Tracy Watkins on John Key

Tracy Watkins, in her last column as Stuff’s political editor, on John Key:

The Opposition worked hard to make it an issue of character but in the end Clark’s undoubted competence overrode that in the minds of most voters.

It was the same for John Key after National won in 2008 and he stepped into Clark’s shoes; Labour tried to chuck everything at diminishing his character in the eyes of voters.  Not much of it stuck – though like Clark, the accumulated baggage over time wore down his popularity.

And like Clark, Key also had his “scandal-gates” – ponytail-gate, where he joked around with a young waitress and pulled her hair, was probably the most damaging, because it shifted perceptions.

The hair pulling was weird, especially for a Prime Minister. Key was probably trying to be seen as an ordinary bloke sort of leader, which he often managed well, but this was out of line and yes, it was probably damaging.

I only caught the tailend of the Bolger era and Jenny Shipley’s brief reign as prime minister, but Helen Clark was a phenomenon – gritty, driven, determined, and hugely intelligent. She had an incredible grasp of detail and an amazing ability to weigh up an issue as she spoke.

Key had the same razor-sharp ability to think on his feet, and he and Clark were more similar than you might think in other ways; both were pragmatists who had an uncanny ability to sense when they were getting too far ahead of the electorate.

But Key’s humour was a welcome antidote to the increasing dourness of the Clark years; a man for the times as the dark clouds of the global financial crisis bore down on us.

Behind the humour and optimism was a sharp financial brain, coupled with an unparalleled ability to put politics and the economy in the context of the every-day voter.

Key’s legacy was shifting some of the blue-collar vote and the battling classes in the middle from Labour to National and it is one that continues today.

Key was a very successful leader, leading National to three election wins with high levels of support for a single party under MMP.

The main negative was probably due to his success – National lost potential support parties. When he stood down in 2016 National were still getting very good levels of support, but even though Blil English was seen as capable and ran a fairly good campaign, the single ACT MP, and an unwillingness to give too much to NZ First was not enough to compete with the surge in Labour support under new leader Jacinda Ardern, Greens keen to have their first shot in Government, and NZ First’s ability to take advantage of Labour’s and Green’s give up what it took to get into power.

The left left didn’t like and would never like Key no matter what he did because he was a right wing-ish politician. The Standard could only see Key’s negatives, and amplified them as much as the Kiwblog community who vilified the very capable and ver successful Helen Clark.

I saw Key speak in person once, and he came across very well, interesting, engaging, entertaining. I have also seen Helen Clark speak in person (after she left politics) and also came across very well. I haven’t seen that in person in any other leader, not that I have seen many. I went to a NZ First conference to listen to Winston Peters and he had the crowd buzzing, but it was inspiring tired old repeats of ‘jokes’; and rhetoric.

Key was a very good leader, who had the unusual ability to be on top of most policy and  most issues, but to connect with many ordinary people. He was also pragmatic, which annoyed some of the more uncompromising right wingers, but it worked well.

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  1. Duker

     /  19th May 2019

    Key on Top of most policy and most issues ?
    My memory is him always repeating ‘I havent been briefed on that’. Which was his little secret of course he had some very bright people on the beehive who were able to give him ‘daily talking points’ so he could discusssomething about an issue. The other feature was his eagerness to go onto morning ‘crew’ radio and not just the ‘issues’ stations ( but he and his team avoided National radio for a very long time, until they found out when RNZ joined the ratings that had numbers almost equal to the most popular private stations)

    • David

       /  19th May 2019

      Never heard Key say he hadnt been briefed when talking about policy, events sure but for all the things you would want to pick on him for being abreast of policy was his like Clark a strong point for him.

      • Blazer

         /  19th May 2019

        ‘what I can say…is Nu Zilders are not really…interested in that’!

      • Duker

         /  19th May 2019

        “Never heard Key say he hadnt been briefed when talking about policy”

        It was a stock phrase of his- every politician has one – that one was his.

        Even after he finished being PM, Eagleson was still battling on to defend him, as some investigation and OIA at long last revelaed the truth.
        Eagleson had to say – ‘If the comments by the PM differ from the documents then the documents are WRONG’
        I kid you not’

        Sir John Key’s story of how and why he canned a “mass surveillance” programme are at odds with official papers detailing development of the “Speargun” project.”

  2. Zedd

     /  19th May 2019

    Key might have been seen, as a ‘media darling’ BUT he was far, from a ‘typical kiwi bloke’.. which he was often portrayed as; Wall St. Millionaire, weirdo hair-puller, drank wine NOT beer ?

    Politically he looked like a caracature of ‘the great defender of kiwi (right-wing) values’.. but in reality was just ‘saying the right things, to the converted & enough to the swinging voters, to keep them engaged’; constantly blaming everything on: ChCh quakes, GFC & previous Govt. (even after 3 terms). Some folks were so enamoured… that they would have believed it, if he said ‘Green is Blue’ or vice versa

    BUT in the end he just typified, the old saying: ‘you can fool all of the people some the time, some of the people all of the time… BUT you can’t FOOL all the people ALL the time !’
    btw: he never fooled some of us (left), ANY of the time !
    “Good riddance” sez I 😀

    • Duker

       /  19th May 2019

      The Bank he chairs here ANZ , is in trouble this year for telling fibs about ‘borrowing risk profile’ numbers it submits to Reserve Bank. Its part of the compliance that is “certified by the Board directly” , not just something the execs are responsible for.

      Up to his old tricks

  3. lurcher1948

     /  19th May 2019

    Isnt he the righty who ran away after pulling a workers ponytail,just saying NOT AS TOUGH AS JACINDA ARDERN,she a REAL LEADER…making the right MAD one bill at a time

  4. Trevors_elbow

     /  19th May 2019

    Oh look duker/blazer pouring forth vitriol in very similar terms about John Key. What a surprise…. almost twin like….

  5. Dennis Horne

     /  19th May 2019

    On winning, Key — beaming — said, “Another three years”. To be a little prince.

    David Farrar told him what people wanted and he served it. Desert for the peasants. When he realised he might have to do something unpopular he shot through.

    Useless. Denied even the housing shortage he caused.


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