Banks, Jim Anderton both in opposite sides of the spectrum.

John key was none of those. Bland, unexceptional, affable, likable for all his failings, one of us.

He spent not a cent of his political capital advancing a conservative agenda. Will Bill be less passamomious? Probably not.

Mike Were said...

Karl I agree with you that Key seemed not to stand for anything in particular.

But what appeal he had for me was his willingness to answer almost any question. Mostly he did that well - without giving an answer to some imaginary unasked question, nor slagging off at the opposition.

This was a welcome change in our political intercourse, and something others perhaps appreciated as well.

Mike Were said...

Karl I agree with you that Key seemed not to stand for anything in particular.

But what appeal he had for me was his willingness to answer almost any question. Mostly he did that well - without giving an answer to some imaginary unasked question, nor slagging off at the opposition.

This was a welcome change in our political intercourse, and something others perhaps appreciated as well.

Mike Were said...


I agree with you that Key seemed not to stand for anything in particular.

But what appeal he had for me was his willingness to answer almost any question. Mostly he did that well - without giving an answer to some imaginary unasked question, nor slagging off at the opposition.

This was a welcome change in our political intercourse, and something others perhaps appreciated as well.

Scott said...

Agree with your comments. I think John Key's appeal was that he was a nice guy who got on well with everybody. He was comfortable at a Christian music festival and equally comfortable at a gay rights parade. He had a knack of making himself agreeable with everybody. To be fair he has handled the economy well. Also he was very strong after the Christchurch earthquake and lead the country well in a time of real crisis.
Also and this is not widely known, he does quietly visit people who are sick and in need. For example he visited a very sick child in the Masterton Hospital a year or 2 ago. There was no fanfare or media entourage, he just did it.

Scott said...

However on the negative side he didn't spend a cent of his political capital on right of centre policies with the exception of dipping his toe in the water with charter schools.
He could easily have led the repeal of the anti-smacking legislation which 85% of New Zealanders were opposed to at the time. Also on his watch gay marriage came in which again was opposed by the majority of New Zealanders at the time.

Unfortunately his successor Bill English has not got off to a great start by saying on day one that he would probably have voted for gay marriage if he had the opportunity again. Nothing like selling out on day one for a so-called Conservative Christian leader!

It remains to be seen whether Bill English will actually do anything Christian or Conservative or even right of centre. It appears that labour comes in, madly institutes their left-wing policies, then national comes in and leaves them in place. It would be nice for a right of centre government to do something either right of centre or Conservative? Perhaps I am hoping for too much??

paul scott said...

Trading out on Democracy
There is a cryptic saying which Ronald Regan Presidents used. It was
“ Don’t just do something, stand there “
It was an actors dictum, and it meant do not fiddle around while the leading actor is developing the theme, you will distract the audience, stay still on the stage, and face the lead actor.
Well, this fiddling about of course was exactly what John Key did do.
He distracted the public by fiddling and smiling.
He distracted us from massive social issues of Housing.,
Immigration, Regional development, borrowing massively, and that tiny matter of loss of Equality of Democracy for the exchange of Maori votes.

The level of cynicism is amazing, and it will yake us a few years to realise what the smiling one stood for.
New Zealanders will easily the expression “ whatever “ as signifying a kind of casual and self centered attitude.
Over at the Libertarian blog 'Not PC', Mr. Cresswell referred to the former Prime Minister as a man who “ kicked cans down the road “ for eight years.
In my records I refer to the 5th National Government as “trading out on democracy” .

Michael Coote elsewhere states that in the gambling den of the cynical trader.
“ Few other politicians have done more to create conditions ripe for the destruction of racial equality "
But really, No other Prime Minister except the short term Geoff Palmer has one more to demolish racial equality.
The Key legacy is a shocking testament to the political apathy of New Zealanders.

While we were preparing the big canons to unleash on the fear and loathing of open Immigration,
Race based privilege was fostered and nurtured by the Key Government.
The actuality of the events is undeniable.

We know that Immigration will take seniority in the social conservative space next year,
leaving this minor matter of Equity and Equality on the sidelines.
I often wondered how this could happen.
I think it is because video film of hordes of destructive immigrants raping, pillaging, and abusing Western Society has a huge emotional effect.

So too the effect is emotional when you find your 30 year old daughter can not buy a house in Auckland. This when she has saved many times more than you for the home in which you raised her.
Key was a populist Prime Minister who did nothing.
There will be no statues built of John Key.
He is the “ whatever man”, the “ tin can kicker” , the “trader of democracy” for his own establishment.
He told his Mother when he was a boy. “ I am going to be famous and rich,
I am going to be the Prime Minister of New Zealand”
And what are you going to do as Prime Minister John Boy.
I’m not going to do anything, I am just going to be famous and rich.

Reference / part of this comment is the same as that on the NZCPR site

Jigsaw said...

I was most interested in the comment by Tony Simpson. As it happens I grew up in working class Christchurch probably a decade before Simpson and I think his comment that you are politically what you were bought up to be is most revealing. I think that this was once true but has long gone. The sort of society In grew up in was working class but with huge differences to today's working class. All of our parents had been through the depression and this made them extremely ambitious (in general) for their children in a way that seems to me to have all but disappeared. People like Simpson and Chris Trotter stick with the concept but can't seem to see what has changed. As for Key going to a secondary school that was 'not quite top of the drawer' - not only do I think that is wrong but it typifies the Christchurch mentality and social awareness that is largely lost f the rest of the country -thankfully!

Jigsaw said...

John Key was certainly a can-kicker-down-the-road and the worst thing he did in this regard is the ghastly separatist racial legacy he leaves behind. A problem that will get worse before (hopefully) it is all thrown out and he will be remembered for that and little else.

Karl du Fresne said...

Tony Simpson has asked me to post the following response:
"Jigsaw" has forgotten that the Christchurch I was describing was the city of forty years ago. Things may very well have changed in the meantime and for ever but as I hardly ever go there I couldn't say if that is so or not. He/ she also seems to think that I agree with the phenomenon involving the ranking of secondary schools which was so much a characteristic of the place in my youth. I most certainly do not. Notwithstanding my attendance at one of the 'top' schools (Christchurch Boys) I hated every moment of it and got out of Christchurch straight after university for a job in broadcasting in Wellington. In those times Wellington was a complete contrast to Christchurch. Stuffy, inward looking, dreary, provincial Christchurch versus open and bohemian Wellington. I have lived here ever since apart from a few years in London and never once regretted my decision to come here and make it my home. A pity John Key didn't make the same choice. We might have been spared his prime ministership. It's why I said in my earlier response that I felt sorry for him in a way.

Barry said...

I agree with the comment of Jigsaw on December 2016 at 12:03 PM.