The appealing Kiwi ordinariness of John Key

01:09, Dec 29 2010
John Key

John Key's greatest political gift is his levity. Which is not to say that the Prime Minister is inappropriately frivolous or comical - although he does have a politically endearing talent for self- deprecating humour. The word's original meaning was "lightness", and it is in this sense that I am using it.

This quality of lightness has not gone unnoticed by Key's colleagues. His deputy, Bill English, famously explained the difference between himself and his boss in an interview published in North & South magazine: "I'm a stayer, he's a sprinter. I grind away, John just bounces from one cloud to another."

In many countries Key's light touch would not be regarded as an asset. When politicians become prime ministers or presidents in these much older societies they are expected to put on political weight, and to evince at all times a judicious seriousness. In short, they are expected to display gravitas, not levitas.

New Zealanders are more than a little ambivalent on the subject of levitas versus gravitas. On the one hand, we do not expect our leaders to embarrass us on the world stage. On the other, we don't like leaders who put on too many airs and graces or talk down to us.

Like so many other populations descended from pioneering stock, New Zealanders place a much higher value on practical achievement than they do on artistic talent or intellectual accomplishment. Artists and intellectuals tend to make most Kiwis nervous. As voters, we regard a surfeit of intelligence and/or creativity in our leaders as an implied reproach for our own (meagre) abilities and tastes. In politics it is never wise to let the public think you think you're better than they are.

Strangely, we don't seem to mind if our leaders are richer than we are. Money, after all, is a wonderfully democratic thing. With sufficient hard work (and just a little bit of luck) just about anybody can become rich.


By contrast, great intellectual acuity and creative power are innate qualities. No amount of hard work can increase our native stock of intelligence and creativity (although it will certainly sharpen the skills we do possess). It's an inconvenient truth which gives the lie to, and undermines, New Zealanders' cherished egalitarian faith. That's why so many Kiwis are suspicious of individuals with too much talent. It smacks of unfairness, privilege and elitism. Such people are not to be trusted.

Key is certainly a very wealthy man, but that fact alone does not condemn him in the eyes of most New Zealanders. After all, he did not inherit his money - he made it himself, by deploying the skills he was born with to their best effect. Indeed, the Prime Minister's humble background; the fact that he and his sisters were raised in a state house by their widowed mother; only serves to reinforce his fellow citizen's confidence in the universal attainability of the New Zealand dream.

A large pile of cash in the bank does, of course, possess the power to levitate just about anyone up, up and away from the daily drudgery of earning a living. For many people, however, the levity money confers can be personally devastating. It either breeds a sneering sense of superiority, or crippling feelings of guilt and/or obligation.

But, Key's public conduct reflects neither of these classic responses.

His wealth does not appear to have had any malign effect upon him. Miraculously, he has risen above even this.

What it has done is allow him to deploy the otherwise quite ordinary aspects of his life and personality as a devastating political weapon.

The Prime Minister is not a connoisseur of fine art. He doesn't attend the opera. He has penned no books, made no scientific breakthroughs, climbed no mountains, written no songs.

He does not mix with artists or intellectuals, nor does he espouse with any noticeable fervour the grand, all-encompassing ideologies and religions of mankind.

He is, however, a husband and a dad with two teenage kids. He does like to watch the rugby. He turns a mean steak on the family barbecue, and he drinks his beer straight from the bottle - just like hundreds of thousands of ordinary Kiwi blokes.

John Key's political balloon is inflated not simply by the fortune he made as a currency trader, but by the paradoxical pressures of New Zealand's thwarted egalitarianism.

Ordinariness is his helium. We push him up to prove that we, too, can rise.

The Prime Minister is said to practise the politics of aspiration. To aspire is to breathe out, to reach up, to soar.

John Key bounces from cloud to cloud on the warm updrafts of his nation's confidence; on New Zealanders' desperate conviction that politics can be, and should be, the province of ordinary men and women.

The Press