In the swing of things

ADAM DUDDING
Last updated 10:34 17/08/2014
John Key
MARTIN DE RUYTER/Fairfax NZ

WATCH AND LEARN: Prime Minister John Key shows reporter Adam Dudding how it's done. Golf wise that is.

John key
MARTIN DE RUYTER/Fairfax NZ
TOP TIPS: "So you hit the ball. It's the white thing."

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At 10, we are told, John Key announced he was taking up golf, because he'd heard it was the way to get ahead in business. Forty-three years on, he's awash with the millions he made as a currency trader. He's also prime minister. Maybe golf works.

I've never played a round, which may explain a few things. But handily, the Sunday Star-Times editor decreed our pre-election leader interviews will take the form of lessons.

Last week David Cunliffe dandled a snapper while kayaking with my colleague. I've heard there are plans afoot for political cooking demonstrations and bird-spotting adventures.

Me? I'm not the leader of the free world or a wealthy National Party donor or anything, but I asked John Key to take me to his golf club for 18 holes and some playing tips anyway. His media people said, yeah right.

But on Wednesday, Key was in Nelson for a day of official visits - a factory, a school, a hospice, a building. I could trot behind, ask the odd question, and they'd try to find a bit of time for a chat at Nick Smith's electorate office.

I'm an optimist, so I said yes, then borrowed a putter, six balls and an "executive putting cup" from a golf shop. Maybe the PM could still teach me something.

Nelson is small and sunny and beautiful. On the drive from the airport to a factory where Key would admire a laser that welds diamond-tipped drill bits, you can see snow on the Tasman Ranges.

Key, his press secretary Lesley Hamilton and some Diplomatic Protection Service (DPS) guys are in the silver BMW. Behind him is an unmarked white Holden, then me in a hired Corolla.

Hamilton had given my plate number to the DPS so they didn't misunderstand when I tailed them for 10km then got out waving a golf club.

Wednesday. That evening Nicky Hager would launch a book called Dirty Politics revealing links between senior National Party staff and the vile WhaleOil blogger Cameron Slater.

But the launch, and dark inferences that Key's hands were also dirty, were hours away. At 11am, Key is the cheerful guy in a nice suit standing in the sun and talking balls.

"Look," he says, swivelling the pocked sphere in his fingers. "To make it easy, every golf ball usually has something written on it."

He places the ball 60cm from the putting cup and squints along the line of text. "You align that with where you want to go."

We are in the garden at Smith's office, where the long wet grass is hopeless for putting, but the light is good for photos.

"Everyone has a different putting style, it's personal choice, but what I do is have three fingers down the shaft like that, and one finger over, and one finger down there. You don't want to break your wrist - it's like a pendulum."

I am trying to listen to Key's instructions, remember my next artfully golf-related question, and stay alert for the telling double-entendres or metaphors that would make this exercise worthwhile ("below par!", "personal choice!", "shaft!"), but am doing a poor job of all three.

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Key, though, is having a ball. He grabs the club and tucks it beneath both armpits.

"You go like that," he says, shoulders swaying up and down like a swaggering rapper, "and not like that" - shoulders rocking forward and back like someone using ski-poles.

"Bob Charles once told me the only thing to remember with putting is look at the ball and keep your head behind the ball" - he lines up the shot - "and you go . . ."

Toc! The ball rolls into the cup.

He hands me the putter, adjusts my shoulders, rearranging my fingers on the shaft.

"Less wrist! Remember it's all big arms. That's it. Yep."

Toc! I hit the ball, it rolls into the cup, but bounces over the top. Too hard. "Yeah," says Key. "Right direction, but . . ."

We hit the ball a few more times and talk golf. Key's handicap is 10.9 on paper, but he says it's really closer to 13. When he and his son, Max, played a round of golf with Barack Obama in Hawaii, Obama played off an 18 (which makes Key the better player).

Key tells the old story about Dan Quayle being asked what he missed most about being US vice-president, and saying "10-foot gimmes" (if you follow golf you'll understand why that's funny, and if you don't, never mind). Key said I was a "fast student", but he was just being nice. He would, I suspect, make a decent golf coach.

There is only so much learning I could take. We go inside for the chat bit.

I interviewed Key in 2008, when he'd been in politics for six years, National leader for two, and about to be prime minister.

Then, there was great hope among journalists and the political left that someone would soon uncover a dark secret: something really dodgy from his currency days; proof that his agenda was dramatically to the right of his claimed position of steady-as-she-goes centre-right; that he was prime minister only for the hell of it, and would quit if it got tough.

When I interviewed him again before the 2011 election, none of that had come to much, though Key conceded he'd collected a few political "barnacles and scars".

The barnacles have grown thicker in his second term: "teapot tapes"; unpopular asset sales, a murky SkyCity convention centre deal; Crafar farms; ACC; Novopay;

bigger classrooms and bigger snapper; ministerial resignations; Kim Dotcom; GCSB. Yet Key seems untouched. Friday's poll for Fairfax gives National a 54.8 per cent party vote and Key a 59.5 per cent approval rating.

