At the very end of the day, this was John Key's New Zealand
John Key has quit, said the Sunday Star-Times editor (because he has his finger on the pulse).
Today is Tuesday, he said (spot-on again), and by the time readers get to the letterbox on Sunday morning the leadership battle will probably be over, and some hack will have already done a humorous listicle of the conspiracy theories behind why John's really gone, including the ones about chemtrails and affairs.
Sooooo … how about a roadtrip story, a kind of nationwide pilgrimage to the places that defined the leadership of our surprisingly popular prime minister? Frame the big issues with geography. Talk to the people who were icons of his reign and ordinary folk too, then distil the essence of how Kiwis see him. Find out what's changed in Key's eight years. You can knock the interviews off tomorrow. Take a work car! Take a photographer!
So you want me to do a voxpop within driving distance of the office?
Yeah, said the editor. Go and do a voxpop.
On a different budget and deadline, a reporting team might take a walk in Key's $1000 leather shoes from the very start of the journey – the Burnside state house with a single mum, the accountancy lecture-room at Canterbury Uni, the offices in London and New York where money breeds money – but we'll start in early 2007, when Key had been Helensville's National MP for four and a half years, and leader of the opposition for just a couple of months. We'll start in McGehan Close, Mt Albert, Auckland.
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Pat, a 68-year-old retired painter and decorator, remembers the day Key and a clot of media touched down. Key was there to sort-of apologise for having underclass-shamed a street that had allegedly been left to rot under Helen Clark's uncaring Labour government, and which was a hotbed of crime. Key doubled down on the stunt by taking a local Maori girl, Aroha Ireland, up to the Waitangi Day celebrations a few days later.
"It was just a sensational visit," says Pat. "He made a great show of taking a little girl up north, and we never saw him again. It was just a load of publicity bullshit."
Pat is pretty sick of media and politicians using McGehan Close as a symbol of poverty. Sure, it's mostly state housing, but Housing NZ fix things when they need fixing, and the blip of street violence that drew Key's attention ended long ago. The people who live there are nice. This is actually "a really good little street".
When Key swooped in he was trying to show "he cared about the working and poor people", says Pat, but "$50m in the bank and holidays in Hawaii? How can he say he's a man of the people?"
Pat's a Labour man; never voted National. And yet: "I think John Key is a good bloke." It's just that "he's stuck in that banker mode. He doesn't have to worry about the everyday things that others do."
The Mt Albert Winz office is nearby – just the sort of place where you might find people who do have to worry about the everyday things.
Business looks slow – a dozen clients and a similar number of staff – but eventually an electric wheelchair rockets out from the airlock of the double-doored, security-guarded entrance.
The driver is Taufa Lemikitoa. She's 26, she smiles a lot, and she has cerebral palsy. She's been in to tell Winz that even though she lives in a disability home, her $65 a week benefit "is just not cutting it". She needs to pay doctor's bills, buy some drawers for her clothes, have some fun occasionally. She volunteers at Auckland City Mission and is looking for supermarket work, but it's not easy.
Since 2008 the number of homeless people in New Zealand has risen from 33,295 people (0.8% of the population) to 41,075 (1.0%). Lemikitoa wasn't following politics when Key came to power, but as his reign ends she doesn't think he's done enough for the disabled and other needy people.
"I guess he can see there are homeless people, but he's not helping them."
Anyway, Lemikitoa has gotta roll. As she whizzes up the street a couple of big guys in their 20s are strolling the other way, one of them singing a Jordan Luck refrain: "Darling I'll say goodbye, even though I'm blue."
THE PONYTAIL CAFE
When Key put on a blue tie and sought the National nomination for the newly formed seat of Helensville in 2002, he bought a house there. But there was never any real doubt that he would stick to his tūrangawaewae – the leafy, gilt-edged streets of Parnell and the ginormous house he and his wife Bronagh built there on three concatenated sites on St Stephen's Ave.
We drive there via Newmarket, where the big-brand shops are busy and the road is busier. Past Urban Cafe, where Key shared a cup of tea with John Banks to seal the Act-National Epsom alliance and an embarrassingly candid conversation was recorded by a videographer. (The menu today includes a $13.50 bowl of porridge, which means Lemikitoa could breakfast here four days a week and still have $11 left over for fun.)
Past the grand Holy Trinity Cathedral, where red-blazered private schoolboys are spilling out of a prizegiving ceremony, and turn right into St Stephen's Ave, where the trees are grand and the box hedges perfectly rectilinear. You need to get on tiptoes to see much of what's beyond Key's high ivy-covered walls, apart from the rows of toweringly phallic conifers that featured in Max Key's Instagram snaps from inside the prime ministerial compound.
Across the street, Alan Currie, 64, is getting in his car after just wrapping up another bathroom reno. He's from One Tree HIll, but his business takes him all over the city – high-end Parnell jobs like this; middle-of-the-road do-ups worth as little as $10,000-$12,000.
In November 2008 the average house price was $376,000 nationally and $435,000 in Auckland. Those numbers are now $510,000 and $850,000. A booming market makes people feel wealthy, which is good for Currie's kind of business.
Yes, he says, unaffordable housing "does hurt some people", but after 50 years in the trade he knows prices are cyclical. "I don't think you can blame John Key for the price of houses, to be frank."
Currie's a National voter, but he has especially liked Key because "he's stable, he's level". He was shocked by Key's resignation, saddened even, "because stability is the cornerstone of any democracy. We don't like change. We're like cats – we like things to be the same, not even the furniture moved."
A black Nissan people-mover rolls past, full of giggling teenagers. They've seen the camera and microphone and wind down a window.
"Are you looking for John Key?" one hollers. "He's not important any more."
