Sunday, December 18, 2016

Karl du Fresne: John Key: the whatever man

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 fa├žade 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 blogs at First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard.

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