In 2008, I wrote that Key seemed: "Friendly. Energetic. Eager to please. Hard-working. Ambitious. Trained accountant. Boring."

This is churlish after that nice golf lesson, but nothing felt much different on Wednesday. A few more grey hairs and slightly fewer on top.

He still wears flashy cufflinks and expensive suits. He still has the same muddy diction he blames on being raised by an Austrian mother with a thick accent. He still meets your eye and talks in a way that is seldom thrilling but seems direct and friendly and open.

He said he found Portrait of a Prime Minister, a mildly hagiographic account of his life by New Zealand Herald writer John Roughan, "a lot more interesting than I thought I would", mainly for the chapters about his family's history - stuff about his father, George, who died when Key was six, and his mother Ruth's escape from Nazi Austria.

Roughan's book says that in 1998 Key spent New Year's at the Coromandel bach of National Party president John Slater - an early step towards his political goals. John is Cameron Slater's father. I asked Key if the junior Slater was at Coromandel too. (At this point, neither Key's team nor I knew Hager's book was mainly about links to Slater.)

"I don't remember him being there. I don't know Cam the way that people portray it."

What is the relationship then? Is Slater a friend?

"No. He's definitely not a friend. I've been at a National Party event when he's been there. If I text him, or if he would send me a text, it might be once a month or once every two months. I read WhaleOil."

How does that compare to your contact with other political journalists?

"Duncan Garner I would talk to way more often. Or someone like David Farrar, because he's our pollster. With Cam, if I text him it would be because he had some really random blog. I might send him a text and say ‘Is that really real?', or ‘Who's the person who's really behind that?' It would be curiosity."

Have you given Slater story tips?

"I don't do stuff with him, believe it or not. I don't leak because I don't need to. Look, ministers might feed things, and other people might feed things, but I just don't do that. If I want to do something I just say, ‘I'm doing it.' "

Next! The convoy heads to Nelson College. Nick Smith is in a tiny National Party-liveried electric car, with Health Minister Tony Ryall in the passenger seat.

It was thought the content of Hager's book might leak during the day, so the media pack is growing, ready for a reaction from Key.

Cameras click and video operators swarm as he chats with clumps of teenagers fiddling with car engines in the trades workshop. TVNZ political reporter Michael Parkin is there, with very nice leather shoes and white teeth.

In carpentry, Key strolls up to a couple of girls, and the cameras come in tighter. To relieve the mild tedium, I suggested Key demonstrate his hammering skills.

Sure, he said. "I'm absolutely hopeless though. To quote my mother, there are doers and there are payers - I'm a payer."

He took 38 blows to get the nail in. A curious side-effect of Key's self-confidence is that he has no qualms about doing things that could make him look a bit of a dick: wearing stupid hats, joking about his vasectomy, appearing on Letterman, deeply inept hammering. You get the feeling that if you told him there was a bit of egg on his face he'd ask "Where?", and lick it off.

Outside, a couple of women are holding signs: "John Key is killing our country", and "Nick is a bully". A few passing cars honk in support.

Then there is a hospice to visit, and a ribbon to cut opening a new building that uses innovative seismic technology. Suddenly it is 4pm. Where did the day go? Key had a few more minutes before we both had to get on a plane. Some quick questions.

Doesn't he get bored with all these factories and schools and ribbons?

"No. The days go quickly. You get to see practically what's happening on the ground."

What's the last book you read?

"Portrait of a Prime Minister. John Roughan's book."

A book about yourself is cheating. The book before that?

"Funnily enough I read Decision Points, George Bush's book."

Seriously? Bush's decisions were mainly terrible.

"Mmm. But I was just interested in rereading it."

Have you read The Luminaries yet?

"No. I've read a little bit of it, because some of it was in the paper in excerpts. I picked up a copy of it . . ."

Do you watch House of Cards?

"Yes. I love it. It's a long way away from what life in Parliament is like though . . . The Frank Underwood of the National Cabinet? We don't have those - they must be somewhere else."

Where'd you get your cufflinks?

"Rob Fyfe gave me these ones. They're British. They're quite lucky. I'm very superstitious as you probably know." (He's known for ditching cufflinks worn on days where his luck has run low.)

Hager's book will be released this day. If it turns out badly for you, will you wear these cufflinks ever again?

"Yeah yeah. That's one of the reasons I'm wearing them. I'm confident."

What was the last dream you can remember having?

"Hmmm. I know the dream I'd like to have had - National winning a third term but I don't think that's actually true."

He ums and ahs, then looks across the cafe table, for another moment of that guileless eye contact. He's remembered the dream.

"It was some sort of war. Some sort of conflict. There were a lot of guns. And smoke."

Thanks to Golf Warehouse Newton and the Nelson Golf Club Pro Shop for the loan of clubs.

- Sunday Star Times

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