It's only a short drive to Rosie, the cafe where John Key repeatedly pulled a waitress's ponytail, offered her a bottle of wine and an apology, and earned himself worldwide ridicule.
The lunchtime rush is on. There are 40 customers: just three are male, just one is John Hawkesby. We count three ponytails on wait-staff.
If you get a takeaway coffee and sit on the bench outside you can watch Parnell go by: a man in a blue Ford Mustang convertible with the top down; a middle-aged woman carrying a small, fluffy, white dog; a younger woman in a singlet that says "Be active. Get sweaty".
And then, as we sit gridlocked on Parnell Rise behind an Audi, who should be just over there, resting his bum against the wall next to Portofino Restaurant, wearing camo-patterned shorts and a Whaleoil-branded shirt, but Cameron "Dirty Politics" Slater?
We consider lurking paparazzi-style to see who he's meeting – Judith Collins? Winston Peters? Nicky Hager? – but get bored and interview him instead. This is, after all, the guy whose associations with top Nats were once expected to destroy Key's 2014 election hopes.
Yeah I'll comment on Key's years, says Slater. The PM has "done a reasonable job but he's been aided by a dreadful and useless opposition. He's not that great a politician, but they're useless. I guess his legacy is to bring stability into politics – 10 years as leader; the economy's humming along nicely."
This is Wednesday, and Collins is not yet out of the leadership race, so Slater spends a while denigrating Bill English and the other "old tuskers" in cabinet, and talking up Collins. He describes the Dirty Politics affair as "a Nicky Hager fantasy", accuses some old media enemies of breaking the law, "but you won't put that in!"
As for poverty and the "so-called housing crisis"? They're just the opposition and media "pimping stories about poverty and the poor," says Slater, "because you get sad faces on the TV all the time".
OK. Enough of that.
THE WIDENING MOTORWAY
Northwest now, to semi-rural Helensville, along the much-widened motorway of a road-building government.
If we'd turned right before Kumeu we'd have eventually hit the Coatesville mansion where FBI-backed police turned up with helicopters to arrest Kim Dotcom in 2012, but these days Dotcom has a city apartment, so we continue north, past Key's electorate office with its billboard of a much younger, less careworn Key on the front lawn, past the vineyards and cows and plastic-covered hay bales, down an unsealed road to the cluster of houses on Maori-owned land adjoining Haraniu marae. There's a Maori sovereignty flag on a front door.
Coralee Gray, 38, is of Tuwharetoa and Ngapuhi descent, though her partner's a local: Ngati Whatua.
She's never voted for Key. She's never laid eyes on him in the electorate. She reckons Maori have not been well served by him, by his party, by government, by colonisation.
"He's given away a lot of our rights to access our resources. He's brought in all these foreigners … all these people who have no education in the history of New Zealand or of the people who own the whole of New Zealand.
"Who gives anyone the right to come into my house and take a third of my income every week, when they haven't helped me? I didn't ask for the road to be there. I didn't ask to be governed."
A few kilometres south, still in Helensville, Richard Kidd runs a large sheep and beef farm. He's a huge Key fan – as a party member back in 2002 he signed the nomination form that allowed Key to contest Helensville for National. He's quite chuffed whenever Key brings that up in his presence, at the electorate AGMs, for instance.
From where Kidd sits (which is at the top of a hill on a farm so beautiful it was the location for numerous TV ads and the 1990s Black Beauty series) Key's done well building the coalition with the Maori Party: Maori got a better deal than they'd been getting from Labour, and Key defused the seabed and foreshore issue: "that's a lasting legacy".
The greatest thing about the Key years, reckons Kidd, is the stability he brought to New Zealand politics, and the profile he got New Zealand internationally.
Maybe Key was a little too rigid about the superannuation eligibility age. Maybe he was caught out on housing, "but that's only because he's made New Zealand a place people want to come to!"
As a farming environmentalist, Kidd reckons Key's government has made progress on the environment. "There's a lot we can do to improve, but we're headed in the right direction."
GOOD IN A CRISIS?
Key gets praised for having managed well the external crises that came on his watch: multiple quakes, Pike River, the global financial crisis, the Rena stranding. On Thursday morning I bend the road trip rules and phone Stephen Bourke, 50, a contractor who lives in Brooklands in Christchurch.
Bourke's property was badly damaged in the first 2010 quake, and when Key visited the area he assured residents they wouldn't lose any equity in their property. But after the February 2011 quake Bourke's house was red-zoned, and he's refused the government's buyout offer because it's too low.
Bourke voted for Key in 2008, but not since.
"He said he was going to stand by us and that everyone would get what they were entitled to. In the end it didn't work out like that."
Bourke says he doesn't know a lot about politics. He's not even convinced a different government would have done a better job than Key's has, but he still feels let down.
"Key didn't do what he said."
There's something familiar about that line. What was it Pat said about Key's visit to McGehan Close? "We never saw him again."
A day of vox-popping and people-watching isn't very scientific. You might get a different result if you talked to a different state house tenant or disability beneficiary, bathroom renovator or blogger, Maori secessionist or farmer or red-zoned resident, but what they say still adds up to something. I'm not sure quite what, though.
"I think John Key is a good bloke," said Pat, even though he'd never vote for him and thought he was an out-of-touch millionaire.
"I guess he can see there are homeless people," said Taufa Lemikitoa, 'but he's not helping them."
"I don't think you can blame John Key for the price of houses," said Alan Currie.
"He's not important any more," said the teens in the people-mover.
"Darling I'll say goodbye," sang that big guy outside the Mt Albert Winz offices, "even though I'm blue."
- Additional research, Lesley Longstaff
- Sunday Star Times