Island Life by David Slack


Citizen Key With A Vengeance

I can still remember my first morning at Burnside High. A smarmy thuggish type cornered me in the boy's toilets. The next minute he and two of his acne-ravaged friends were holding me upside down and giving me the time honoured ducking ritual. A few minutes later, water dripping onto my shirt collar I was sitting in the assembly hall with my mate Russell as the thug walked past.

"Who's he?" I asked.

"Oh, that's John Key", he said, "Why?"

"He's the one who ducked me," I said, quietly plotting my revenge. One day he would be Leader of the Opposition and then he would pay. I would write a blog mocking his maiden speech and undo his vaulting ambition at his moment of greatest triumph.

At some point I must have begun audibly mumbling.

"What's a blog?" asked Russell. I told him about the Internet.

"What's an Al Gore?" he asked.

At that moment there was a yelp a few rows ahead of us. A bookish-looking fifth former was clutching his Values Party manifesto to his chest as Key poked him menacingly. "Hippy!" he sneered. A cute girl farther along the seat looked across at the bully with slightly narrowed eyes. "Watch it Key", she said. "I'll be able to kneecap you once I'm writing for the Listener".

"I can't wait to get a Mac", said Russell, looking with puppy eyes at her.

Oh, if only. When John Key becomes Prime Minister, my goose will be cooked. I will probably pay quite a lot less tax and my daughter's Decile 10 school may very well get a bigger share of Vote Education, and there's not a damn thing I can do about it.

For what it's worth, here is my impression of the first 100 hours of his leadership, written at hour 74 because I do this to a hidden agenda and don't let the facts intrude.

Observation One:

It is churlish to speak ill of the bridegroom during the honeymoon. Yes, you should give the man a chance to get his slippers under the bed, but all I've been essentially asking is this: how much do we know about John Key, and wouldn't we like to? Some people have inferred a remarkable amount from the warm words offered about Maori, Green policy and the Welfare system, but I maintain that in the generality so far, they could be inferring rather more or rather less than he actually has in mind.

Perhaps it fair to infer this subtext: "I am not Don Brash". That certainly seems to have much positive resonance, especially amongst women I have spoken to.

Which leads me on to Observation Two:

The Press Gallery loves fresh characters for the soap opera.

Introducing young, urbane, fabulously rich John! Not like Don! Not like Helen! Best of all: new! And when you're new, you get freshly lacquered in Teflon. What is revealed in the Hager book proves fatal to fading character Don, but of no consequence to new character John. I still don't have the book and I still don't know how it reflects on the two players. All I'm sure of is that there is a discernible dichotomy in the interviewing treatment going on here.

And that takes me to the third observation.

Where, when and how do you get your labels?
Helen Clark's reading of the beltway may have failed her at points this year, but she is not wrong to maintain that such a division exists between those who absorb the minutiae of politics and those who take only occasional interest.

It is in this context that I'm interested in the way these first days take shape. For casual observers of politics, the picture they form of a leader like Key may continue to evolve and solidify, or it may simplify ossify around those first few tags: generous natured man offers olive branches to Maori and Greens, pledges concern for welfare, tacks for the centre, Is Not Don Brash. That may all prove to be correct; on the other hand, it may not, and we won't know for certain until the policy details emerge. But it's interesting to ponder whether the label could endure even if the reality doesn't ultimately square with it.

Finally, observation four: I am quite persuaded by some of the views of others. A friend whose judgment I value greatly writes:

I also suspect the Key we learn to love or hate will be a man who doesn't hold opinions about much. That's why he was good at trading - and even liked it. Now the real question is - is this a problem? English does have opinions - moderate ones - and will be the policy wonk and the intellect of the duo.

I think too that Clark has misshaped our expectations of what makes a leader. Prior to her the ones with the steel trap minds weren't the leaders - they were the deputies or the number threes (think Palmer, Birch, Rowling when he wasn't PM). Clark has turned that on its head. She's been so across everything we now expect that in a leader - but why? I think Key will redefine the role - and we may find that refreshing. Wouldn't it be nice to have a leader that wasn't in control of everything?

And why not? A life well-lived is full of unexpected turns, and perhaps it's time for another.

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