Duncan Garner: The flagging fortunes of a leader chasing a legacy

Prime Minister John Key has no time for losing, and runs a mile from political disasters.

Prime Minister John Key has no time for losing, and runs a mile from political disasters.

OPINION: The flag referendum result gives all of John Key's haters a rare chance to rejoice.

For once the prime minister has seriously misjudged the mood of the public.

And after all these years of preaching financial constraint, that's $26 million down the toilet.

Every politician hates losing, but Key hates it more than anyone. It's a big part of his success, both before and after entering politics. It's what drives him.

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He's a chirpy, happy, likeable, positive, ambitious, calculating, smiling assassin. 

I also respected Helen Clark. And she could be warm and likable – especially away from the cameras.

Key has no time for losing – runs a mile from political disasters, like they never actually happened. 

The flag result is a disaster for him.

But it's also not. He'll say, 'Oh well, we gave you a chance, we move on'.

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But this was his idea. It was his baby. It's an entirely own goal. And the people said, No thanks John. 

The public's given him a bloody nose, but that's all he got. And he prepared himself for this result. 

He's headed off overseas to absent himself from all the fallout and dissection of the result, just as the Easter weekend began.

It's a total news dead-zone. 

It's when all the disastrous news gets released. And buried. Total manipulation. Total master-stroke. Maybe a pure coincidence. Highly unlikely.

Key has so moved on. He did the same with the Northland by-election result – he shot through.

And it's Easter and honestly, does anyone care anymore about this flag? I don't. That was a big part of the problem.

So why did Key pursue a flag change in the first place?

Because this was supposed to have been his legacy project – a lasting symbol of his lasting contribution to the country.

It would have still been flying in the wind in 50 years' time and we could all say that came in under Sir John Key.

He'll get a knighthood too – but bringing those back is not his legacy.

So what is it? Does he have one? Not really.

He brought in tax cuts and sold half our assets. That's not creating a legacy.

Perhaps borrowing money and being a happy-go-luck prime minister may end up being what we remember him for long-term.

His Government has borrowed close to $60 billion for future generations to pay back. That's $8.5b for every year they have been in office. 

That's $164m for every week they have sat on the Treasury benches. They failed to balance the books in the tough times.

But did Key have much of a choice? Not really. He had to steer us through a global financial meltdown, collapsing tax revenues and a massive Christchurch earthquake. There was little option.

So his legacy is that he's happy John Key.

He got National back in the game. He was trusted and well-liked by enough people to keep National in office.

He laughed, at himself at times, mangled his words, was sensible and pragmatic. 

His legacy is that he could end up being the most popular prime minister of all time. A man with few economic options, so he traded on his personality.

On the other hand, Labour and its support partners had golden economic times while in power.

They delivered interest-free student loans in the form of an election bribe that National criticised – then embraced – in office.

Labour also gave us Kiwibank, paid parental leave, KiwiSaver, Working for Families, civil unions, a ban on smacking children, and legalising prostitution.

Now that's a legacy. The highest praise possible is that none of this has been dismantled by National.

I'll never forget the day Michael Cullen walked into a room in Parliament to announce a windfall gain in tax revenues (Kiwis being overtaxed) and then walked to another room to extend Working for Families to the middle classes at a cost of $500m.

It was raining money for Labour. It's been years of pain for National.

For all the talk of nanny state and voters eventually turning toxic on Helen Clark she can look back on her time in power with pride.

She set a clear path and used every inch of her formidable personality to make things happen.  

John Key may still be swamped with selfie requests in shopping malls, but that's not the definition of a great leader.   

Key has enjoyed  a tonne of political capital and the disappointing thing is that he hasn't used it for any meaningful, lasting project.

Surely that's not good enough for a man driven by a deep ambition.

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 - Stuff


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