John and Bronagh Key: "A strong bond of trust"

Last updated 20:05 24/10/2008
Bronagh: "I strongly feel it's right for him to pursue politics."

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Decision '08

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THE HOUSE that John and Bronagh built has marble floors, a sweeping stairwell and elegant furniture. But if you read the glossy women's magazines you already know that.

Look at the camera. Strike a careful pose. Welcome to what columnist Finlay Macdonald once described as a "soft-focus open home".

The woman behind the man who would be prime minister only does choreographed appearances. She is, so far, a two-dimensional presence on the pages of publications approved by the party political machine.

Interviews are repeatedly refused. Last week, when the Sunday Star-Times asked about the Helen Clark slur on John Key ("you can't shout over me like you shout over people at home") we were told: "Bronagh's got no comment on that. It's engaging in the political discourse. We're not doing that."

Born Bronagh Irene Dougan on November 14, 1963, John Key's wife is the daughter of Northern Irish immigrants. Joseph, a Catholic, and Irene, a Protestant, were married in Christchurch in 1960 and worked in the Feltex shoe factory.

"They were hard workers," Bronagh told Australian Women's Weekly. "After coming home from the factory, dad would have dinner and go out to work a second job in a hotel."

A school reunion website identifies a Bronagh Dougan at Isleworth Primary School in 1974. She met her husband at Burnside High School; the 16-year-old was biking to a friend's house reflecting, reportedly, on a failed economics exam: "I didn't really know what I wanted to do in life. I was thinking I might join the airforce." John Key was tutoring her friend's sister. There was, says one report, an instant attraction.

One version of what happened next has Key taking his mother to dinner at a restaurant where Bronagh was waitressing. He asks Bronagh on a date to the local A&P Show: "While we were standing in the queue for the dodgems, he told me he wanted to be a politician."

The couple studied commerce at Canterbury University, and, on December 1, 1984, were married in the grounds of Elizabeth House, Merivale.

"We grew up in modest homes," Bronagh told the NZ Woman's Weekly. "We learned to have respect for yourself, other people and your property, because things didn't come easy."

The couple travelled - apparently at Bronagh's initiative. Australian magazines report that in Manly, Sydney, she worked at a "Speedy Spud" while John "researched work in the financial markets".

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From Australia, back to New Zealand and on to Singapore, and London, as Key climbed the corporate ladder and Bronagh had two children - Stephie, born in 1993, and Max, two years later.

"It wasn't an easy time for the family," records the Australian Women's Weekly cryptically. "Their young daughter needed a series of operations and the brunt of that responsibility fell on Bronagh. But eventually that crisis passed and the Keys enjoyed reaping the benefits of their success."

Key recently told a local rural network website the one thing he would never do again was "move my wife, Bronagh, to a new country [Singapore] while she was seven months pregnant".

He has repeatedly told reporters he couldn't do his job without her: "Bronagh looks after the kids and without her the family would disintegrate... there are some things you can't discuss with anyone other than your wife. There has to be a strong bond of trust."

Bronagh offers a consistent variation on a theme: "I strongly feel it's right for him to pursue politics." She has said she agrees with "much the same things as John" and that she is a "reasonably shy person" who sees her main role as being there for her children.

The Keys personal fortune is estimated at $50 million. Bronagh reportedly drives a blue Mercedes, has taken lessons in painting and Italian, and lives in a house that has a swimming pool, an all-weather tennis court, a walk-in wine cellar and, according to a 2004 Dominion Post article, a whopping seven living areas.

In the past, the Keys have put their long-lived relationship down to a "shared sense of humour". They are proud their kids (who both attend private schools) "do their homework and have decent manners".

John on Bronagh: "She's annoyingly smart." Bronagh on herself: "I guess I'm a sounding board."

They are, on paper, a picture-perfect couple. In reality? Witness the frustration of Sylvia Giles, blogging on www.Decision08.co.nz, and attempting to report from the National Party Convention: "I was hoping for an interview with Mrs Key, who I suspect is the high octane fuel in the engine John Key is purring along on, and pin down what starch she uses on those shirts... Bronagh was being elusive, perhaps because she was nervous about her attempt to appropriate the Carla Bruni look peculiarly in black (perhaps mourning the end of life as she knows it)." Perhaps.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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