Editorial: John Key's record is mixed, but as a politician he was astonishing

John Key smiles after winning the general election in Auckland 
November 8, 2008.

John Key smiles after winning the general election in Auckland November 8, 2008.

John Key is a gifted politician who quit at the height of his success. It is said all political careers end in failure, but John Key's didn't, and in that he is unlike perhaps any other New Zealand prime minister.
His astonishing shock resignation changes everything in the political landscape. None of his possible successors in National has his skills or his public support. Nor does anyone in the other parties either.

Key's popularity was astonishing: after eight years in power, his party was still at 47 per cent. How did he defy the usual laws of political gravity?  

Part of it was personal: his affability was legendary. As a finance dealer he was always given the most difficult clients: Key handled them with ease. So it proved in politics.

Part of the secret was his unpretentiousness. He knew voters didn't like politicians who seemed pompous or arrogant.

Part of it was a calculated ordinariness. Key was a clever man who rarely said anything interesting or daring. He had a good sense of humour and didn't mind sending himself up. He had enormous self-confidence.

His legacy reflects this temperament, both its strengths and its weaknesses. He was careful not to get too ahead of the voters. The one time he did, in his campaign to change the flag, he came a cropper.

In economic policy, he favoured a steady and moderate Keynesianism after the great recession. This in turn allowed recovery and resumed growth, perhaps his government's greatest achievement.

Caution had its downside. "Johnny does the deal on the day," one National colleague once said, meaning Key couldn't do long-term strategy. Key unwisely promised to resign rather than to make any meaningful changes to national superannuation, apparently because he thought it would be politically suicidal.

By the same token he retained Labour's family support policy, despite once denouncing it as communism by stealth. He had learned as a politician how popular it was.

Likewise he increased welfare benefits although as a new MP he had denounced solo mothers for  "breeding for a business."

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He was capable of brilliant and unexpected changes of policy. His surprise decision to join Helen Clark in the anti-smacking campaign was just such a stroke. Key's social liberalism was real.

He renounced Don Brash's anti-Maori campaign even though race-baiting had put National back in serious contention in politics. He backed the treaty settlement process just as Jim Bolger did, and the country was the better for it.

Key was often said to be a pragmatist: it's not quite true. On industrial relations issues he sided overtly with the employers, the class from which he came. He was a "slow follower" on climate change, perhaps out of excessive loyalty to business.

His claim to have forged an independent foreign policy was overstated; he was cautious about both the country's patrons, the Americans as well as the Chinese.

So the record of his achievements is mixed. The record of his personal popularity, on the other hand, is probably unmatched in our history.

 - Stuff


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