PM John Key passes test of judgement

TRACY WATKINS
Last updated 05:00 02/01/2011
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Photo: Nelson Mail

PM John Key acknowledges he was under scrutiny during events such as the Christchurch earthquake.

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On the night when John Key pushed his way through a horde of backslapping supporters celebrating his election victory, no one had an inkling that a series of disasters lay in wait.

Ahead lurked a financial crisis, a $1.7 billion corporate bailout, a $4 billion natural disaster, the first combat casualty in a decade, and, finally, Pike River, a tragedy that dwarfed even Cave Creek in terms of loss of life.

As the good ship New Zealand steams from one crisis to the next, Key has become noticeably grey at the temples, and his staff have become increasingly protective of his private family time – a few hours on a Sunday, and the occasional overseas holiday.

Staggeringly, the optimism that charmed voters in 2008 and swept Key to power seems to have survived the battering of two years in office despite little respite from a grim economy and a string of bad news.

Maybe that is why Key and his government are more popular now than on election night. Leaders are judged on how they handle a crisis and Key's instincts have remained unerringly in touch with what the man or woman on the street expect of him in bad times.

During the financial crisis he stared down National's allies on the right who demanded sweeping change and savage cuts, and promised to keep a safety net in place for those affected by the downturn. During disasters such as the Canterbury earthquake and Pike River, he made sure he was there to comfort the locals or show willingness to do whatever it took to get communities back on their feet.

Key admits things could easily have turned sour had the government misjudged its response to any of the recent disasters.

"A disaster demands a response, and so the government gets judged on that response. If you take [Hurricane] Katrina, the US public judged President Bush harshly for his response. Whether that's fair or not, is not for me to comment."

If the Canterbury earthquake is New Zealand's equivalent, then the Key government judged its initial response well.

But Key admits the danger period lies ahead, as people remain homeless for months, services are still unconnected, frustration builds and the gaping holes in the city landscape take years to fill.

The events of Boxing Day have only made matters worse.

"You can't magic away the severity of the issues...I think it's very easy to distil a major earthquake to a soundbite that people understand – `it was a big shake and people's houses were ruined'," he said.

"But the clean-up and repair of that is mind-boggling and complex.

"I would have underestimated initially just how much work would flow from it. We have a cabinet committee that has been working pretty much since the quake and I've every expectation it will be in operation for years.

"The government will be working with the community for a very, very long time, and you just have to accept it's part of the job."

The most important thing is voters knowing that you can step up, says Key.

"People want to know if the government's in touch with the issues that are real, or are they just people who fight in the debating chamber on inane subjects and call each other names?"

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Equally important is that the public knows they can trust their leaders to speak for them when tragedy strikes, he says.

"In the case of Pike River, the enormity of the human loss was so great, and we were all so helpless to do anything for those families, that in the end all we could do was show them support.

"And because it's not practical for the other four million New Zealanders to personally engage with those families, that responsibility fell to me."

At a memorial service broadcast live, Key drew on his own experience as a child who grew up without his father to comfort the families, to show them he understood.

"The reason the feedback has been strong in support of my actions was that people wanted to show solidarity and support, and because they weren't capable of it, they were pleased I was in there doing it on their behalf."

 A DISASTROUS YEAR

Pike River mining disaster: On November 19 news emerges that 29 men are missing, feared dead at the West Coast coal mine. As hopes fade, Key flies to the West Coast but after a second explosion a week later all hope is lost. Key describes it as a national tragedy. "To lose this many brothers at once strikes an agonising blow. Today all New Zealanders grieve for these men. We are a nation in mourning." At a memorial service, Key, raised by his widowed mother, spoke to the children who had lost a father: "I know the absence of a parent is a heaviness you have to carry in your own way. It is a terrible thing to carry but it does not mean your children will not go on to live happy and fulfilling lives. Even if those children's memories of their fathers fade, his legacy will live on in each one of you."

The Canterbury Earthquake: At 4.35am on September 4, a 7.1 magnitude earthquake wreaks havoc in Christchurch and surrounding areas, leaving thousands homeless. Key flies in later that day to show "solidarity" and survey damage worth and estimated $4 billion. As aftershocks rock the city days later, he cancels a trip to Europe because he does not want to leave the country until he can be sure the recovery effort is on track.

Within days the government had announced a temporary wage subsidy of $350 a week for affected workers and rammed legislation through Parliament under urgency delivering local bodies and the government sweeping powers to rebuild the city.

South Canterbury Finance: On August 31 a $1.7 billion payout under the deposit guarantee scheme is announced. The package includes a loan to the receivers and $30-40 million to cover deposits by foreigners in order to secure the Crown's position as the sole creditor of South Canterbury's receivership. Explaining that buying everyone out was the only way to prevent a fire sale of South Canterbury's assets, Key said: "Without that, we would be in the position of being the 800lb gorilla who would have to take marching orders from a mouse, and we don't want to do that."

Casualty of war: On August 4, Lieutenant Tim O'Donnell was killed when his patrol was attacked in Afghanistan in Bamiyan province, where New Zealand has a provincial reconstruction team. O'Donnell was the first NZ soldier to die in combat since 2000, when Private Leonard Manning was killed in East Timor.

Speaking at his funeral, Key told mourners: "I have been told in a private moment that Tim once said if he was to die, he would want it to happen with his mates and while serving his country. He was with his mates and he was serving his country. He paid the highest price and his service was invaluable. Tim will not be forgotten."

Anzac Day tragedy: On April 25, as the country remembered its war dead, an air force Iroquois helicopter crashed north of Wellington on the way to a dawn ceremony. Flying Officer Daniel Stephen Gregory, 28, Flight Lieutenant Hayden Peter Madsen, 33, and Corporal Benjamin Andrew Carson, 25, were killed. Sergeant Stevin Creggan was badly injured. Speaking at their service Key said: "New Zealand has lost three fine servicemen, and family have lost a loved one. Your loss is still sore ... You need to know New Zealand grieves with you."

- Sunday Star Times

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