John Key, Mr Opportunity

Last updated 01:33 09/11/2008
MICHAEL BRADLEY

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All throughout the campaign John Key succeeded in looking like a loose goose. He shoved his hands in his pockets. He shrugged and very nearly slouched. Louche and in no particular rush, just passing through New Zealand as though he were taking a stroll, he presented himself as a harmless sort of rooster, a blithe spirit.

The pinstriped suit and handsome pair of black English shoes meant business, but that was something he could conduct at his leisure. He waved away the woes of the world, and chanted: "Opportunity, opportunity, opportunity." He never seemed to give any serious thought to anything. He left room on his face only for that happy smile. It made him look like a man standing around a barbecue.

The best lies always have a relationship with the truth. Key's image on the campaign trail played on his natural air of confidence and eagerness, the lightness of his intellect, the way he talks as though one side of his mouth is engaged with chewing a stick of gum. But there were hints and glimpses of something else last week as he slouched towards parliament.

"The truth is that you're an idiot!" he yelled at a heckler in Christchurch. The previous day, at Clover Park Middle School in Otara, he snapped again. While students at the school's computer class tried to ignore the spectacle of a politician facing up to a media scrum in the middle of their classroom, Key was asked about the secretly taped recording of his deputy, Bill English, bagging Barack Obama. He replied, "I'm not going to get in the mud and roll around with a pig."

Key quickly returned to the safety of a moral high ground, and refused invitations to identify the pig. But it was strange to stand pressed up against Key - it's very warm inside a media scrum - and inspect the bitter little rage that had briefly sparked in his brown, bovine eyes. Key performs a limited range of emotions; petulance is well within his reach.

It's a waste of time to wonder what makes Key tick. He doesn't tick. A wander inside his brain might well reveal a great many unemployed cells. But what makes him sweat? As prime minister, there will be far sterner challenges to his poise and resolve than as leader of the opposition. In cabinet, he will have to roll around with his own pigs.

There is also the rather pressing matter of how to deal with a recession. That subject barely registered in the campaign. He fiddled while the economy burned. "We're going to invest in the future," he said. What did that mean? On Monday, at Southern Cross Campus in Mangere, he announced that National would establish specialist "trade academies" in schools, and had earmarked $6m towards the Mangere campus. "It's about opchontee," he said.

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Opportunity, to return extra vowels to the word, was his mantra. Even in his mouth, it sounded more exciting than Helen Clark's message: "Trust." He was playing the market ("A brighter future!"); she was selling a kind of old, possibly reliable, state insurance. He talked about tomorrow; she had history on her side. But who wants history? You never know how the past will turn out.

At Mangere, Key's entourage included two unannounced guests, Inga Tuigamala and Michael Jones, who pulled up outside the school gates in a big black Chrysler. "They approached us," Key shrugged. The former All Blacks gave him star power - he made sure to invoke their names that night on the TV debate - but they performed other, more valuable roles. They were there to connect with Maori and Pacific Island populations. They were also there to declare the end of history.

They followed Key from the school to Labour territory the factory floor of supermarket chain Progressive Enterprises, a stronghold of the National Distribution Union. There, among the high shelves stocked with Party Corn Nachos and Sour Gummy mixture, they delivered speeches. They were passionate. They were sincere. They finished sentences with the word "uh".

Visitors were handed zip-up safety vests; Jones had pulled it over his head, like an All Black jersey. "We've come to know our good friend John quite well," he began. "We can trust John. He wants a better society ... There's a sense of urgency, uh. We don't want to stay in a dependency mindset. My mum always said to me, `Be the head, not the tail.' We've done the hard yards. The hard mahi, uh. The backbone of this country of this great country - the greatest country in the world, we're blessed to live here - is built on you people. You've got to vote with your hearts, uh. But vote smart. We've got to make some changes. God bless you all."

The crucifix swinging in the front window of the Chrysler, the text by evangelist KP Yohannan in the back seat - Jones and Tuigamala were a pair of missionaries.

Earlier that morning, when the Southern Cross pupils rushed across the playground to meet Key, one kid asked: "Are you the president?"

Well, Key had already suggested he was New Zealand's answer to Obama. It was a ridiculous vanity, but it didn't do him any harm - New Zealand's answer to anything is far-fetched. Our version of the inexperienced and driven agent of change may lack vision, charisma, soul, language, intelligence, and the small matter of black ancestry, but what's wrong with that? As he strolled around the country these past few weeks, and appealed with his New Zealand qualities of modesty, ambitiousness, and cleanliness, he advertised a calming presence.

He was too smooth for Labour. "Mr Flip-Flop," they jeered, but every attack was merely a flop. There was party president Mike Williams, squirming as the TV cameras filmed him at the international airport, having returned from Australia with two sets of luggage - the suitcases under his eyes, and 24kg of useless documents which were supposed to reveal that Key was guilty of a grave misdeed. They didn't prove anything except Labour's desperation.

The party's "Two Johns" TV advertising campaign, aimed at showing Key's duplicity, also misfired. The maths were all wrong. There wasn't even one John. He cancelled himself out - centre-right, a liberal conservative. What did he stand for? What did he truly think? The questions were an irrelevance.

For the past year, National have accused Labour of running out of ideas. Actually, a popular notion is that Labour had too many ideas all that social engineering, interfering here, imposing rules and prohibitions there. Key's absence of any discernible philosophy, his blank canvas, was a relief from Labour's incessant nation building. A rest was as good as a change.

His blameless existence, his pleasant torpor, helped take the heat out of the campaign. On the TV debate on Wednesday night, he laughed how a schoolkid had once said to him, "I know who you are. You're Helen Clark's boyfriend." Key said, "That's one thing I'm not!" But it was hard to tell. At the least, National's borrowing of Labour policy suggested a crush.

Divisions were old hat - they belonged to the 2005 election, Clark versus Brash, with a chaotic background starring Nicky Hager, Bob Clarkson, the Exclusive Brethren, and private detectives allegedly rooting around in rubbish bins. This time around, not even Winston Peters was able to cause a ruckus. His TV commercials made you wonder whether he had been filmed on the whispering lawns of a retirement home; the poor devil looked like a garden gnome.

The campaign's quiet, restrained atmosphere suited Key. When he stopped in at South Auckland last week, supported by all the brown faces (MP Tau Henare, candidates Mita Harris and Sam Lotu-Iiga, missionaries Jones and Tuigamala) he could muster, he was more than content to make small talk. "What sort of music do you like?" he asked at the school in Mangere. Answer: Katchafire.

"OK. Have you heard Opshop? They're very commercial, but I like them... What do you do in the weekends?" Answer: shopping.

"Uh-huh. Ever go to the Otara markets?" Answer: nah, Sylvia Park.

Amiable, cheerful, patient, he sloped off to another classroom, where a teacher talked over an educational video about food hygiene and the importance of washing your hands. "Can you see the bacteria? That can kill you, or someone you're cooking for," she explained. Key smiled, and then approached a group of boys.

"Does anyone have a weekend job?" Answer: yep, at a supermarket.

"What do they pay you? Twelve bucks an hour? Fair enough. I used to be a paperboy. Didn't kill me. OK! See you later ..."

And so on, the usual excruciating campaign chit-chat, as more and more kids were subjected to pleasant interrogations by the nice man with untrimmed nose hair and an expensive, big-arse watch on his wrist. He was doing the hard yards, the mahi. All of it an audition for the country's top job. The real John Key - assuming he exists - now has to stand up. He said he was ambitious for New Zealand; New Zealand, broke and vulnerable, is ambitious for John Key. He has been granted the opportunity of a lifetime.

- Sunday Star Times

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