The boy from Bryndwr: John Key's Christchurch legacy
In Christchurch 10 years ago, John Key promised to improve New Zealand for all New Zealanders. But what is his legacy, asks Philip Matthews.
OPINION: There is a cliche that says all political careers end in failure. If it did anything, Prime Minister John Key's sudden resignation on Monday killed that cliche for good.
Key is leaving politics on his own terms and hardly a negative word was heard. His colleagues were blind-sided and nothing leaked between the announcement of important news and the news itself.
That was all in keeping with his image. So much of Key's remarkable and barely diminished popularity has depended upon an impression of him as the non-politician. He wasn't in it as a career. He didn't need the money.
In that sense, as some said even before Key's resignation, he is almost the kinder, gentler Kiwi Donald Trump. He is a populist who has been able to read and respond to a national mood in ways that few other politicians have, although that has more to do with a reliance on opinion polling than some kind of semi-supernatural intuition.
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Even his surprising decision to quit seems non-political. He wasn't pushed out by the electorate like Helen Clark. He wasn't knifed in a leadership coup. He leaves the country feeling stable and people will remember him as a relatively moderate figure who stuck to the wide centre of New Zealand politics, barely shifting the policy settings of the Clark government. His centrist instincts kept New Zealand out of post-global financial crisis austerity. Labour's Working for Families package may have been "communism by stealth" as he called it, but he knew better than to axe it.
Clark famously underestimated Key in 2008, as did the Labour Party and its activists. I was in Cathedral Square one lunchtime during that election campaign as crowds waited for Key to do a walkabout. A handful of Labour supporters in red T-shirts attempted a chant – "here comes Mr Flip-Flop!" – but that image of Key never caught on.
He was somehow politically untouchable, even when New Zealand was laughing at or with him, or just cringing. Future historians will provide a clearer picture of his failures: A flag change that was supposed to be a personal legacy became an expensive embarrassment; the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal is dead in the water; he could have used his political capital to do something meaningful about inequality and poverty.
Key and Christchurch go back a long way. He was born in Auckland but our city is a big part of his story. Much of his popular appeal depends on his journey from a state house where his solo mother raised him to the heights of the international financial world, as a living embodiment of neoliberalism's self-made man.
The state house in Bryndwr may soon be sold by Housing New Zealand within National's scheme to "diversify" community housing ownership. The fact that Key may be offloading the very home that once sheltered him should have been a symbolic own goal for his government – that it is not speaks volumes about his political instincts and popularity.
Almost exactly 10 years ago in January 2007, when he was still leader of the opposition, Key delivered his "The Kiwi Way: A Fair Go For All" speech at the Burnside Rugby Clubrooms. It was an important moment in his political trajectory. He connected his personal values with his past and the suburban Christchurch setting of schools and sports clubs that supported him, and set out a more moderate and inclusive vision of the country than his predecessor, Don Brash.
He said during the Burnside speech in 2007 that: "For me, politics is not about the pursuit of power for the sake of it. Unlike some, I won't measure the success or failure of my political career by the number of years I hold office. For me, politics is about the ability to make change for the betterment of all New Zealanders."
Again, historians will determine if Key actually did change New Zealand for the better or whether he simply held the line that Clark established and ran a stable government.
We also saw that he responded quickly and with empathy during the Christchurch earthquakes of 2010 and 2011, although it is hard to imagine any prime minister acting differently. His political acumen meant that he walled himself off from any criticism over the pace of the recovery and rebuild, which was directed at Greater Christchurch Regeneration minister Gerry Brownlee instead. But over on the West Coast, the government's failures to satisfy the grieving Pike River families remain entirely embodied in Key.
Christchurch delivered another important moment for Key during the 2011 election campaign. During a debate at Christ's College hosted by The Press, former Labour leader Phil Goff was widely seen to be winning over a local crowd who were anxious about earthquake issues until Key flummoxed Goff with a line taken from a movie. "Show me the money!" From then on, every time Goff slipped or stumbled over his costings, a grinning Key repeated his Jerry Maguire mantra. It was a turning point in the campaign and devastating for Goff, but ultimately hollow as well.
Key was also, to be glib, the selfie prime minister. Even when he looked bored or distracted, such as during the bizarre 2014 campaign when bodyguards and local National MPs trailed him through Christchurch malls as he asked repetitive, robotic questions of shopkeepers, the public wanted photos for their Facebook pages. He had a rare charisma. No one called him the smiling assassin any more, but as we learned on Monday, he never lost his decisiveness and cunning.